A Little Help for Your Online Instruction

At my school we’re expecting to be “teaching remotely” until the end of April. What that means remains to be seen, but it’ll obviously require a lot of content to be delivered online. Unless you can rig up a conference call with ten or twelve students at a time, reader’s theater is probably a scratch, so I’m focusing instead on other material. There is a ton of new fangled “plug and play” programs out there, but if you’d like a bit of the tried and true mixed in to your online content, here’s some of what I’ll be using next month.

Super Sentences will keep your kids writing and discussing even during a shut down. It has students write one sentence fitting a specific construct each day. One week you might work on “Dialogue Sentences” and the next you might teach “Sentences Containing a Compound Predicate.” Almost all your grammar instruction is embedded in the program, and it’s perfectly built for Google Classroom. You’ll get the nitty gritty in the detailed product instructions, but the basics look like this: Post the example and the tips as an “Assignment” and have each student respond with his or her sentence. Because the whole group can see the responses, both you and your students can provide feedback, just as in the regular class. On the next day, choose two or three sentences to repost with your teacher comments, and then have kids write new sentences, repeating this process daily until crafting error-free sentence on the test at the end of the week. Super Sentences comes in two ala-carte volumes. Volume One is included in tandem with Perfect Paragraphs, which is another item suited to online learning.

Perfect Paragraphs asks students to unscramble a sample paragraph fitting a specific genre. Once they’ve re-arranged the sentences in the proper paragraph format, they’re then directed to write a paragraph of their own on the same topic and following the same structure. (The concept here is that kids become proficient by initially imitating. Think human speech, or how you own child learned to read, or how Picasso learned to paint.) As with any writing task, editing, revising, and sharing follow. I plan on having my students complete one paragraph-writing activity every other week. Once again, the details are in the product instructions, but Google Docs is a perfect match given how teacher and student can watch one another write and comment in real time. Ideally, students will need to be able to view a PDF of the unscrambling worksheet and the paragraph writing template before doing all their typing in Docs. Perfect Paragraphs comes as a complete package or in three ala-carte levels, including a set of multi-paragraph writing tasks. You can try out a free sample here.

EZSub Plans are typically marketed to subs and teachers in need of emergency, self-directed lessons. Well, this is an emergency and it turns out these plans are pretty ideal for remote learning! You merely need to provide PDFs of each lesson. Each package always includes reading, writing, math, and art activities, as well as a few mini-lessons. Kids may have to be a bit more resourceful than they are in the classroom, making due with materials on hand and tracking down certain tools (such as a ruler), but most of it is within reason. EZSubPlans are fun for kids and designed to be easy to teach. They come in four grade levels—3rd through 6th–but they’re interchangeable to a large degree (the 3rd grade sets could be considered 3rd-5th; the 4th and 5th grade sets are suitable for 4th and up, etc.) If grading is important, students can send their answers to you via Google Classroom. Or if you prefer, you can simply share each included answer key and have students self-correct. Cake!

One super important asterisk about sharing all this material online: please be careful about posting copyrighted material. If someone outside your class can download it, you’ll be violating copyright. While programs such as Google Classroom allow you to share items within a private environment (students must sign-in), class webpages are often public or “open.” I see this frequently with Weebly pages. Teachers with good intentions share material from, say, Scope magazine. They’re simply trying to provide remote access to their students. The problem is that everyone else on the web can access it too. So, whether you’re using my products or someone else’s, please respect copyright by making sure your online access is restricted.

Now, how about we figure out a way to arrange that conference call? I’ve got some great Read Aloud Plays that are ideal for Spring, whether school is shuttered or not…

Let’s hope and pray for a quick end to this virus.

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!

Important Moments in American History

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 those great moments while meeting numerous Language Arts 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 (Literature CCSS #6), making for livelier discussions and quality comparisons (CCSS Lit #7). And because these plays are based on real events, they’ll also satisfy CCSS Informational Text #6. Each includes a comprehension activity, too, assuring your students will satisfy numerous other standards as well. And because almost all my plays were originally commission by and published in Scholastic’s Storyworks and Scope magazines, they’ve been professionally vetted, making them the best reader’s theater on the market. Just click on the image to preview or purchase on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. 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!

“Don’t Bother Teaching Facts”

Recent Storyworks play coverI recently attended a workshop in which the keynote speaker pointed out that in this current age of information, teaching content is largely irrelevant. Information is at our fingertips, he suggested, so there’s no point in dwelling on it in class. He advocated teaching skills such as coding, collaboration, and even gaming instead, relying on the natural interests of the students to guide them.

While his presentation did have merit, I disagree with the premise that content is no longer relevant. Some things, I believe, still need to be taught explicitly.

The speaker suggested people will seek information when they need it. Often times, though, we don’t know what we need to know until it’s presented to us. How, for example, does a person realize he or she needs to know about Claudette Colvin, a figure in the Civil Rights Movement? Will they wake up some morning and say, “I wonder if Rosa Parks really was the first African-America to be arrested for refusing to give up a seat on the bus.” How does anyone know to ask such a question unless the facts have already been introduced? For that matter, what would compel someone to go looking for information about Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, or any history event if they hadn’t already heard something about it?

While “natural interests” may motivate children, without accurate information, they’ll be rudderless in their journey. Consequently, it’s essential that certain subjects—history especially—be taught explicitly. While exact dates and capital cities may be good questions to pose Alexa or Siri, the how and why of important events is still of significance in the classroom. Simply put, there are some things everyone must know and understand for our society to survive.

January and February are traditionally the months in which we teach content related to the Civil Rights Movement and our African-American heritage. These are important events and ideas that we all need to understand. Don’t let the opportunity to be explicit slip by. Rather than let their Facebook friends teach them this history, introduce your students to it by using some of my reader’s theater scripts. Many of my plays are told from the perspective of young people—actual heroes from the movement—such as Ruby Bridges, Sheyann Webb, and a young Martin Luther King—and Claudette, too.

My plays are inexpensive, they include teacher-created comprehension activities, they align with standards, and the majority of them were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines, so you can rest assured they’ve been thoroughly fact-checked. Access them on my storefront at TeachesrPayTeachers. You can even download a free Civil Right RT Preview.

We really need to start viewing this as the Age of Disinformation, which means the facts matter more than ever. The great work you do to teach those facts has never been more important.

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!

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!

There’s Still Time for Some Halloween Monstrosities!

Cyclops Scope cover Scope Monkey's Paw cover The Birthmark scope cover page

It’s not too late to stage a Halloween drama fest. Here are half-a-dozen plays that will allow your students to dress in costume while still doing something academically valid. And if Thursday’s festivities are too packed or to near, there’s nothing wrong with staging these monstrosities on that awkward, sleepy, problematic day-after.

Click here for Halloween Madness!

Penelope coverString coverNathaniel Hawthorne’s short stoy classic, The Birth-mark, tells the story of a mad scientist who, in his quest to make his already beautiful bride “perfect,” kills her instead. The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs’ classic Gothic tale about getting three wishes. The disturbing result will stay with your students long after Halloween has passed. The well-known Legend of Sleepy Hollow is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (you can purchase and download it instantly at Scholastic Teacher Express). Pair it with YouTube segments from the original Disney flick. My newly re-released version of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart can be paired with my modernized version, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. (At least one of my reader’s has commented that it’s “too strange,” which I think makes for great Halloween fun.) Finally, A Piece of String has a ghostly conclusion and Cyclops has a ferocious monster. All of these plays were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Scope and Storyworks from which some of the above coveres originate), so you know they’re up to snuff, and they all come with reproduction and performance rights.

Ready to give it a try but unsure how to start? Download my free guide to teaching with plays. It’ll give you tips and ideas on how to use plays to make your language arts block the best section of the day. But get to it right away…those ghouls and goblins are already knocking at your door.

Happy Halloween and 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!