Take advantage of high student interest in the Peter Rabbit movie by enacting my read aloud play script, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It includes the play script, the original text in an easy-to-read short story format geared toward intermediate and middle-grade students, and several comprehension activities—seventeen pages in all.
Peter Rabbit was the first play I submitted to Storyworks. Though for various reasons it never made it into print, it led to my now twenty-year relationship with Scholastic. One reason it didn’t see the pages of the magazine is that the Peter Rabbit story tends to be “aged-down.” But I can attest, every fifth grade class I’ve ever had has loved enacting this play, and now that it’s hit mainstream movie screens, there’s no question your 3rd-6th grade students will love it too!
The reviews for the Peter Rabbit film are mixed—as if that’s anything to be surprised about. But elementary and early middle school students are attending and enjoying it. Grab their attention while it’s hot and download the Peter Rabbit play today!
One of the greatest things my mother ever did for me was regularly take me to the public library when I was a kid. I don’t recall any exact schedule or regular routine, but I’m guessing every two weeks or so—perhaps more during the summer. On these days my mom would drag my little sister Karen and me away from whatever mud puddle or walnut tree we were in, and we’d all slither into her Ford Falcon and head off to the main branch downtown.
Karen was my best friend growing up, but at the library we mined different tracts. So engaged was I by our library outings that I have no recollection whatsoever of Karen even being present, though I know she was. I sought Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket novelizations, wildlife fiction, and sports biographies, always coming home with a stack of books to conquer before the next visit. I also Dewey-decimaled my way into the architecture section upstairs, pouring over books about drafting and design. When my mom bought me a drafting set one Christmas, I became a master with a t-square and determined to become an architect myself. I got side-tracked during the adolescence of high school, but I’ve used those drafting and design skills in many endeavors. Such was the power of those public library visits.
The library remains a significant aspect of my lifestyle today. It befuddles me when I see letters to the editor decrying the latest library bond. The writers of these letters want our libraries to charge user fees. They begrudge the $127.45 in annual taxes they pay to maintain our library system. Clearly, these folks never developed that library culture. Perhaps their mothers never took them to the library when they were young.
These days I find myself missing those childhood trips to the library. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to produce my latest Read Aloud Play, The Library Card. I originally wrote this script for Storyworks, where it appeared in October of 2001. It tells the story of African-American author Richard Wright’s relationship with the library. Wright wrote numerous books of significance during the middle of the 20th-century including Native Son and the semi-autobiographical Black Boy. The play is based on an incident from Wright’s youth in which he was denied access to the public library due to his race. The racism theme is obvious, making it an ideal fit for Black History Month, but make no mistake, this play is ultimately about the love of reading and the significance of libraries. With any luck, students who act-out this play will quit taking their access to the library for granted. Should you give the play a run, you might also consider pairing it with a trip to your local public library where you can help kids apply for their own library cards. It’s also worth noting that the story was popularized in William Miller’s inspiring picture book, “Richard Wright and the Library Card,” which makes for another ideal pairing.
Well, I’m off to the library. More plays are coming soon. Happy directing!
“Talk Like a Russian Day” was a big hit in my classroom. Though it coincided with certain political events, there was nothing political about it. We started the day by watching a YouTube short of a Hollywood voice actor giving us hints about speaking with a Russian accent. He told us not to emulate Chekov from the Star Trek series. Russians, he said, don’t substitute w’s for v’s. None-the-less, we decided Chekov’s style was to our liking, as was Gru’s in Despicable Me. We also liked the cosmonaut in the Armageddon movie. So after watching short clips of each, we embarked on a day in which the goal was to “talk like a Russian” all day long.
Though it seems like a crazy way to run a classroom, especially when I’m trying to deliver instruction on converting between decimals and fractions, the point was to encourage my students to use an accent in their presentation of my play, “The Nose.” The Nose is a short story by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, who lived and wrote in the 1800’s. It’s an example of literary farce, meaning a story that defies explanation. Gogol used it to criticize the Russian hierarchy. As the story goes, a mid-level but prideful bureaucrat awakes one morning to find that his nose has inexplicably gone missing. Clasping a handkerchief over his face, he heads straightaway for the police inspector, but on his way he spots his nose getting out of a carriage. Amazingly, it appears to be dressed as a Vice-Governor! Well, the story follows the bureaucrat as he attempts to reclaim his nose, one crazy twist after another.
One of my students, R____, is particularly engaging with her accent and an inspiration to the rest of us. Her enunciation is so scintillating, her sense of timing and inflection so ideal, well, when she is on stage, the play reaches a magical level. R____, by the way, is a Sped student, which just goes to show how powerful Read Aloud Plays can be for otherwise struggling readers.
This week we’re busy building the papier-mâché nose costume, which will be the final touch on what I think will be a smash performance. My second play group, meanwhile, is preparing for their performance of an as of yet unreleased play set in the Wild West, so we followed “Talk with a Russian Day” with “Talk Like a Cowpoke Day.” (The day after that we tried, “Talk Like a Russian Cowpoke,” which we decided meant speaking in a Russian accent while using phrases like “Yippeekayay.”)
The final stretch of another school year is a great time to be messing around with Read Aloud Plays. And no matter how silly the story, plays are an excellent way to promote fluency and engage young readers. Some fun ones to end with include The Nose (which can be found in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories and online here), The Open Window (also from Classic Short Stories), and Peter Rabbit (while the story may seem young, my upper elementary students always have a blast with it). My Jackie Robinson play is both socially impactful and fun to perform, as is The Newsies (“Talk like a Bronxite Day” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’d be fun anyway).
If you’ve been doing plays all year and are ready for something more powerful, some hard-hitting titles worth considering include Sitting Down for Dr. King, Stolen Childhoods, and Freedom for the First Time. I try to incorporate accents, dialect, or tidbits of foreign language into my plays whenever I can, so whether serious or silly, you can almost always have a “Talk Like a ____ Day.”
It’s not my aim to be political, but no matter one’s affiliation, it’s hard to deny that racial tension has resurfaced in this country. It would seem teachers have their work cut out for them, and with Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month right around the corner, now is the time to start preparing lessons that will help the current generation of children overcome such issues. In my humble opinion, one of the best ways is to put your children in the middle of the action by using Read Aloud Plays.
Sitting Down for Dr. King, for example, puts students inside the Greensboro Woolworth’s during the 1963 lunch counter sit-ins. They’ll see this pivotal protest through the eyes of David, a white boy who recognizes the injustice of prejudice and decides to set aside his own interests to stand with the African-American college students.
Gonna Let it Shine tells the true story of Sheyenne Webb, an eight year old crusader there on the bridge in Selma when state troopers and local police used tear gas and billy clubs to disperse and intimidate peaceful protesters.
And Martin’s Big Dream relates an incident from the childhood from Martin Luther King, Jr., in which two white boys in the neighborhood refused to play baseball with him because of the color of his skin. It is one of the most highly-regarded play scripts ever to appear in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine.
Nearly all my plays have been vetted and edited by Scholastic’s amazing editors, and for just three or four bucks, you get the rights to reproduce a class set every year. What’s more, most come with support material and comprehension activities.
Black history is our history. It’s America’s history. As educators, it’s our responsibility to share this history with our students. It’s quite possibly the most important thing you’ll teach this year.
Some of my colleagues were complaining recently that kids today don’t have much in the way of grit, meaning that indefinable resilience that pushes one to overcome hardship. I’ve had enough kids with runny noses whine about needing to call home sick to think maybe it’s true. Then again, as I write this I’m picturing the faces of former students who overcame poverty and homelessness to earn college degrees. Whatever the case, “grit” is an important “soft skill” worthy of our attention. It can be taught, and a great way to teach it is by sharing the story of Sybil Ludington.
Few folks outside upstate New York know much about Sybil–if you’ve ever passed through Carmel, maybe you caught a glimpse of a statue depicting her grit—but she’s considered a hero of the American Revolution.
When General Tryon’s British fleet landed near Danbury, Connecticut, Sybil leapt upon her horse and rode forty miles in the dead of night to call to arms the American troops. She was just sixteen at the time, and her grit and determination is believed to have saved the Hudson Highlands from invasion.
Sybil’s story is a compelling one, and the best way to share it is through a Read Aloud Play. My play about Sybil appeared in the September 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine, and this month it makes a reappearance in Storyworks. Imagine your students playing the part of Sybil, or General Washington, or the famous American spy, Enoch Crosby. How much more powerful the story when kids actually get to be Tories and bandits, minutemen, or even Sybil herself?
You can still snag a class set of the Sybil play by becoming a Storyworks subscriber. Storyworks has been providing fantastic language arts content for twenty-four years, and these days it also comes with a host of extraordinary online support material and extensions, all carefully aligned with Common Core standards. On top of that, nearly all my plays appear in Storyworks at least a year before they’re available at TpT. You can check out Storyworks by clicking here.
Do any of today’s students have Sybil Ludington’s kind of grit? Let’s hope they never have to face the same conditions. But just in case, consider giving them a bit of training through a Read Aloud Play.
We’ve been seeing it for the last year or so: the education pendulum on the verge of swinging. Standardized testing, Common Core standards, standards-based report cards (with all their annoying numbers), all being shown the door—or at least a dingy corner of the room. Enter, stage right, what I’m calling “purpose-driven instruction.” If you’re not familiar with it, check out this TED talk by education expert Sir Ken Robinson. He shows how the “factory model” of education created by the industrial revolution is outdated. The education documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which debuted not long ago at Sundance and is now in limited release, takes it a step further. It shows how “soft skills” such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and leadership need to be the focal point of instruction. Rather than having students memorize content (which is all readily available at our thumb-tips), we teach these soft skills through purpose-driven instruction.
Purpose-driven instruction involves having an end product. This end product determines the skills that need to be learned and provides the motivation to learn them. A person building a deck, for example, needs to know about the permit requirements, how to prepare the site, footings, measurement, using a chop saw, and a host of other things. Said person learns all this stuff, in a sense, “on the job,” while actually working on his or her deck. And because he or she is motivated to finish the project, said person is willing to learn the skills, even when it’s as uncomfortable as navigating the city’s building permit process. This person gains mastery through authentic application. (Sound like project-based learning, right? Sure, but keep reading.)
To teach those same skills independent of actually building a deck seems rather ludicrous, but it’s what we do in school all the time. For example, we typically teach calculus without any purpose other than that we might need to know it at some point in the future. No wonder kids ask, “Why do I need to know this?” And even when kids do “know it,” they usually don’t. The “Most Likely to Succeed” filmmakers demonstrate how even students who demonstrate assessed mastery forget pretty much everything within just a few months.
What’s all this got to do with Read Aloud Plays? Well, plays, by their nature, are purpose-driven. Simply by scheduling a performance and inviting an audience, a read aloud play becomes an authentic way to teach a host of “soft-skills.” Get this: in “Most Likely to Succeed,” a play performance is presented as the epitome of purpose-driven instruction and with amazing results (I can’t wait for you to see the documentary!). Plays are especially effective in that you can use them even with large classes (a fundamental symptom of our industrialized education approach). In any given month, I have my class of 34 split into three groups, each working on a play. Granted, these are rather simple performances. Sets are kept to a minimum, if at all, costuming is limited to just a few accessories to signify character (a parasol or a certain hat, for instance), and kids can carry their script in their hand if they want. But it remains that students must collaborate and cooperate, they must practice independently and as a team, and they must “finish” (the play must go on) regardless of broken legs, absenteeism, or fire bells. Students learn about subtle forms of communication such as inflection and innuendo, about body language and movement, all while happily developing their core reading skills. Instead of being forcibly required to read a text book, presumably to improve assessable fluency, they’re willingly—even eagerly—honing their fluency to present a successful performance. That’s a significant shift of the paradigm, as Robinson calls it.
With Read Aloud Plays, students can do more than just read and act, too. They can direct. They can build sets. They can write and adapt scripts. They can design and make costumes. They can create playbills. They can create tickets to the show. They can build online promos. They can create posters. They can film and post the video of the play online. They can serve as ushers. They can run a snack bar. They can write reviews. And, of special importance, they can self-evaluate and provide feedback. No letter grade, report card, or standardized test required.
Those of you who’ve been around for a couple decades have probably seen “purpose-driven instruction” under different names. And critical thinking skills certainly aren’t new to the education community. But whether you’re a proponent of project-based learning, student-led conferences, or reader’s theater who has had to fly under the radar of the standardized data miners, Read Aloud Plays are for you. Whether you’re someone looking to try something other than the text book, or someone who remains committed to teaching to the Common Core, Read Aloud Plays are for you. They’re a fantastic purpose-driven way to teach to the reading standards while simultaneously developing those essential “soft skills.”
That you’re visiting my blog tells me you’re most likely already a fan of reader’s theater, so I needn’t tell you how reader’s theater makes literature class that much more compelling, or how drama is referenced 47 times in the Common Core, or how nearly all my plays are first “vetted” by the editors of Scholastic classroom magazines where they’re published long before hitting TeachersPayTeachers. Instead, let me tell you how my Read Aloud Plays could just as easily be called “Act Aloud Plays.” My evidence? Well, every so often I stumble upon a classroom webpage featuring a videocast of a school play or musical that turns out to be mine. And because most publishers charge a pound of flesh, a fatted cow, and a hefty fee for performance rights, I frequently get emails from polite teachers verifying that such rights are indeed included in the original purchase price (they are). I also get requests to adapt my stories or include them in performances outside the school setting. For example, last year a community theater in Carolina included my adaption of A Christmas Carol in its holiday dinner theater, and the Tshwane Children’s Theatre in Irene, South Africa, performed my Peter Rabbit play in rural African schools. Pretty cool.
I think the popularity of these plays stems from the fact that they’re written to be acted out, not merely read aloud. When I create a play for Scholastic, I imagine students performing it on stage. How will the kids move across the floor? How simple can the set be? What must the characters say and do to help the audience grasp what’s going on? Is the setting consistent throughout the scene? How can I minimize the presence of the narrator? Such questions help build plays teachers can use on the actual stage.
Says Officer Lockstock, the narrator in the Broadway musical Urinetown, “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.” Save for the occasional soliloquy, narration is rare in 3-act shows, yet it’s often necessary in classroom plays. It quickly provides the background information required to reduce a complex story to a 15 or 20 minute performance. Still, as I craft scripts, I ‘m constantly looking for ways to minimize the exposition or find creative ways to deliver it. In my Jackie Robinson play, for example, the narration is delivered by the hot dog and peanut vendors. They set-up Jackie’s story while simultaneously hawking ballpark franks and Cracker Jacks. It’s as if they themselves are characters speaking to a grandstand full of spectators.
Though my latest TpT release utilizes narrators, it was most certainly designed with the stage in mind. The Newsiesfirst appeared in the March 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. It tells the story of the New York newsboy strike of 1899 through the eyes of a 12-year-old Polish immigrant. Aniela Kozlowski goes to work selling newspapers just as the strike unfolds (no pun intended, just questionable blogging). Ani’s character is based upon one of my own students who shares with me a Polish heritage, so I was particularly thrilled to watch her play the role late this past school year. Historically-accurate, rich with dialect, and embedded with great pictures from famed photographer Lewis Hine, The Newsies is unquestionably one of my best plays to date. Not only is it a play about actual kids showing the grit, determination, and unity necessary to overcome some pretty extreme challenges, it’s also a nice reminder that battles had to be fought to establish some degree of balance between the interests of big business and the common laborer, that unionism has played a significant role in establishing the American Dream.
You can preview or purchaseThe Newsies at TeachersPayTeachers. I encourage you to pair it with Stolen Childhoods, my play from the same era about Lewis Hine’s crusade to end child labor. Or, take The Newsies to a whole other level and make it a musical. I did this very thing with a Br’er Rabbit script this past year. Though initially rather daunting, something magical happened once the kids started singing (and eventually dancing) to Zippity Doo Dah and Sinatra’s High Hopes. Br’er Rabbit ended up being the highlight of our school year. By incorporating songs from the 1890s, The Newsies will be a smash hit, too. You’ll find Ta-ra-ra Boom de-ay, The Sidewalks of New York, A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, In the Good Ol’ Summer Time, and My Wild Irish Rose all on Youtube and/or Amazon. I can see places in the script for all of them.
Of course, there are dozens of other “act aloud plays” on my webpage and TpT site. Any one of them might be just what you need to get your students up and active on stage—to bring a little extra magic to your language arts class.
Women soldiers? It’s not so unusual in 2015, but back in the 18th century, the very idea would have drawn guffaws from even the most liberal-minded colonist. “A ridiculous notion,” one patriot leader was known to have said. And yet, History provides numerous examples of women performing acts of heroism throughout the American Revolution itself. Lydia Darragh, for example, is considered one of America’s first spies. Then there’s Deborah Sampson. She disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtliff. Twice wounded, she performed surgery on herself to avoid detection. Another heroin was Sybil Ludington, the 16-year-old girl who rode forty miles on horseback through the Hudson Highlands (on a stormy night, no less!) to muster the militia in defense of Danbury. She’s known as “The Female Paul Revere,” and according to Martha Lamb’s 1880 “The History of the City of New York,” George Washington himself personally thanked her for her stalwart effort. Her story is captured in my latest play, “Girl, Fighter, Hero,” which appears in the November/December issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. Although it’s available exclusively to Scope subscribers, you can still get it by clicking here.
Whether you use Sybil’s story or not, a kick-in-the-pants way to get kids excited about your American Revolution unit is to build it around a trio of Read Aloud Plays. Start with a FREE download of “Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction.” It first appeared in Storyworks back in 1999, and then in my book, Symbols of America. It challenges students to examine the facts associated with the first U.S. flag and draw their own conclusions. It’s FREE on my TpT storefrontuntil November 1st. Free. I’m convinced you’ll love it and want to then grab “The Secret Soldier,” a historically-accurate depiction of America’s first female fighter, and “Eagles Over the Battlefield,” a dramatic yet subtly humorous play about how the eagle came to be an American symbol (as opposed to the turkey, the turkey vulture, and the groundhog). Eagles, by the way, is part of a BOGO deal with “A Bell for the Statehouse,” which relives that infamous crack in The Liberty Bell.
As with all my plays, these were all carefully-researched, fact-checked by Scholastic editors, and best of all, kid-tested by my own students.
One added note this week is that my play “Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave,” is making an encore appearance, this time in Storyworks. It’s been freshly revised by editor-extraordinaire Lauren Tarshis (author of the I Survived series). Check out the new artwork by Sebastia Serra, too! If you’re not yet a Storyworkssubscriber, you should be, but you can also grab the original version of Cyclops off my website.
Imagine saying the Pledge of Allegiance to a bright yellow flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake! The history of the flag of the United States is a compelling story, but historians are divided as to the facts. Did Betsy Ross really create the first flag? This play, which was originally published in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America and later reprinted in the January 2002 issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, encourages readers to become history sleuths. It includes the play script, a short reading supplement, a bubble quiz, a comprehension activity built around William Canby’s 1870 treatise on the matter, answer keys, and extension activities.
Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction? is the first of several old but new plays destined for TeachersPayTeachers this season. Having recently re-acquired full publishing rights to the plays in my book, Symbols of America, I’ll be packaging up all these old favorites for easy downloading on TpT.
As with all my plays, the Symbols collection is suitable for reader’s theater or full stage production. You can use the plays to build fluency and to satisfy a variety of Common Core standards in Literature and Informational Text. Best of all, the original purchaser is licensed to print one class set per year for use in his or her own classroom.
I think much of what I know about teaching, about kids, about life itself, I learned from Spanky and Our Gang.
Like many of us here near the end of the school year, exhaustion has just about got the best of me. The wide-variety of year-end responsibilities and activities coupled with the cumulative day-to-day stress of the job itself has become a bit overwhelming. It has me looking for some fun but easy lessons to wrap up the last few weeks of school. It got me thinking that I’d like to share with my students some Little Rascals episodes, so I went looking for them on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with the Little Rascals, it’s the depression-era film shorts featuring the antics of impoverished kids such as Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, and Stymie (and a mule named Algebra). I grew up watching “Spanky and Our Gang” on Channel 42 out of San Francisco—beamed to my home in Oregon via the relatively new innovation called cable-tv.
Sure enough, YouTube has a wide variety of clips and as I watched a few, my wife suggested that my love for kids and my destiny to become a teacher may have roots in the Little Rascals. The more I think about this, the more I believe it. There’s no doubt I admired the ingenuity and resiliency displayed by these kids. There were rarely any adults on the show. The kids had to solve complex problems and overcome difficulties without the assistance, guidance, or even supervision of grown-ups. I think this “can-do” attitude has helped me forge my way through life. And there’s no doubt I enjoyed the innocence and sweetness of all these kids. Yes, I think “Our Gang” had a profound impact on my career choices, as well as my penchant for using plays in class.
I have particularly strong recollections of the Our Gang “Follies,” in which the kids built a make-shift theater in a barn and staged a vaudeville show. Although these were not among my favorite episodes, I’m certain they influenced my teaching. In 1998, when I built a stage inside my classroom, I sewed together a heap of scrap fabric to make curtains that, not surprisingly, looked a lot like those that parted for Alfalfa’s performance of “I’m in the Mood for Love” or Darla’s tap and baton-twirling routine. I’m still using those curtains today, and I think about the Little Rascals every time I put them up for a play.
I intend on ending the year with an algebra lesson (that is, a segment of Little Rascals featuring Algebra the Mule), but another good activity with which to fill these last days of schools is reader’s theater. I believe read aloud plays are most beneficial when they’re read repetitively, when kids read and re-read the same text over and over again as they practice for an eventual performance. However, this time of year, there’s nothing wrong with giving kids a set of scripts and letting them wing it. Give them a session or two to utilize their “Spanky-esque Can Do Attitude” and then watch the follies unfold. To help you along, here’s a free PDF of my play based on O.Henry’s depression-era story, A Retrieved Reformation (expired), but you should also try Peter Rabbit, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, A Tell-Tale Heart, and Fly Me to the Moon, all of which are available on my TeachersPayTeachers page, as well as The Nose, Rikki Tikki Tavi, and The Open Window, from my book: Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. Finally, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America contains Argument at Mount Rushmore, As American as Apple Pie, and Eagles Over the Battlefield, each of which make for fun, impromptu entertainment that beats a real algebra lesson any day.