Having recently reclaimed my publishing rights from Scholastic for a bank of my classic short story plays, I’m very pleased to offer Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to my readers. This script was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Storyworks, but it was so well-received that it was quickly reprinted in Scope magazine, then in Scholastic News, and then finally included in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. The play’s unique text formatting helps middle grade and early high school readers comprehend the unreliable narrator’s insanity, but what really sets this play apart is the clever way we’ve made it appropriate for the classroom. After all, Poe’s story is about murder. It’s violent. It makes administrators cringe. But teachers who’ve used this script like the way it remains true to the gruesome original despite only implying the gory details. The package also includes a comprehension worksheet, the original text (also formatted to make it more accessible to kids), and a mock trial activity in which “the villainous narrator” must stand before a jury of his peers. It’s a great way to make Poe’s work accessible to your students. Be sure also to contrast it to its partner play, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, which tells the same story but involves crimes against an annoying cell phone rather than an old man. My 5th graders love it when one play group presents the traditional version while a second group presents the cell phone version. Your students will too. Happy directing!
I have a theory about Walt Disney. Disney, of course, is known for animation. Way back in 1928—almost a century ago—Disney released Steamboat Willie to world-wide acclaim. Disney, though, wasn’t the first to produce an animated cartoon. What set Steamboat Willie apart and turned Disney into the $100 billion company it is today, wasn’t the animation.
It was the music.
Steamboat Willie and all of Disney’s subsequent productions included musical scores. Disney knew early on that something magical happens when you add music to a project.
That’s certainly true with classroom plays. Plays are wonderful vehicles for teaching reading and engaging reluctant readers, but when you add music, they become something altogether extraordinary. It’s no wonder the musicals I’ve directed are among the highlights of my career.
Needing a class-wide collaborative project to present at my school’s “Exhibition Night,” I recently embarked on the task of “musifying” my Newsies play script. Why so, you might ask, when Disney has a perfectly good Newsies musical of its own? First of all, Broadway musical scores (and Disney scripts) require costly performance licenses, which I can’t afford. Secondly, Disney’s script is way too complex for my fifth graders. And thirdly, like many (if not most) commercial movie projects, it isn’t as historically accurate as I would like it to be. The newsboy strike of 1899, and all the child labor issues surrounding it, is already quite fascinating. One needs only to Google the images—shoe shine boys dressed in rags, child coal miners covered in soot, newsboys sleeping in alleys—to be completely drawn in to the era. So why change the facts? Why dramatize something that’s already colorful and dramatic?
Unfortunately, my class returned from Christmas break surly and unmotivated. If it didn’t involve an emoji, YouTube, or Fortnite, they simply weren’t interested. Memorize a play script? You must be kidding.
But then I introduced the music: Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling,” Guy Lombardo’s version of “The Sidewalks of New York,” and most fun of all, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” It didn’t matter that these were ancient tunes originally recorded on 78 rpm vinyl. It didn’t matter that the tracks crackle as if being played on a hand-cranked gramophone. Just like Disney has taught us, the music had turned our ordinary class play into something enchanting.
Plays are tremendously rewarding and often hysterically unpredictable—and there are certainly a ton of awesome ones on ReadAloudPlays.com. But if you want to take it up a notch, if you want to experience that Disney-esque magic, try “musifying” a play. I’ve already done a lot of the work for you by creating my Newsies Against the World mini musical. It tells the story of Aniela Kozlowski, an eleven year-old Polish immigrant who must take to the streets to sell “papes” during the 1899 newsboy strike. Though dramatically different than the Disney Newsies show, it’s historically accurate and includes “sing-along” period music from the early 20th-century, all of which is available for free (non-commercial) download from archive.org. (Hint: visit my classroom webpage, The Daily Platypus, and check out my edited versions.) The script includes production notes, is prints in booklet form, and comes with performance rights for public schools.
Celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy and teach his core values with any of a number of plays available on my storefront at TpT. “Martin’s Big Dream,” which is about MLK’s childhood, is one of the most highly-regarded plays ever to appear in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. “In the Jailhouse” offers a unique perspective on the events in Montgomery, “Gonna Let it Shine” covers the Selma march, and “We Shall Overcome”—my most popular civil rights play—depicts the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. But allow me to add a new one to the fold. Though not specifically about MLK, “A Simple Act of Courage” will give your students unique insights into everything Dr. King stood for.
Ruby Bridges was headline news in 1960 as she naively trudged into the all-white William Frantz School. Her compelling story, that of a first grader—a mere first grader!—integrating New Orleans Public Schools is indelible. Famed American author John Steinbeck wrote about it. Norman Rockwell painted it. And Ruby herself, nearly forty years later, revisited it in her stunning book, Through My Eyes. Ruby’s book is likely in your school library if not on your classroom bookshelf. By pairing it with this lovely reader’s theater script, you’ll have MLK curriculum that’ll stay with your students for years to come.
All of my MLK plays are emotional retellings based on carefully-researched real events. Your students will enjoy enacting them on stage or simply reading them in class, and the comprehension activities and support material will ensure your kids will meet the standards, too.
TeachersPayTeachers has grown immensely over the last decade. Back when I first started using it as a secondary market for my plays, products could be pretty simple. In fact, most were in black and white. These days there are a bazillion teacher-marketers selling product, so competition has become pretty fierce. Consequently, I’m constantly trying to update my Read Aloud Play packages and post new ones. Thanks to a couple of snow days here in southern Oregon, I was recently able to revamp several products. I’ve added comprehension activities, teacher notes, and answer keys to The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs’ fabulous masterpiece about three wishes, The Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wickedly wonderful “mad scientist” story, and Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey. These three plays are perfect for introducing middle-schoolers to the otherwise difficult original stories. Whether you use the play before or after, student engagement and comprehension skyrocket when you pair the original with a play. But they’re also engaging stories for fourth and fifth graders to read and act aloud. (What could be better than your 5th grade Cyclops eating a bunch of 4th grade Greeks?) All three of these plays originally appeared in Scholastic classroom magazines, so they’ve been “vetted” by Scholastic’s professional editors. Add to that the new comprehension activities and they’re a fantastic deal.
I’ve also updated The Secret Soldier, which has previously appeared in both Scope and Storyworks. It’s the true story of Deborah Samson, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Military. Samson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the militia near the end of the American Revolution, was twice seriously wounded, and even performed surgery on herself to avoid being found out. It’s a must-have for any Revolution unit study. Like the other updated plays, it now comes with the additional support material—as do my other plays from the era. Be sure to check out Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, Two Plays from the American Revolution, and my newest product, So You Want to Be President. This last one is another “Two for One” pack. It comes with two of my favorite plays from my 2003 Scholastic title, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, which is no longer in print. Both plays cover the history of the presidency and the character traits necessary to serve successfully. Given today’s political climate, they’re important additions to your history and reading curriculum, but they’re also a lot of fun to read and enact.
Finally, MLK Day and Black History Month are already upon us. If you haven’t yet read my earlier post about my Civil Rights and African-American history plays, be sure to scroll down and take a look.
Ah, politics. Everywhere you turn, folks are questioning the qualifications and competencies of each of the current candidates for the White House. No doubt your students are, too–parroting the perspective of their parents. It leads me to believe that kids need to hear what History reveals about being Commander-in-Chief. Take for example William Howard Taft (at left). Teddy Roosevelt used to call him a fathead, right there in public. And not just on the campaign trail either, but while Taft was serving in the Oval Office! Or how about Benjamin Harrison? He once said the Presidency was akin to being in jail!
With all that in mind, here’s a free play on the subject. It’s from my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, and it’s free. Perhaps it’ll help your students to begin forming their own ideas about leading the country. At the very least, it’ll provide you with a timely language arts activity.
Note that this free version hasn’t been reformatted like all the rest of my plays. My apologies for the low-quality PDF of pages from the book (with an updated copyright notice slapped in place). I felt it was more important to get this to you before the debates and the election itself than take the time to get it reformatted. But if you like it, consider tracking down the original (its out-of-print, so it can be hard to find, but available through Scholastic’s Teacher Express), or watch for the reformatted version coming soon to ReadAloudPlays.com. It’ll be paired with a second “presidential” play and include extension activities, teaching notes, and a comprehension activity. You can also check out a ton of other nifty plays at my TeachersPayTeachers store. Nearly all have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, so you know they’re of professional q
Just as all television families seem to live in mini mansions, whenever TV-world students put on plays, the sets are extravagant and the costuming looks as if a team of seamstresses have worked ‘round the clock for months on end. Think Spanish Man-o-Wars in full regalia, or Elizabethan jodhpurs, not cardboard swords and Dollar Store wigs. It’s as if the teacher has but 15 students and no other task at hand but to produce that play! Those of us who’ve directed class plays in the real world, however, know that’s not typically how it works. When staging a Read Aloud Play, you needn’t try to emulate what you see on TV. A few carefully-selected props and a bit of personalization is all that’s needed to turn a simple reading activity into a smash hit.
A teacher using my Read Aloud Play, “A Retrieved Reformation,” recently left this comment: “We added a train as a prop to get the actors on and off stage and from one scene to another. We also localized the locations by using the name of our city and nearby towns.”
What fantastic modifications! And simple, too.
In my classroom, whenever we enact “Fly Me to the Moon,” we put the student playing Walter Cronkite into a cardboard 1960’s television set. In “How Jackie Robinson Saved the World,” the peanut vending narrators actually toss bags of peanuts to audience members (who are themselves cast members). When we perform “Box Brown’s Freedom Crate,” we put Henry inside a cardboard box painted to look like a wooden crate (and when the curtains close on that scene, we replace him with a dummy so that the audience thinks he’s still in there when the crate is being roughly tossed from wagon to train to ship).
Read Aloud Plays are designed to build reading fluency and comprehension skills. The repetitive process of practicing for a performance or class reading simulates the process kids go through when they’re first learning to read from favorite picture books. This alone justifies making them part of your reading curriculum. But including props and personalizing the plays makes them that much more enjoyable and effective. For fictional stories like “A Piece of String” and “The Birth-mark,” consider letting your students change the names of characters and places. (Maybe they’ll name the mad scientist in Birth-mark after you!) Whether fiction or non-fiction, consider creating a few key props. Perhaps baskets of “cotton” would make sense for “Freedom for the First Time,” or if you’re performing “Cyclops,” consider creating a giant-sized (and especially hideous) mask for the student playing the monster to wear.
You can give your students creative license as well. In my last set of plays I asked students to research their characters and come up with one costuming element that represented who they were. A student playing Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, rolled in on a wheel chair (borrowed from the health room), and a little gal playing Abe Lincoln showed up with a top hat.
What key props or creative modifications have you tried with my Read Aloud Plays? My readers and I would like to hear from you. You can leave a comment about your props and mods on my TpT storefront, or email me directly at email@example.com (I do not retain or compile email addresses).
Buzz about Oprah Winfrey’s new movie Selma is shining a light on the Selma to Montgomery March. The film, which depicts the 1965 events in Alabama, drew standing ovations at its screening in New York. Says film critic Roger Friedman, “Watching ‘Selma’ you really feel like all the plays, movies, TV shows, songs– every theater piece about King– all of it culminates in this film.” (Click here to see the trailer.)
Selma was the site of protests over voting rights. African-Americans there and in neighboring counties were routinely denied the right to vote through the use of poll taxes, threats of retribution, proficiency tests, and other manipulations. Today, that all sounds pretty vanilla, but make no mistake, Selma was a terrifyingly murderous place.
Dr. King, Hosea Williams, James Bevel, and other civil rights leaders organized a march to the state capital where they hoped to confront then-Governor George Wallace. But when the marchers arrived at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the outskirts of town, state troopers—including many on horseback—violently attacked the marchers with clubs and tear gas. It became known as Bloody Sunday. International news coverage of the violence led directly to the signing of the Voting Rights Act, a turning point in the civil rights struggle.
The movie’s release date (Christmas Day) is timed to take advantage of the annual focus on MLK Day in January and Black History Month in February. But this is an important bit of history regardless of one’s race. We live in an era of voter apathy, a time when we tend to take our right to vote for granted. If our students have any hope of changing the world, one would think they’ll need to reclaim the voting booth. Our kids need to know this story both for what it means to America’s history and for what it means for America’s future. “There’s a lump in your throat at the end of ‘Selma,’” says Friedman. Kids need to experience that lump in the throat.
I don’t know what the movie will be rated, but due to its mature content, I doubt any of us will ever be able to share it in our elementary or middle school classrooms. But you can take advantage of the interest in the film by using the read aloud play, Gonna Let it Shine. It depicts the Selma campaign from the perspective of Sheyann Webb, who was eight at the time. Sheyann, along with her friend Rachel West, became known as “Dr. King’s youngest freedom fighters.” Sheyann was there at the rallies, at the funerals, and on the bridge. She experienced the sting of teargas. She ran from Sheriff Clark’s posse. Her story is a great way to introduce students to the civil rights struggle and to help them appreciate their future voting rights.
Many kids begin school already knowing how to read. They haven’t had formal lessons. Their parents haven’t been trained in the latest methodology. They haven’t used a single worksheet or text book. Yet here they are reading. Why?
What Does Brain Research Show About Fluency?
Consider for a moment how your own children learned to read. If they’re like many kids, they had a few favorites in their book bin. I recall my oldest boy latching on to Amos & Boris and a Sesame Street book entitled Don’t Forget the Oatmeal. As a preschooler, he would ask us to read these books over and over again. Soon, he started reading them to us. “He’s not really reading,” we’d tell ourselves, “He’s heard the book so many times, he’s just memorized the words.”
But based on brain research dating back to the days of psychologist Lev Vygtsky (left), some experts believe the difference between reading and memorization is slight. Kids get an emotional charge out of reading proficiently—whether memorized or not. The positive charge actually produces chemicals that form the neural pathways that make reading (and learning) possible. Because our son had consumed Don’t Forget the Oatmeal so frequently, he’d mastered the text, prompting his brain to construct new pathways.
Can Reading Physically Damage a Child’s Brain?
No, reading won’t damage a child’s brain, but could poor instruction? Consider what we often do in the classroom. We take a book, article, or story and ask kids to read it one time. We expect mastery on the first attempt. We ask kids to pass computerized tests, complete worksheets, and discuss content after just a single reading. We’ve assumed that language is language, that if they can decode they should be able to read anything at their grade level. It’s a fallacy and a tragedy. If Vgotsky was right, instead of experiencing a positive emotion that builds pathways, many kids in this situation suffer a negative emotion that causes them to withdraw and resist reading altogether, possibly even causing those neural pathways to shrink. And don’t assume it’s just your low-performing students either. Watch carefully when you ask students to read aloud in class; many of your brightest kids are just as reluctant as your poor readers. It’s not simply that they’re shy; they don’t want to risk experiencing the negative emotions they feel when they stumble over or mispronounce a word. There are, however, a number of ways teachers can prevent those neurons from shrinking, one being the use of “repetitive reading” techniques.
How is Repetition Beneficial?
Asking a young reader to read aloud a piece of text he or she is looking at for the very first time is akin to asking a musician to perform in public a piece of music he or she has never played before. Only the most talented can do it, and even they rarely do. Just as music is a language that requires repetition for mastery, so too does reading. Your students need opportunities to “sight read,” to practice, and then to “perform” the material you want them to master. Plays are the perfect format.
Because we’ve inadvertently trained kids that a book is something to be read only once, few third graders are willing to give James and the Giant Peach a second round. Few second graders will read Stellaluna more than once or twice. Give children a script and schedule a public performance, however, and they’ll be willing to read and reread it twenty to thirty times. Twenty to thirty times! By the time they’re asked to read it in front of the class, even your struggling readers will be able to read with reasonable fluency. Even your “shy” kids will be willing to read out loud.
Read Aloud Plays give you the opportunity to teach repetitive reading without the resistance you get when asking a child to re-read a traditional text. Students acquire mastery, which chemically changes the brain, making them superior readers who are better able to comprehend. If Mr. Vgotsky were alive today, I think he’d approve.
Are You Ready to Grow Those Pathways?
If you’re not already using read aloud plays in your instruction, this is a great time to start. Not only will all that repetitive reading help grow some neurons, but drama can be used to fulfill a significant number of Common Core State Standards. Kick off the school year with a trio of explorer plays such as Fly Me to the Moon, The Fountain of Youth, and Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl. Or consider a set of American Revolution plays such The Secret Soldier, A Bell for the Statehouse, and Fact or Fiction: The Legend of Betsy Ross. Or browse ReadAloudPlays.com to mix and match.
I’m told school districts around the country are investing millions of dollars into iPads and other online devices. The idea is that students can use these devices to access their textbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias via the Internet. After all, hand-held devices, not printed volumes of the World Britannica, are the future.
Me, I’m salivating over a class set of laptops with which my fifth graders can do their writing, post to their webpages, watch student-created instructional videos, and bombard me with in-lesson feedback via Twitter.
But it’ll never happen. My district just can’t afford to invest $15K for a single classroom set of machines that will be outdated in just a few years. When put to the daily abuse levied by fifth graders, I doubt the machines would survive that long anyway.
But a funny thing keeps happening in my classroom. Whenever we need something that my generation had to find in a book, some student will invariably say, “Can I use my phone?” Need to know the definition for lugubrious? Need a picture of the state flag of Georgia? Need to know the formula for calculating the area of a circle? It’s all there at their fingertips on each student’s individual phone.
Kids can use their phones to record themselves reading, to film your next class play, to create short movies, to document field trips, and more. So why invest tax dollars in electronics the students already possess? Sure, you’ll have to bust a kid from time to time for texting when he’s supposed to be studying. But how’s that any different than busting him for passing notes? Do we ban pencils and paper? True, you may have that kid who uses his phone to cheat on a test. But that’s probably the same kid who’ll have notes scribbled on his arm or have his binder suspiciously open beneath his desk.
What about those kids who don’t have phones? Well, it wasn’t but a few years ago that only a handful of my students had online access at home. Today, that figure is around 95%. It won’t be too long before we see the same circumstances with phones. In fact, I estimate that nearly half of my 5th graders–eleven year olds!–already carry phones, and every one of ’em is vastly superior to my own woefully-outdated but indestructible Nokia. And before you go thinking my school is in some wealthy suburb of Portland, know that it has a 70% Free-and-Reduced population.
Consider this: we require $100 calculators for high school calculus (and I’ll bet you there’s an app for that), and those that can’t afford it have access to loaners. What’s wrong with applying the same logic to hand-held devices?
Cell phone technology creates life-long learners who are always just a click or two away from finding the information they need to accomplish nearly any given task. It’s how adults operate these days. It’s how we should be teaching our kids.
The future is already here, and most of our kids are holding it in their hands. We just have to let them turn the dang things on.