Promoting the Work and Words of Dr. King

At the height of Covid restrictions, the Palace Youth Theatre in New York state crafted this wonderful pairing of my Ruby Bridges script and my play about Martin Luther King’s childhood. With MLK Day just a few weeks away, and Black History Month right behind it, consider sharing these professionally-produced performances with your students. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to try a few of my other critically-acclaimed plays promoting the work and words of Dr. King and other crusaders. They’re available on my TeachersPayTeachers and Etsy storefronts. Happy directing!

War Stories

Kasserine Pass, Feb. 1943 (PD McGary)

Both my parents served in the military. My mom had a short stint as a WAC in DC before landing in the secretarial pool at the White House. She eventually had a temporary assignment working for Matthew Connelly, Harry Truman’s executive secretary. She used to tell a story about sneaking down a long corridor in hopes of seeing the presidential swimming pool before being caught by a guard and sent back to her post. Despite her brush with security, she was eventually offered a permanent position but, regretfully I suspect, turned it down because the bus commute from her quarters in Virginia was too long.  Those, she would later tell me, were the best years of her life.

My dad, meanwhile, served in both World War II and Korea. I’m told his experiences were vast and extreme, that he piloted a plane, that he commanded a POW camp, that he was at the disastrously fierce Battle of Kasserine Pass. But he himself never spoke of any of it. Not a word. For him it was far too painful—as it is for many veterans. 

It was with them in mind that I crafted “War Stories” for Scholastic several years ago.  It speaks to the pain of war, the sacrifice of those who’ve served, and the meaning of Veterans’ Day. I encourage you to share it with your students in grades four and up prior to the holiday on November 11.

Happy directing.    

Has “Patriotism” Become a Dirty Word?

The Fort McHenry flagWhen 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.

Happy directing!

Zoom-Aloud Plays!

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.”

Happy directing!

Presidents’ Day Has Been Rescheduled

These days Presidents’ Day is viewed by most students as merely an extra day off from school. Here’s how to give meaning to the day.

Do you recognize this former president?

It’s quite possible we will never again see a president as popular as George Washington. He is known as “the father of our country” because of all he did to bring about independence from England. He led the United States to victory in the Revolutionary War, and afterwards became the country’s first president despite never wanting the job. Contrast that to how desperately people seem to want the job today! Washington served out of a sense of duty, and he never accepted pay. No wonder it was said of him, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” In fact, Washington was so popular people started meeting in taverns, giving speeches, or going to extravagant balls to celebrate his birthday while he was still in office! His sudden death three years later only made people want to honor him that much more. As a result, “Washington’s Birthday,” which is on February 22nd, has been celebrated ever since.

Don’t see it on the calendar? That’s because in 1865 another beloved president died suddenly. Though Abraham Lincoln’s presidency had been controversial, he is considered one of America’s greatest leaders. Though his birthday on February 12th did not become a federal holiday like Washington’s, it was celebrated in many states. Then, in 1968, Congress made changes to several holidays to simplify the calendar. Washington’s Birthday became the third Monday in February, regardless of whether or not it fell on the 22nd. Because Lincoln’s Birthday is also in February, many people started calling the third Monday “Presidents’ Day” in honor of both Washington and Lincoln. Today, though still officially called Washington’s Birthday by Congress, the third Monday in February is thought of as a day to recognize all those who have served the nation as president—even the ones many of us have never heard of such as Martin President Van Buren (upper left).

All those dates aside, you can bring lasting meaning to the day simply by using my “Presidents’ Day Dream” play this week. The play looks at the Presidency from a different viewpoint. In modern times it seems everybody wants to be Commander-in-Chief. When the play’s lead begins day dreaming about how great it would be, she’s met in her “dream” by various former presidents. Each speaks openly and honestly about the challenges and hardships of the job while pointing out the qualities it takes to be a good leader. In so doing they give her and the audience a unique character-building history lesson on being the President. The embedded political cartoons add to the lesson, showing students that elections have always been contentious and presidents often criticized.

Consider pairing it with my laugh out-loud play, “Argument at Mount Rushmore.” It gives students a look at the unique personalities of Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, and Roosevelt. It imagines their sixty-foot tall faces on Mount Rushmore are “discussing” the merits and accomplishments of each of their presidencies. Though built on a humorous platform, it’s a historically-accurate portrayal of the gracious Washington, the witty Lincoln, and the always-enthusiastic Roosevelt. As for the sometimes over-looked and often under-appreciated Jefferson, well, let’s just say he gets a bit bent out of shape. This play is always a hit, especially if you’re industrious enough to build your own Mount Rushmore set!

Both plays originally appeared in Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America (Scholastic, 2003). Though obvious works of fiction, the details were carefully researched and subsequently reviewed by professional editors at Scholastic. On top of all that, they’re inexpensive. Both plays come with a comprehension activity, a paired text “pre-reading” activity, teacher notes and keys, and a classroom license. Just click on the cover to download the free preview at TeachersPayTeachers!

Happy directing!

Saki’s “The Open Window”

Saki's The Open WindowHaving reacquired my publishing rights to collection of my plays, I’ve just repackaged “The Open Window” and made it available on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. It now includes my reader’s theater script, the original text, three comprehension activities, and teacher’s notes and answer keys. The story was written in 1914 by English writer H.H. Munro, who went by the pen name, Saki. It tells about a man named Framton Nuttel who comes to the countryside to recover from “a bad case of the nerves.” Too bad he meets young Vera Sappleton, a teenaged trickster, who sends Framton over the edge. It’s a highly accessible for middle grade readers because of its brevity, the way Saki sets up the victim, and because the lead character is a youngster. It was originally published in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (Scholastic 2010). It includes parts for eight actors and one barking dog. Use it with grades 4 through 8 as reader’s theater, a radio drama/podcast, or full stage performance. Happy directing!

Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

A Christmas Carol 1938 movie poster public domainWe all know that last week before Christmas vacation can be a real bugger in the classroom. The kids get so worked up about yule logs and gingerbread houses (or, more truly, about the L.O.L. Doll Box or Nintendo Switch under the tree), they’re no longer able to see straight, let alone sit still for a geometry test. You can have one Dickens of a Christmas, though, by adding a couple holiday plays to your Santa letters and holiday art projects.

Charles Dickens, of course, is the undisputed master of Christmas-oriented literature, so allow me to share with you three nifty class plays based on his work.

Whether you plan to fully enact it or just play around with it during language arts class, my traditional, kid-friendly version of A Christmas Carol is a great place to start—and it’s just three bucks for a full class set. Challenging for 3rd, but great for 4th-6th graders. If you want to take things a bit further, consider creating a movie version, or merely having your students adapt the play to their liking. A few years ago my fifth graders added extra dialogue, a few additional scenes, and a contemporary setting to my “Elenora Scrooge” female-lead version and ended up with this lovely sixteen minute film. Use it as an introduction to your work on the play (it’ll really motivate your students) or as a follow-up compare and contrast activity.

Also consider pairing ol’ Scrooge with ol’ Gabriel Grub. This script is a spooky, Christmas tale about a grumpy grave digger who is dragged away on Christmas Eve by a group of wretched goblins. It’ll scare the dickens out of the younger kids, but your fourth through eighth graders will find it a fun and fascinating comparison to Scrooge. You can check out a radio pod cast my students created by clicking here.

Another Dickens classic comes from his novel, Great Expectations. My original Pip & the Prisoner play depicts the opening chapters. Though not explicitly about Christmas, it takes place on Christmas Eve when the orphaned Pip encounters an escaped convict on the marshes. It’s full of angst and adventure, but best suited for 6th through 9th graders (though a talented or motivated group of 5th graders could probably handle it, too).

So if you want to have a great week before the vacation, put away that geometry test. Show your Christmas spirit with some holiday plays.

Happy directing!

Just in Time for Halloween!

The Tell-Tale Heart Read Aloud PlayHaving 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!

Here’s Help for that Pre-Holiday Chaos!

That last week before Christmas vacation can be a real doozy. While thoughts of sugar plums may not derail that lesson you’ve been planning on verb gerunds, knowing there are new gaming systems, cell phones, and hoverboards under the tree certainly will. There’s no doubt about it: this time of year the kids are all a twitter, prompting many a teacher to set aside serious content in favor of coloring pages featuring Rudolph, Frosty, or an occasional dreidel. But it needn’t be so. This is a great time to stage a play! In so doing your students will get some quality fluency practice, partake in some interesting literary discussions, and, depending on how far you want to take it, occupy themselves with meaningful work creating sets, props, and costumes. Here are four classroom reader’s theater scripts ideal for the next few weeks.

Click on the cover to preview or purchase! Click on the cover to preview or purchase!“Ebenezer Scrooge” is a traditional retelling of the Dickens classic. This age-appropriate version from the Dec. 1998 issue of Storyworks is available on TeachersPayTeachers only during December. It includes roles for fourteen students (though some can be doubled-up) as well as two or more non-speaking extras. I also have a version of this play in which Scrooge is cast as a woman, available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories.

Long before Scrooge there was “Gabriel Grub,” the gravedigger. From Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, this eerie adaption is a perfect complement to “A Christmas Carol” or a wonderful stand-alone Gothic holiday play. Gabriel is the sullen sexton who scowls at holiday mirth. He goes to the churchyard on Christmas eve to dig a grave and there encounters the Goblin King and a chorus of imps. It’s Dickens’ at his best! It includes enough parts for an entire class, or double up roles and stage it with as few as twelve. (Warning: it may be too scary for younger students, so use it with grades 5 and up).

Click here to preview The Gift of the Magi Click here to preview The Necklace!The Gift of the Magi is the endearing story of a husband and wife who pawn their most precious things in order to buy gifts for one another, only to discover the gifts are no longer needed. This O.Henry classic originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2001 issue of Storyworks, and is currently available for immediate download through Scholastic Teacher Express. Students will likely be familiar with the plot because it’s been so readily adapted everywhere from Sesame Street to the Simpson’s to Walt Disney. Parts for nine students in grades 4 through 8.

Maupassant the Cat and Flaubert the Mouse tell the exasperating tale of the discontented Matilda Loisel in Guy deMaupassant’s 1884 classic, “The Necklace.” Matilda is a young French woman who takes her happiness for granted and consequently trades it all for a string of false pearls. Students consistently rank this among their favorite plays to perform. Originally published in the Nov./Dec, 2002 issue of Storyworks, it includes parts for eight actors (and numerous non-speaking extras). It isn’t specifically a holiday play, but could be made so simply by referring to “The Ambassador’s Ball” as “The Ambassador’s Christmas Ball.” It’s appropriate for students in grades 4 through 8 and is currently available in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories on Scholastic Teacher Express.

Happy directing!

A Just So Adaption Just Right for Class

Elephant's Chil readers theaterI’ve just released a new reader’s theater play script. I put it together early in the summer but have waited until now to release it because, like nearly all my plays, I wanted to try it out with my own students before offering it to you. By doing so, not only do I catch (nearly) all my typos, I’m also able to figure out which lines work and which lines need a bit more pep. It amazes me how adding an innocuous word such as “always” bolsters an otherwise flat one-liner (in this case, spoken by an elephant to a hippo).

“How the Elephant Got Its Trunk” is my new play. It’s based on Rudyard Kipling’s oft-adapted “Elephant’s Child” from his 1902 work, Just So Stories. Yes, there are a lot of adaptions of this one out there, but I think you’ll find mine to be unique. First of all, Kipling’s original story is about an elephant that get’s spanked by all his relatives. I’m not intending to make any political statements, but there’s little question these days that spanking isn’t considered school-appropriate. Consequently, I’ve come up with a clever way to re-work the story without altering its mojo. It’s a Just So adaption just right for class!

My script also encourages students to experiment with dialect. I’ve found that any time I can get kids talking like a southern belle, a Bronx street urchin, or a Russian cowpoke (see my Talk Like A Russian Day post), the stories come to life in profound ways. We also have a lot more laughs. “Elephant’s Child” sets the tone with Swahili storytellers, then tosses in a baboon with a British accent, a snake with a lisp, a hip-hop jivin’ giraffe, and others. If your kids like it as much as my students do, I think you’ll be pleased.

I’ve also included two versions in one package: my original, which is geared toward 5th through 8th graders, and a simplified “Youngers Version” for 3rd through 5th. My fifth graders are using the upper version and doing fine with it. It includes leveled comprehension activities based on Common Core standards. Older students can pair the play with the original short story–available all over the Web. You can also enact it alongside another of my Kipling plays, “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” which is available through Scholastic.

Preview or purchase How the Elephant Got Its Trunk at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers. While there, also be sure to check out my “Halloween Collection,” plays perfect for October: The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, and Cyclops.

Happy directing!