As a way to honor America’s veterans, I’m offering my play “War Stories” for free through Veteran’s Day. All you have to do is visit my TeachersPayTeachers site. The play originally appeared in my now out-of-print book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America. It’s a somber reminder of the sacrifices made by our war heroes. The play comes with a set of comprehension activities and full reproduction rights, which means the original downloader can copy a full class set for use in his or her classroom every year. It’s an engaging way to reveal to your students the real meaning of the holiday. Be sure to also check out my other American history plays. Happy directing!
Ugh! If you’re at all like me, trying to READ with a group of students online is a nightmare worthy of Halloween. Connectivity issues, background noise, home distractions…these are problems regardless of the content. But the glitch that bugs me the most is … well, it’s ME! I’m constantly having to interrupt the “flow” in order to identify and cue the next reader. I use my annotation marker to scribble all over the screen. “Nate is up next, Cynthia is after that…” What exactly are we reading about? the kids must be thinking.
Let me offer the antidote: reader’s theater. Drama is traditionally a collaborative, in-person activity, so when we turned to remote instruction last spring, I assumed reader’s theater would be off the instructional table. What I’ve discovered since is that RT remains an excellent resource. This is why: when parts are assigned beforehand, students know when to come in. They know when to read, which means I can sit back and actually hear them.
On top of that, kids are often willing to read a script repetitively, which gets at fluency like nothing else. And when you tell them you’re going to practice for a week or two and then record your online session as a “Zoomer’s Theater” performance, they’re especially engaged.
Because it’s a performance, reader’s theater is also its own assessment. None-the-less, my plays come with comprehension activities that have been prepared for remote instruction using TpT’s digitizing tool (which turns them into fillable PDFs).
Of course, Halloween is going to look a lot different this year too, which makes some spooky “Zoomer’s Theater” a welcome addition to your remote instruction. Here are a few plays that your kids will love:
(Here I must interrupt our flow with a note about copyright…please be careful how you make Read Aloud Plays available to your students. Allowing your students to download a copy for use at home is encouraged, but make sure that download link is private. It should be within a passcode protected environment such as SeeSaw or Google Classroom. If the general public can see or print it, it’s a copyright violation.)
I’ve heard many teachers lament that this online instruction deal isn’t what they signed-up for, yet here we are. What we miss most is that teacher-to-student interaction. That being the case, allow me to review a couple interactive activities that worked well in the spring.
There’s still a place for reader’s theater in your remote instruction. During the spring, I had a lot of fun interacting with my kids using “Zoomer’s Theater.” I assigned parts to each of my “active” students, had them practice independently, and then met regularly via Zoom for rehearsals. The goal of each play was to eventually record them as “performances.” Granted, absenteeism and broadband speed caused glitches that required some patience, but in the end, I found I got a lot of favorable mileage out of each play. Not only did students tend to be more engaged than with regular reading assignments, they were usually willing to read and re-read their play repetitively, which not only improved their fluency, but filled hours of instruction time. Plus, unlike regular reading assignments, when I was done I had a sharable product: a performance that could be posted on my webpage or sent to parents.
This fall, I plan on keeping my expectations low for the first set of plays, but I think once my students see how they work and how much fun they are, the second set should be dynamite. I also think I’ll try having kids show up to their final Zoom session in costume, too. That should be a hoot! Note: it doesn’t matter whether you’re using Zoom or some other meeting platform. The only requirement is that you have some way to record and share your final session, even if just the audio.
I want to encourage you to give it a try, too. In grades 3 through 6 or maybe 7, start out with something simple. My Peter Rabbit play, Argument at Mount Rushmore, and Two Plays from the American Revolution are ideal. For October, try something more elaborate, such as any of my “Halloween plays” including my newest posting, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Pair it with The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, or The Tell-Tale Heart.
Almost all my plays were previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Storyworks and Scope, so you know they meet the highest standards. Most also come with Common Core-based comprehension activities that have been digitized for online instruction.
Perhaps the most productive and rewarding element of my instruction in the spring was my Super Sentences program. It’s a straight-forward way to teach and practice writing on a daily basis, it doesn’t overwhelm kids, it’s fun, and it’s well-suited to Google Classroom. By the end of the spring, my students were spending 45 minutes in a live Classroom stream nearly every day, and each of these sessions produced more than 300 back and forth comments–student-to-student feedback about writing. To get the details, check out this post from last spring, then take a look at Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs on my TeachersPayTeachers store.
Happy directing (and interacting)!
When I started working on Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America for Scholastic back in 2001, the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center hadn’t yet happened. (That July, in fact, Scholastic treated me to dinner at Windows on the World atop the North Tower.) By the time the book was released in January of 2003, those horrific attacks had led to a groundswell of American patriotism. We as a nation were unified behind the cause of defending our country against terrorism. Though hardly purposeful, a collection of plays designed to teach the history behind our “most patriotic symbols and holidays” seemed timely.
But then came the controversial invasion of Iraq. While I have my opinions about the Iraq War, I’ll leave that debate for another time. One outcome, though, was that the word “patriotism” was suddenly being lumped together with words like “nationalism” and “fascism.” We started questioning our patriotic roots. Not that I was concerned about sales at a time like that, but it came as no surprise to me that my book would never see a third printing. Here we are thirteen years later and we remain divided. Numerous events have us questioning our patriotic symbols now more than ever.
As we should be.
When I teach history to my 5th graders, the overriding message is that we should be constantly looking back at our past and using it to guide our future. That includes things like why Teddy Roosevelt appears on Mount Rushmore, why Thomas Jefferson is considered an American hero despite having owned slaves, and why MLK’s statement about the “content of our character” is more important than ever.
All that suggests Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America may be even more valid today than it was in 2001. These plays provide innocent, politically-neutral histories of “patriotic” symbols such as the flag, the bald eagle, and the Liberty Bell. “War Stories,” for example, teaches the meaning behind Veterans’ Day by sharing the somber stories of soldiers whose names appear on gravestones. Another play, “A Bell for the Statehouse,” uses the history of the Liberty Bell to teach about the American Revolution.
I’ve repackaged all the plays from Symbols and made them available on TeachersPayTeachers. They come with improved comprehension activities, short paired texts, and detailed teacher notes including answer keys and extension activities. “Argument at Mount Rushmore,” for example, is a humorous play about the history of the monument in which the four “talking heads” explain why they’re featured there (excellent fodder for a discussion about slave-owning fore fathers and monuments). Plays about the flag, Vets’ Day, and MLK Day appear individually, while “Eagles Over the Battlefield” and “A Bell for the Statehouse” appear together in “Two Plays from the American Revolution.” Finally, I’ve just released “Two Plays from The War of 1812.” While 1812 probably doesn’t appear in your middle grade standards, these plays provide engaging histories about the Star Spangled Banner and the White House. Ultimately, though, they’re great jumping off points for classrooms to dive into discussions about American history as a whole. At a time when we’re so divided and facing such gargantuan problems, presenting our kids with facts and details about our past seems more appropriate than ever.
In memoriam: John Lewis. If we’re to judge a person based on the content of their character, as Dr. King implored, then John Lewis surely was on the mountain top. His work could always be characterized as dignified, purposeful, and courageous. He was a true crusader for human rights.
When I wrote Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America for Scholastic back in 2002, it was supposed to be a collection of plays teaching about the history of “patriotic” symbols and holidays. Even though school isn’t in session for most of us in July, I included a play celebrating Independence Day. I’ve prepared it for my TpT storefront and am giving it away for free from now until the holiday. Download “As American as Apple Pie” for use next June as one of those end-of-the-year activities, or if you are currently in session, even remotely, have your kids give it a whirl this month. It’s a fun, fast-paced play that follows a couple of kids bouncing from one July 4th event to another, from pie-eating contests and baseball games to three-legged races and fireworks. Along the way they learn a bit about American culture and what exactly we’re celebrating at these Independence Day picnics and parades.
Though current events have caused many of us to view some of our American heroes and patriotic symbols with more scrutiny, this play sticks to an innocent interpretation, but it is quite capable of serving as a lead-in for more serious discussions. Consider pairing it with Frederick Douglass’ speech entitled speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Listen to it on YouTube or share excerpts (but fully preview it before use). Douglass is forceful in calling out America for its oppression of African Americans. Though he delivered it in 1852, thirteen years prior to Emancipation, Douglass’ tenets remain on point today. Regarding celebrating on the 4th he says, “There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon.”
There’s no doubt America is going through some tough times, that we have problems needing our attention, but hopefully this play reminds us that ours is a nation worthy of the effort and capable of the task.
Here’s my most poignant play—and it’s perfect for celebrating Juneteenth! Based on actual slave narratives, Freedom for the First Time is historically-accurate, kid-friendly, and comes embedded with comprehension questions and historic photos. It’s the narrative of ten-year old Tyree, a slave during the time of the Civil War. Like many slaves, Tyree believes whatever her masters say. But when Tyree’s brother, Sweet Walter, arrives with a band of Union soldiers to tell her the war is over, she and her family experience their day of Jubilee, the day they know freedom for the first time. Pair it with Days of Jubilee, Patricia and Frederick McKissack’s exceptional non-fiction book about slavery and the Civil War, or try creating a podcast performance or Zoomer’s Theater play. (You can hear my 5th graders performing it by clicking here.) It’s available on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront, and like all my plays, includes performance rights. Happy directing!
The Necklace is a cautionary tale written in 1884 by French writer Guy de Maupassant. It tells about a young woman who, despite having a very comfortable life, is discontent. Her desire to appear wealthier than she actually is comes at a great cost. In the end she loses her comfort, beauty, and status. The play can be related to modern consumerism–how people today enslave themselves to debt while living beyond their means–but the story is mostly about honesty. It was originally published in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (Scholastic 2010). What makes it unique is that it’s told from the perspective of an aloof, French-speaking cat (Maupassant) and his rodent sidekick (Flaubert). Scholastic also published other “aged-up” versions (meaning they had me re-write it without the Disney-treatment), but this version remains one my most well-liked plays, even among older students. It’s a great story to talk about irony, plot, and moral, and it’s a great way to promote student engagement and fluency while teaching to the Common Core standards. It includes parts for eight actors, and is best-suited for grades 4 through 8 as “Zoomer’s Theater,” radio drama/podcast, or short stage performance. It includes a comprehension quiz, embedded prompts, teacher notes, and answer keys. Like all my plays, the original purchaser is licensed to print a full class set every year for use in his or her classroom, and performance rights are included. You can preview and purchase it on my TpT storefront. Happy directing!
Like nearly all of us, I’ve had to adjust my teaching methods to suit the current circumstances. Initially, using reader’s theater seemed out-of-the-question, but as I’ve acclimated to all this remote instruction, I’ve discovered RT is more useful than ever.
Zoom has become something of a necessary evil: managing a bunch of lonely fifth graders online is worse than herding cats—it’s more like wrangling squirrels! Video “instruction” can quickly descend into a free-for-all of pets, bedhead, baby sisters, motion sickness, and worst of all, academic drudgery. Thank goodness for RT! Just like in the classroom, I’ve found that I can rope in all my squirrels with a good “Zoom Aloud Play,” and you can too! Here’s how:
1. Divide you class into small groups and assign each group a different play.
2. Post each play in Google Classroom or whatever secure environment you’re using (to protect copyright, make sure it isn’t accessible by the general public).
3. On Monday, have the kids read the play independently. I suggest casting parts based on your knowledge of their reading ability. Unlike the classroom where you can work one-on-one with a struggling reader, you’re unlikely to have either the access or the time.
4. On Tuesday or Wednesday, schedule a Zoom “play practice” with each of your groups. You can share your screen so that the script is viewable for those who don’t have hardcopies or who are unable to have two tabs open simultaneously. Have the kids continue to practice on their own as “homework reading.” (Homework, what a funny concept these days!)
5. Schedule a second Zoom session later in the week or the for week following. In this session the kids “perform” the play. You can even have them put together simple costumes. Be sure to record the session for play back on your webpage for parents and the rest of the class. If you’re using Zoom, you no doubt have already discovered the tan to do so.
In the regular classroom I usually take three weeks or longer to thoroughly prepare a play for a performance, so I’m learning to limit my expectations a bit. What’s important, though, is that my students are reading, my Zoom sessions are productive, and I’m back to happily directing!
For your first sessions, I suggest trying some light-hearted content such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk, or Rikki Tikki Tavi. We may have missed Opening Day, but my Jackie Robinson play is fun any time of year, as is my play about the first moon landing. These and many more great scripts are available on my TpT storefront—and almost all of them were originally published by Scholastic, so you know they meet the highest standards. So don’t let the shut-down slow you down. Get re-inspired with some “Zoomer’s Theater.”
It’s easy to make the transition to remote instruction with Super Sentences. Here’s how:
Assign a specific time for your students to be online. While much of your home instruction may be independent work, the benefits of Super Sentences is the interactivity. The kids need to be online sharing their sample sentences and providing feedback to one another.
On Monday, introduce a new stream or thread in Google Classroom by typing the week’s given structure. For example, were I teaching structure #14, Command, I’d post this: “Commands give orders or directions, but they only require an exclamation point if they’re delivered in a commanding tone. For example, at the end of this lesson, your teacher may give you a command requiring only a period: Turn in your papers.”
In the same thread, type the sample sentence: “Take off your shower cap this instant or I’ll feed your liver and onions to the neighbor’s goat!”
Next, give the students three topics and invite them to post their own sentence. You’ll need to remind them to remain IN THE SAME THREAD. I’ve capitalized it because I’ve found students jumping threads is the death knell to online interactivity. This cannot be emphasized enough!
As students post their sentences, invite them also to comment on one another’s. I provide feedback by asking the class questions like “Can anyone help Chuck see what’s missing in his sentence?” Or, “Chuck is missing a key piece of punctuation. Can anyone spot it?” I also fire off compliments when I see a really great sentence such as, “Chuck’s sentence is awesome. Can anyone tell us why?” (Just added: here’s a screenshot of an actual thread with mu students; it ended up being about 80 comments long. Hopefully it’ll be legible enough to give you the gist of it.)
On Tuesday and Wednesday I repeat the same process, but I use one of the kids sentence as the example.
On Thursday, I have students post and submit their sentence on a Google Form. This is their weekly test. Have they learned the given structure? Were they able to write an error-free sentence? I grade these sentences and send each student feedback/corrections via Classroom.
Finally, on Friday I have my students post their corrected sentence on our class webpage. I create a post entitled “This Week’s Super Sentences.” Students post their sentences in the “comments” field.
Super Sentences was originally published by Scholastic. I’ve updated and made it available on my TpT storefront in various ala-carte volumes. Sentence structures range from simple sentences to things like “sentences containing a metaphor” and “sentences using commas in a series.” No, it’s not full blown essay writing (you’ll need Perfect Paragraphs for that), but it provides kids in grades 3 through 8 daily writing practice, leading them to develop that innate sense of sentence structure so important to reading and writing competence. It’s engaging because it uses their own writing as the lesson (as opposed to a traditional grammar text that offer stilted “Dick & Jane-type” sentences to correct). Give it a try. It’s inexpensive and come with reproduction rights (make sure you’re respecting copyright when posting online). Best of all, when this pandemic is over, you’ll have your complete PDF of Super Sentences to use no matter what the circumstances: in the regular classroom, in your computer lab, on Chromebooks, or remotely.
Take care, my friends!