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!

How to Create that Interactive Vibe

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.

“Zoom-Aloud” Plays

The Legend of Sleepy HollowThere’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.

Super Sentences

Super Sentences & Perfect ParagraphsPerhaps 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)!

How to Commemorate Juneteenth

Click on the cover to preview at TpT.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!

Rikki Tikki Tavi

Rikki-tikki-tavi coverOriginally published by Scholastic, here’s another of my classroom plays getting new life on TeachersPayTeachers! Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Rudyard Kipling’s classic short story from The Jungle Books, tells the story of a courageous mongoose who must protect an English family living in India from vengeful cobras. The product includes my original play script, a comprehension quiz, teacher notes and key, plus the original text broken into sections corresponding with the scenes from the play. It makes for some excellent compare & contrast! Aimed at grades three through seven, there are parts for eleven students. It’s great for reader’s theater, a classroom play, or full stage production, and it’s makes a great pairing with my other Kipling play, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk. Plus, it’s aligned to a host of Common Core standards. 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!

Pip & the Prisoner

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!When most people think about Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, they land on Miss Havisham and her creepy old mansion full of spider webs, or on the adult Pip’s aspirations for greatness, or on his unrequieted love for Estella. But what I like best about the novel are those chapters focusing on Pip as a child. Maybe it has something to do with why I’m an elementary school teacher, or maybe it’s because there’s something Roald Dahl-like about Pip (no doubt Dahl was heavily inspired by Dickens), or maybe it’s just the marvelous way Dickens penned young Pip’s encounter with the escaped convict (How terrifying for a little kid—and an orphan, too—to encounter such a “wretched varmint,” and in a graveyard yet!). Whatever the case, I’ve long wanted to craft a play focusing on those early chapters of Great Expectations and am very pleased to introduce it here.

“Pip & The Prisoner” is an original script based on the first five chapters of the Dickens’ masterpiece. The script endeavors to introduce the main character, Pip, in such a way as to motivate students to want to read the full novel (presumably when assigned to them in high school), but whether Great Expectations is in one’s curriculum or not, I think you’ll find “Pip & the Prisoner” to be a lovely stand-alone bit of literature. It’s aimed at 6th through 8th graders, but could potentially be used with students in other grades (I intend to use it with my 5th graders). The story is full of irony, anxiety, and engaging dialect as Dickens successfully captures Pip’s innocence and fears while weaving in marvelously subtle humor. The play seeks to capitalize on that humor.

Great Expectations, incidentally, was published in 1860 in Dickens’ own weekly periodical, All Year Round. Because it was published serially—or one exciting section at a time—it reminds many readers of a modern soap opera, or perhaps a binge-worthy television series with a ton of twists, turns, and suspenseful cliffhangers.

The 20-minute play includes parts for ten students and numerous non-speaking “soldiers.” It was written with the stage in mind, but it can also be presented as reader’s theater or a pod-casted radio drama. The script comes with embedded discussion prompts, a standards-based comprehension and essay writing activity, teacher’s notes, answer key, and a printable of the novel’s first five chapters for easy comparing and contrasting.

Consider pairing with my other Dickens’ plays including “Gabriel Grub” and “A Christmas Carol.” Though it isn’t indicated in the play, the story take place on Christmas Eve, so all three plays could be presented as a holiday event.

Happy directing!

How to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing

Apollo Extension Systems Lunar Base conceptI was seven years old when the Apollo 11 mission blasted off for the moon in mid-July of 1969. I remember it well. My little sister and I spent much of July playing with a litter of puppies, though I can’t recall now if these belonged to my black lab Cookie or the family’s boxer, Peaches (we had a lot of dogs back then). But even those puppies couldn’t peel us away from Walter Cronkite’s non-stop newscast.

Here we are fifty years later. Space travel has become rather commonplace. Consider that the TV networks used to broadcast every launch, how we used to sit breathless watching the capsules plunge into the sea or the space shuttles touch down. These days we hardly glance up at the heavens, let alone note the passing of the International Space Station. Few of us can name even a single astronaut. Skylab has fallen, we’ve suffered human casualties, and exploration has been turned over to private enterprise.

Yet the moon remains as captivating as ever.

My reader’s theater play about the Apollo Moon Landing is based on my own childhood perspective from my backyard and living room on Beall Lane in southern Oregon. It accurately recounts the historic details of the event, details I wasn’t aware of then but make for some compelling drama now. Just as he did on television all those years ago, the famous newsman Walter Cronkite narrates the mission while astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins communicate with Control in Houston.

Fly Me to the Moon
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I plan on making Apollo part of my lineup of plays this fall. It’s not only a great history lesson, it’s a “blast” to enact. The last time I used it, my students and I created a 1960’s television set out of a cardboard box, cut out the oval-ish screen, and made some “rabbit ears” for the top. The kiddo playing Cronkite sat inside to deliver lines such as “The date is now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as man survives. And that’s the way it is, July 20, 1969, the day man reached and walked on the moon. This is Walter Cronkite signing off.” My goal for this year is to create some funky space suits for Armstrong’s first step and Aldrin’s giant leap (off an aluminum ladder on to the stage).

Now imagine your students walking on the moon! Imagine them re-enacting the “Eagle has landed“ and “One small step” scenes while reciting the exact words spoken by Mission Control, Walter Cronkite, and the astronauts themselves. Imagine watching them explore the moon as if for the first time. What a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing!

You can check out my play and its related comprehension material, along with a wide array of other great Read Aloud Plays, at TeachersPayTeachers.