Has “Patriotism” Become a Dirty Word?

The Fort McHenry flagWhen I started working on Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America for Scholastic back in 2001, the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center hadn’t yet happened. (That July, in fact, Scholastic treated me to dinner at Windows on the World atop the North Tower.) By the time the book was released in January of 2003, those horrific attacks had led to a groundswell of American patriotism. We as a nation were unified behind the cause of defending our country against terrorism. Though hardly purposeful, a collection of plays designed to teach the history behind our “most patriotic symbols and holidays” seemed timely.

But then came the controversial invasion of Iraq. While I have my opinions about the Iraq War, I’ll leave that debate for another time. One outcome, though, was that the word “patriotism” was suddenly being lumped together with words like “nationalism” and “fascism.” We started questioning our patriotic roots. Not that I was concerned about sales at a time like that, but it came as no surprise to me that my book would never see a third printing. Here we are thirteen years later and we remain divided. Numerous events have us questioning our patriotic symbols now more than ever.

As we should be.

When I teach history to my 5th graders, the overriding message is that we should be constantly looking back at our past and using it to guide our future. That includes things like why Teddy Roosevelt appears on Mount Rushmore, why Thomas Jefferson is considered an American hero despite having owned slaves, and why MLK’s statement about the “content of our character” is more important than ever.

All that suggests Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America may be even more valid today than it was in 2001. These plays provide innocent, politically-neutral histories of “patriotic” symbols such as the flag, the bald eagle, and the Liberty Bell. “War Stories,” for example, teaches the meaning behind Veterans’ Day by sharing the somber stories of soldiers whose names appear on gravestones. Another play, “A Bell for the Statehouse,” uses the history of the Liberty Bell to teach about the American Revolution.

I’ve repackaged all the plays from Symbols and made them available on TeachersPayTeachers. They come with improved comprehension activities, short paired texts, and detailed teacher notes including answer keys and extension activities. “Argument at Mount Rushmore,” for example, is a humorous play about the history of the monument in which the four “talking heads” explain why they’re featured there (excellent fodder for a discussion about slave-owning fore fathers and monuments). Plays about the flag, Vets’ Day, and MLK Day appear individually, while “Eagles Over the Battlefield” and “A Bell for the Statehouse” appear together in “Two Plays from the American Revolution.” Finally, I’ve just released “Two Plays from The War of 1812.” While 1812 probably doesn’t appear in your middle grade standards, these plays provide engaging histories about the Star Spangled Banner and the White House. Ultimately, though, they’re great jumping off points for classrooms to dive into discussions about American history as a whole. At a time when we’re so divided and facing such gargantuan problems, presenting our kids with facts and details about our past seems more appropriate than ever.

Happy directing!

Free Play for the Fourth

Click on the cover to download from TpTWhen I wrote Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America for Scholastic back in 2002, it was supposed to be a collection of plays teaching about the history of “patriotic” symbols and holidays. Even though school isn’t in session for most of us in July, I included a play celebrating Independence Day. I’ve prepared it for my TpT storefront and am giving it away for free from now until the holiday. Download “As American as Apple Pie” for use next June as one of those end-of-the-year activities, or if you are currently in session, even remotely, have your kids give it a whirl this month. It’s a fun, fast-paced play that follows a couple of kids bouncing from one July 4th event to another, from pie-eating contests and baseball games to three-legged races and fireworks. Along the way they learn a bit about American culture and what exactly we’re celebrating at these Independence Day picnics and parades.

Though current events have caused many of us to view some of our American heroes and patriotic symbols with more scrutiny, this play sticks to an innocent interpretation, but it is quite capable of serving as a lead-in for more serious discussions. Consider pairing it with Frederick Douglass’ speech entitled speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Listen to it on YouTube or share excerpts (but fully preview it before use). Douglass is forceful in calling out America for its oppression of African Americans. Though he delivered it in 1852, thirteen years prior to Emancipation, Douglass’ tenets remain on point today. Regarding celebrating on the 4th he says, “There is hope in the thought, and hope is much needed, under the dark clouds which lower above the horizon.”

There’s no doubt America is going through some tough times, that we have problems needing our attention, but hopefully this play reminds us that ours is a nation worthy of the effort and capable of the task.

Happy directing.

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!

Another Great Zoomer’s Theater Script!

The Necklace is a cautionary tale written in 1884 by French writer Guy de Maupassant. It tells about a young woman who, despite having a very comfortable life, is discontent. Her desire to appear wealthier than she actually is comes at a great cost. In the end she loses her comfort, beauty, and status. The play can be related to modern consumerism–how people today enslave themselves to debt while living beyond their means–but the story is mostly about honesty. It was originally published in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (Scholastic 2010). What makes it unique is that it’s told from the perspective of an aloof, French-speaking cat (Maupassant) and his rodent sidekick (Flaubert). Scholastic also published other “aged-up” versions (meaning they had me re-write it without the Disney-treatment), but this version remains one my most well-liked plays, even among older students. It’s a great story to talk about irony, plot, and moral, and it’s a great way to promote student engagement and fluency while teaching to the Common Core standards. It includes parts for eight actors, and is best-suited for grades 4 through 8 as “Zoomer’s Theater,” radio drama/podcast, or short stage performance. It includes a comprehension quiz, embedded prompts, teacher notes, and answer keys. Like all my plays, the original purchaser is licensed to print a full class set every year for use in his or her classroom, and performance rights are included. You can preview and purchase it on my TpT storefront. Happy directing!

Zoom-Aloud Plays!

Like nearly all of us, I’ve had to adjust my teaching methods to suit the current circumstances. Initially, using reader’s theater seemed out-of-the-question, but as I’ve acclimated to all this remote instruction, I’ve discovered RT is more useful than ever.

Zoom has become something of a necessary evil: managing a bunch of lonely fifth graders online is worse than herding cats—it’s more like wrangling squirrels! Video “instruction” can quickly descend into a free-for-all of pets, bedhead, baby sisters, motion sickness, and worst of all, academic drudgery. Thank goodness for RT! Just like in the classroom, I’ve found that I can rope in all my squirrels with a good “Zoom Aloud Play,” and you can too! Here’s how:

1. Divide you class into small groups and assign each group a different play.

2. Post each play in Google Classroom or whatever secure environment you’re using (to protect copyright, make sure it isn’t accessible by the general public).

3. On Monday, have the kids read the play independently. I suggest casting parts based on your knowledge of their reading ability. Unlike the classroom where you can work one-on-one with a struggling reader, you’re unlikely to have either the access or the time.

4. On Tuesday or Wednesday, schedule a Zoom “play practice” with each of your groups. You can share your screen so that the script is viewable for those who don’t have hardcopies or who are unable to have two tabs open simultaneously. Have the kids continue to practice on their own as “homework reading.” (Homework, what a funny concept these days!)

5. Schedule a second Zoom session later in the week or the for week following. In this session the kids “perform” the play. You can even have them put together simple costumes. Be sure to record the session for play back on your webpage for parents and the rest of the class. If you’re using Zoom, you no doubt have already discovered the tan to do so.

In the regular classroom I usually take three weeks or longer to thoroughly prepare a play for a performance, so I’m learning to limit my expectations a bit. What’s important, though, is that my students are reading, my Zoom sessions are productive, and I’m back to happily directing!

For your first sessions, I suggest trying some light-hearted content such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk, or Rikki Tikki Tavi. We may have missed Opening Day, but my Jackie Robinson play is fun any time of year, as is my play about the first moon landing. These and many more great scripts are available on my TpT storefront—and almost all of them were originally published by Scholastic, so you know they meet the highest standards. So don’t let the shut-down slow you down. Get re-inspired with some “Zoomer’s Theater.”

Happy directing!

How to Use Super Sentences in Google Classroom

It’s easy to make the transition to remote instruction with Super Sentences. Here’s how:

Assign a specific time for your students to be online. While much of your home instruction may be independent work, the benefits of Super Sentences is the interactivity. The kids need to be online sharing their sample sentences and providing feedback to one another.

On Monday, introduce a new stream or thread in Google Classroom by typing the week’s given structure. For example, were I teaching structure #14, Command, I’d post this: “Commands give orders or directions, but they only require an exclamation point if they’re delivered in a commanding tone. For example, at the end of this lesson, your teacher may give you a command requiring only a period: Turn in your papers.”

In the same thread, type the sample sentence: “Take off your shower cap this instant or I’ll feed your liver and onions to the neighbor’s goat!”
Next, give the students three topics and invite them to post their own sentence. You’ll need to remind them to remain IN THE SAME THREAD. I’ve capitalized it because I’ve found students jumping threads is the death knell to online interactivity. This cannot be emphasized enough!
As students post their sentences, invite them also to comment on one another’s. I provide feedback by asking the class questions like “Can anyone help Chuck see what’s missing in his sentence?” Or, “Chuck is missing a key piece of punctuation. Can anyone spot it?” I also fire off compliments when I see a really great sentence such as, “Chuck’s sentence is awesome. Can anyone tell us why?” (Just added: here’s a screenshot of an actual thread with mu students; it ended up being about 80 comments long. Hopefully it’ll be legible enough to give you the gist of it.)

On Tuesday and Wednesday I repeat the same process, but I use one of the kids sentence as the example.

On Thursday, I have students post and submit their sentence on a Google Form. This is their weekly test. Have they learned the given structure? Were they able to write an error-free sentence? I grade these sentences and send each student feedback/corrections via Classroom.

Finally, on Friday I have my students post their corrected sentence on our class webpage. I create a post entitled “This Week’s Super Sentences.” Students post their sentences in the “comments” field.

Super Sentences was originally published by Scholastic. I’ve updated and made it available on my TpT storefront in various ala-carte volumes. Sentence structures range from simple sentences to things like “sentences containing a metaphor” and “sentences using commas in a series.” No, it’s not full blown essay writing (you’ll need Perfect Paragraphs for that), but it provides kids in grades 3 through 8 daily writing practice, leading them to develop that innate sense of sentence structure so important to reading and writing competence. It’s engaging because it uses their own writing as the lesson (as opposed to a traditional grammar text that offer stilted “Dick & Jane-type” sentences to correct). Give it a try. It’s inexpensive and come with reproduction rights (make sure you’re respecting copyright when posting online). Best of all, when this pandemic is over, you’ll have your complete PDF of Super Sentences to use no matter what the circumstances: in the regular classroom, in your computer lab, on Chromebooks, or remotely.

Take care, my friends!

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!