The Anatomy of a Play

Like most of you, summer furlough is upon me, which for me means some time to find my mojo on a variety of writing projects. Having just finished a new Read Aloud Play based on the legend of The Pied Piper, I’m reflective about how much work went into it. Allow me to explain.

You might think it easy to churn out these plays, but writing can be quite laborious. Take my friend and Storyworks editor Lauren Tarshis, author of the I Survived series. She tells me how hard it often is to sit down and produce another disaster story. Play writing is no different. It’s serious work, especially since we’re both determined to tell a great story.

In the case of The Pied Piper, my first inclination was to tell the traditional folktale, but I learned something while watching episodes of the The Regular Show with my granddaughter: kids like silliness. The main characters on The Regular Show, which you’ll find on Disney+, include a talking, walking gumball machine, a raccoon, a bluejay, and what I think might by a cloud. They’re all a bunch of nitwit employees of “The Park.” Yes, the plain ol’ park. Much to my astonishment, it’s a great show with strong lessons.

Well, I’m at my best when I get a bit silly, when I think like an elementary kid. So after watching a few episodes (a bit of Jeff Goldblum didn’t hurt, either), I was able to craft a semi-twisted kind of absurd version of The Piper. The traditional story is still there, but there’s just enough silliness to make it extra fun for kids—and easier for me to write. After a couple days of germination, the story sprouted in just two days of writing. Compare that to my more hardcore titles, many of which took weeks of serious slogging.

The writing, though, is only a small portion of the task. Editing takes a few days. I’m guessing I’ve read through a script twenty to thirty times before I share it with you. I also force my poor wife or friends to give it a read, and during the school year, I test run it with my students. (That’ll still happen, by the way, and no doubt I’ll make a few corrections and adjustments afterwards, but it’ll have to wait until September. Should you decide to snag a copy of the script before then, you’ll be notified and provided with a revised copy.)

Meanwhile, I’m pulling images from different sources, verifying copyright and public domain status, building the cover and title banner on Illustrator, and double checking my research. Next begins the formatting. When I’m writing for Scholastic, I don’t need to worry about any of that, but when I’m packaging up a project for ReadAloudPlays.com, developing a pleasing format suitable for kids is really time consuming. It can also be frustrating when images, textboxes, and footers migrate from where I stick ‘em to some random spot three pages away!

There’s also the process of developing comprehension activities. I always try to include a bubble quiz because I think teachers like to be able to give a quick assessment just to keep kids accountable and to have something for the grade book (I’m not a proponent of grading the play performance itself—but that’s a topic for a different day).  I also try to include other activities when I can. In the case of the Piper, I spent a couple days creating a good bubble quiz and a nifty paired text reading activity. They don’t require any real prep for the classroom teacher, and they’re straight-forward enough for kids to figure out without much direction, but they represent quite a bit of labor on my part.

Even after all that’s done, there’s still the task of putting together the information pages and teacher notes, of combining them into a single PDF, of double checking the PDF for weirdness (like migrating images), and of creating a preview file. I just finished accomplishing all that…yet I’m still not done. There remains the process posting the product on TpT, Etsy and ReadAloudPlays.com (All those log-ins! All those Captchas!), and of promoting the darned thing with a nice little blog post like this one.

I hope you like it!  With any luck, there’ll be more to come.

Happy directing!

Trees, Bees, and Centipedes . . .

The clocks have all sprung forward, the turkey vultures have returned, and the sprouts are beginning to pop. Spring has arrived! So tell that groundhog to make way for some fun plays celebrating the season, including my newest script, Nature Talks Back. It’s actually four coordinated skits designed to give younger students insight in to trees, bees, and centipedes. Its ecology and conservation themes include that trees communicate, that some perceived pests are considered beneficial insects, and that honeybees are super-important pollinators.  The stories center around three oddball forest trees named Luther, Otto, and Bill and their hysterical encounters with a host of pests.    

It’s aimed specifically at kids in upper 2nd through 4th grade, but it’s also suitable for grade 5 and up for reader’s theater, podcast, or stage— especially when performed for younger kids. (My fifth graders love it and are presently preparing a full production!)

Consider pairing Nature Talks Back with some of my other spring-oriented plays. Peter Rabbit is also aimed at younger students. Use it with 2nd and 3rd graders, or have older students perform it for primary-aged kids. Rikki Tikki Tavi, Kipling’s much-loved story about the heroic mongoose has some spring-time flair, a singing bird, and an important theme about courage. It too can be presented alongside How the Elephant Got Its Trunk, another classic Kipling tale from The Jungle Books.  And don’t forget that baseball season is upon us, so it’s a great time for my entertaining and socially important play about Jackie Robinson.

Happy directing!

Greatness Isn’t Born

I don’t usually do reviews, but I just finished an awesome book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (2009, Bantam). Greatness isn’t born, argues the author. It’s grown. Think about that for a minute and then apply it to your classroom.

Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown.

There are no “naturally gifted” kids. Your students didn’t inherit their spelling/math/reading deficiencies from a parent. In fact, Coyle shows that IQ and physical attributes are largely irrelevant.

And he proves it using brain science.

Now, I’ve written about neuroscience before. Brain research by Lev Vygtsky and other experts is the basis for using reader’s theater to build fluency. The repetitive, “slow reading” nature of practicing a play builds the neural pathways that make mastery possible. Coyle, though, takes it further, citing more contemporary research. I’m stoked because Coyle’s work not only justifies using reader’s theater, it also affirms the effectiveness of my Super Sentences writing program, which relies on targeted, mistake-focused practice. And Perfect Paragraphs, which has to do with being imitative. And my Fact Car Rally program, too!

The book is chock full of concepts important to learning. It explains why special education kids are often mistakenly perceived as having short-term memory disabilities. It reveals what’s behind vacation “brain drain,” and how speed-focused oral reading fluency leads to mediocrity, and why stuff like Harry Potter and Twilight can ignite an entire generation of writers.

It also honors great teachers. What we do can’t be delivered by an online platform, nor scripted in a textbook!

So, I encourage you to grab a copy of The Talent Code off Ebay. (A copy used is less than $10 and you’ll be able to write notes in it!) Despite being all about neurons, synapsis and myelin, it’s an engaging read. (It’s kind of gone viral within my school setting.) Plus, it’ll have a huge impact on your teaching.

And while we’re on the subject, consider building some slow-reading, mistake-focused readers with some deep practice using my read aloud play scripts! For Women’s History Month you might want to try Girl. Fighter. Hero! about “the female Paul Revere,” or The Secret Solider, which tells the story of Deborah Samson, America’s first female soldier. You could also try my original play about Sacagawea, or my story from the Montgomery Bus Boycott about Claudette Colvin.   

Happy directing!   

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.    

Monster Plays for Spring

I recently surveyed my fifth graders about what they’d like more of. It probably won’t surprise you that “more Zoom” received zero votes. “More plays,” on the other hand, won hands-down. Sure it did! Whether in-person or remote, reader’s theater works. Plays teach kids to read purposefully and thoughtfully rather than merely for speed. They always have developmentally-appropriate parts for both your advanced readers and your most reluctant ones. And once parts are assigned, you don’t have to prompt kids to chime in. Best of all, plays are fun.

With my kids coming back to class, I want to have fun again, so I’m busting out my favorite monster play: Cyclops. It has some campy lines and a gruesome story, making it super appealing to kids (hint: Cyclops likes Greek food). Here are some other enjoyable plays for spring: Peter Rabbit (it seems too young for 5th and 6th graders, but they love doing it—especially when they get to perform it for youngers); How Jackie Saved the World (The Peanut Vendor and the Hot Dog Man emerge from the grandstands to tell Jackie Robinson’s story); And Fly Me to the Moon (it features Walter Cronkite stuffed inside a TV-shaped box!).

This time of year, many classrooms are focused on the American Revolution.  Though the subject matter is more serious, the plays are just as fun: The Secret Solider (how Deborah Samson disguised herself as a man in order to join the military); Girl. Fighter. Hero.  (“the female Paul Revere”); Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction (more about examining historical proof than it is about Betsy herself); And Two Plays from the American Revolution (2 for 1–the bald eagle and the Liberty Bell).

I hope you’re as excited as I am to have kids back in class, but whether you’re in-person or remote, give my critically-acclaimed RT a try.  Most of it was originally published by Scholastic, it always comes with standards-based comprehension activities, and need I say it again? It’s fun! You kids will love it. Happy directing!

So Bad, It’s Funny

Call them flops, bombs, fiascos. Read Aloud Plays have turned out to be pretty ideal for the Covid classroom because the pre-assigned parts make for uninterrupted reading, but sometimes they’re just so bad, they’re funny.

If you’ve used “Zoomer’s theater,” you know that feedback and bandwidth lag can sometimes derail a play. But that wasn’t what created such a mess this go-round. After practicing three MLK plays for the last three weeks, my lovely fifth graders met in separate Zoom sessions for the final performances—recordings to be posted on our class web page. That’s when the chaos broke out. Actors showed up to the wrong session or went missing altogether. There was an acute outbreak of ADHD. One kid muted himself and then got his fingers struck in a Chinese finger puzzle. Another kid read half her lines while chomping on leftover pepperoni pizza. Ugh! 

In “MLK’s Freedom March,” the kid playing Dr. King, unbeknownst to the rest of us, left for an extended trip to the bathroom right before his big scene, leaving a broad swath of dead air. That’s when three other actors decided they needed to cover for him. They all attempted to read the lines over the top of one another, which created an effect not-unlike the echo one might have heard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In another play, the distracted student playing Dr. King (who I suspect was knocking out some Happy Numbers minutes in a failed attempt at multi-tasking) missed his cue. When another kid jumped in, Dr. King suddenly interjected, “Hey! That’s my line!” (Now remember, this is our recorded take). “Well are you going to read the rest of it or not?” growled the first kid, which incited a twenty second spat in the middle of our recording.

 And then there’s the word “crap.” It shows up right in the middle of an otherwise well-done reading of “Martin’s Big Dream.” The student in question had just belted out his lines, but upon realizing he was still muted, tapped his space bar, only to lead with his one-word frustration.

Me? As one gaff piled atop the other, all I could do was laugh into my hand and occasionally cover my face in mock distress. It was simultaneously disheartening and hysterical.

Despite the failure, the plays were really a roaring success. The kids had a dozen good practice sessions in which repetitive reading contributed to fluency growth. They spent a ton of time discussing Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement—which is pretty darned pertinent these days. They developed a bit of character as they owned their mistakes and distractedness. And they also had a good time. I contend that any time this generation of kid has a good time reading, well, that’s solid gold.

All this confirms for me that even classroom flops are academic hits.

Whether you’re still teaching remotely or heading back to the classroom, February is a great month for reader’s theater. I have a host of plays and paired texts for Black History Month (see my previous post), but I also have a handful of fun plays for Presidents’ Day. Because they’re on the easier end of things, you can expect smooth reading in just a handful of practices. “Argument at Mount Rushmore” is a hoot. The four Rushmore presidents argue with one another while attempting to explain to some tourists what they did to be so honored. In “Presidents’ Day Dream,” several presidents humorously share how hard it is to serve. It pairs well with the picture book, “So You Want to Be President” by Judith St. George. There’s also “Eagles Over the Battlefield” (you’ll find it in “Two Plays from the American Revolution”), and “The War of 1812,” which gives some insight into our earliest presidents. Finally, “President Lincoln’s Spies and Rebels” fits both Black History Month and Presidents’ Day.

Happy (and hysterical) directing—even when it’s a flop!

Reader’s Theater for MLK Day

MLK Day feels especially important this year. Let’s face it, we have a lot of work to do if we’re to fulfill the dream Dr. King spoke of so poignantly more than fifty years ago. We have a lot of work to do if we’re to validate the effort and sacrifice of people like John Lewis, Medgar Evers, Rev. Jonathan Daniels, and other heroes of the Civil Rights Crusade. We have a lot of work to do if we’re to heal from all the wounds torn open by the tragedies and injustices of these last few years. Can we accomplish all that on a single holiday in January?

Of course not.

But MLK Day is a platform. It’s a launch pad. It’s a starting point for the hard work of sharing the stories, teaching the history, and promoting the diversity that will make the next generation happier and healthier. I don’t pretend to think my reader’s theater plays will accomplish all that by themselves, but I think you’ll find them useful tools in undertaking that challenge. Download this free preview pack, visit my Black History & Civil Rights page, and see if you can’t make your MLK Day and Black History Month something special. Make it an MLK Day that matters.

Happy directing.

Girl Power!

No, I’m not talkin’ fictional Powerpuff Girls, those bubble-eyed, oval-faced Cartoon Network kindergarteners (who by now must be middle-aged). I’m talking about  real young women from American history, young women who displayed exceptional courage and character under circumstances that would challenge even the strongest among us. These girls stand as positive examples for your students—even your boys.

Let’s start with Sybil Ludington. She’s known as the “female Paul Revere.” Although her story is less well known, her feat during the American Revolution may have been even more impressive. The play was first published in Storyworks (and then Scope) under the title “Girl. Fighter. Hero.”–the theme of this post!

“The Secret Soldier” is the story of Robert Shurtliff…er, Deborah Samson. Deborah disguised herself as a man (Robert) so that she could fight for independence during the American Revolution. She’s considered by many to be America’s first female member of the military.

And who can forget Claudette Colvin? Well, history did for nearly fifty years. Claudette was just fifteen when she was dragged off a Montgomery city bus for refusing to surrender her seat. Unlike Rosa Parks a year later, Claudette was convicted and then ostracized by her peers, by Civil Rights leaders, and by history. Her story has resurfaced thanks to Philip Hoose’s book, Twice Toward Justice.

Ruby Bridges and Sheyann Webb also demonstrated a ton of girl power. They were still elementary-aged kids when they made their courageous contributions to American history, but they’re stories are equally compelling. Ruby, of course, was that six-year-old-girl who integrated New Orleans public schools, while Sheyann was know as Dr. King’s “smallest civil rights crusader.” She, of her own volition, participated in the “Bloody Sunday” events in Selma, making her story a perfect fit for your MLK Day celebrations.

You can also find a bit of girl power in my historical-fiction plays, “Freedom for the First Time” and “MLK’s Freedom March.” Both have female leads and would be great for Black History Month this February. 

Many of these plays are available on TpT, with a few  only on Etsy. Because they’ve been previously-published in Scholastic classroom magazines, they’ve all been professionally vetted and edited, so you can count on them being of the highest quality. They usually include a Common Core-aligned comprehension activity, too, both in PDF and Google Forms.

So, if you’d like to empower your students with a bit of real girl power from American history, download some ReadAloudPlays today!

Happy directing!

How to Honor Veterans

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!