A New Play for Halloween

Back a hundred years ago, ghoulishness was captured in short stories rather than comic books. Writers like Poe, Shelley, and Stevenson creeped out their audiences with dark tales of superstition, mystery, and insanity. The Gothic themes they created have been permeating literature, television, and cinema ever since. Case in point, for the last couple of years I’ve been not-quite-binge watching episodes of Dark Shadows, the Gothic TV show about Barnabas Collins—arguably the world’s second-most famous vampire (Step aside, Edward). The show’s witches, werewolves, and headless dudes had me mesmerized when it originally aired back in the 1960’s. Now, viewing the rather campy soap through adult eyes, I’m recognizing that all its creepiness came from classic short stories like The Cask of AmontilladoFrankenstein, and The Headless Horseman. They’re all in there! Go figure.

Your students know these themes, too. They’ve seen them on the Simpsons and Family Guy, in Goosebumps and Marvel Comics. But do they know from whence they come?  Though the archaic language and complex structures of these classic tales present barriers for most middle grade readers, you can make the stories more accessible by pairing them with reader’s theater. And what better a time to do it than Halloween?

So what if your students are mesmerized by Venom and Doctor Octopus? There are plenty of mangled monsters and the criminally insane in W.W. Jacob’s classic, The Monkey’s Paw, Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and Hawthorne’s The Birthmark. They’ll also find that familiar ol’ headless horseman in Sleepy Hollow, and a hapless ghost in Twain’s A Ghost Story. Finally, I’ve just released my version of Rappaccini’s Daughter.  No, your kids won’t find it Pennywise-creepy or Slenderman-scary, but its chemical concoctions and mad scientists make it very nearly as engaging. Most certainly, it’s a key to unlocking the original’s subtleties and complexities.    

All these plays are available on my TeachersPayTeachersEtsy, and Amazon storefronts. They’re critically-acclaimed. They’re cheap. And they each come with a comprehension exercise. Suitable for reader’s theater, podcast radio drama, or full stage production, they’re perfect for fifth graders and up— but get started early to have them well-rehearsed by Halloween.

Happy directing!

Six New Plays!

When last November a friend chided me for never having any free time, I decided to go on a one month writing sabbatical. It soon became a two month writing sabbatical—then six and eventually eight. I must admit, I didn’t miss the grind of slogging through another chapter, the gut punch of yet another rejection letter, or the stress of trying to balance my personal life on top of teaching on top of writing. But with summer came my annual furlough and the chance to reconnect with my keyboard. Though I’ve yet to tackle the enormous task of researching lit agents and crafting queries, I did manage to put together six new plays. Six! Granted, most of these plays were already written—usually for Scholastic—so they merely needed to be re-packaged, but you’d be surprised how much work goes into the task.

No play I’ve ever written has been more fun than The Nose. It’s Nikolai Gogol’s short story about a Russian man who awakes one morning to discover that his nose has fled his face. When he goes looking for it, he realizes the nose is masquerading as a government official. It’s an unforgettable example of farce. The events in the story cannot be explained—though students may have a lot of fun trying. They’ll have a fun time staging it, too.  In my classroom, we built a papier mâché nose and stuck a kid inside. We also worked on our Russian accents, holding a “Talk Like a Russian Day” in which we did all our lessons while trying to emulate the cosmonaut from the movie Armageddon. We had a blast. The play is from my Scholastic book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, which is now out-of-print. I’ve wrapped it up with a comprehension activity and a new easier-to-read format. It’s perfect for back-to-school whether in-person or online. Start the school year talking to your kids in a Russian accent, you say? What a great way to break the ice!

Along with The Nose, I’m also releasing three other plays, but you’ll have to visit one of my digital download sites to check them out. They’re all available on TeachersPayTeachers, my Etsy store, as well as Amazon. In the next couple of weeks I’ll also be releasing the fifth and sixth plays: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter and Nature Talks Back. I’m excited about both of them. I hope you will be too.

Cheers to a successful new school year! Let’s hope we finally get past the pandemic!

Happy directing!

Commemorating Juneteenth

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. Click here to see the fantastic things the kids at the Baker Montessori School in Houston did with the script! It’s available on my Etsy storefront, and like all my plays, it includes performance rights. 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!

Ten Plays for Black History Month

February is Black History Month. While I encourage you to acknowledge it with some dedicated activities, I’m also reminded that black history is American history; it need not be limited to a single month! The end of the Civil War, Jackie Robinson’s breaking of baseball’s color barrier, and MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech certainly rank among some of the most significant moments in American history. With that in mind, here are ten great paired texts with which to recognize Black History Month while also meeting numerous standards. All the plays are based on the given event–not it’s paired text (in most cases the play was published before the given book). That means each pairing represents distinctly unique points of view. Each includes a comprehension activity, too, and all were originally commission by or published in Scholastic’s Storyworks and Scope magazines, so they’ve been professionally vetted, making them the best reader’s theater available. Clicking on an image will take you to either my Etsy or TpT stores. You can also download free previews of each play on my Black History & Civil Rights page, and you’ll find FREE Google Docs versions of the comprehension quizzes on TpT. Happy directing!

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!

Time to Deck the Halls with RT!

One of the department stores in my area pushed out their holiday inventory well before Halloween, which seem mighty early to me. But now is certainly not too early to be pushing out the holiday plays. While there may not be any Christmas pageants this year, reader’s theater is well-suited to remote instruction. Because kids have clearly-identified parts to read, your Zoom calls or Teams sessions can proceed fairly smoothly (bandwidth issues aside!). You can send students a hard copy of the script via email, or simply share your screen. Have kids practice their lines and rehearse in Zoom two or three times a week. When they’re finally reading the play smoothly, record it and share the recordings in your secure online environment. Add another layer of fun by encouraging kids to dress in costume!

I have a number of splendid RT scripts for the holidays, including my latest release, The Gift of the Magi. Originally published in the Nov. 2001 issue of Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine, it includes a comprehension activity that can be downloaded as a Google Form for free. That means in your secure Google Classroom environment you can post a PDF of the script as well as the interactive quiz!

I also have some wonderful Charles Dickens’ plays including A Christmas Carol, Gabriel Grub (the spookiest of Dickens’ holiday stories), and Pip & the Prisoner (from Great Expectations). You can check all of them out on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. 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!