Greatness Isn’t Born

I don’t usually do reviews, but I just finished an awesome book called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (2009, Bantam). Greatness isn’t born, argues the author. It’s grown. Think about that for a minute and then apply it to your classroom.

Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown.

There are no “naturally gifted” kids. Your students didn’t inherit their spelling/math/reading deficiencies from a parent. In fact, Coyle shows that IQ and physical attributes are largely irrelevant.

And he proves it using brain science.

Now, I’ve written about neuroscience before. Brain research by Lev Vygtsky and other experts is the basis for using reader’s theater to build fluency. The repetitive, “slow reading” nature of practicing a play builds the neural pathways that make mastery possible. Coyle, though, takes it further, citing more contemporary research. I’m stoked because Coyle’s work not only justifies using reader’s theater, it also affirms the effectiveness of my Super Sentences writing program, which relies on targeted, mistake-focused practice. And Perfect Paragraphs, which has to do with being imitative. And my Fact Car Rally program, too!

The book is chock full of concepts important to learning. It explains why special education kids are often mistakenly perceived as having short-term memory disabilities. It reveals what’s behind vacation “brain drain,” and how speed-focused oral reading fluency leads to mediocrity, and why stuff like Harry Potter and Twilight can ignite an entire generation of writers.

It also honors great teachers. What we do can’t be delivered by an online platform, nor scripted in a textbook!

So, I encourage you to grab a copy of The Talent Code off Ebay. (A copy used is less than $10 and you’ll be able to write notes in it!) Despite being all about neurons, synapsis and myelin, it’s an engaging read. (It’s kind of gone viral within my school setting.) Plus, it’ll have a huge impact on your teaching.

And while we’re on the subject, consider building some slow-reading, mistake-focused readers with some deep practice using my read aloud play scripts! For Women’s History Month you might want to try Girl. Fighter. Hero! about “the female Paul Revere,” or The Secret Solider, which tells the story of Deborah Samson, America’s first female soldier. You could also try my original play about Sacagawea, or my story from the Montgomery Bus Boycott about Claudette Colvin.   

Happy directing!   

Promoting the Work and Words of Dr. King

At the height of Covid restrictions, the Palace Youth Theatre in New York state crafted this wonderful pairing of my Ruby Bridges script and my play about Martin Luther King’s childhood. With MLK Day just a few weeks away, and Black History Month right behind it, consider sharing these professionally-produced performances with your students. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to try a few of my other critically-acclaimed plays promoting the work and words of Dr. King and other crusaders. They’re available on my TeachersPayTeachers and Etsy storefronts. Happy directing!

War Stories

Kasserine Pass, Feb. 1943 (PD McGary)

Both my parents served in the military. My mom had a short stint as a WAC in DC before landing in the secretarial pool at the White House. She eventually had a temporary assignment working for Matthew Connelly, Harry Truman’s executive secretary. She used to tell a story about sneaking down a long corridor in hopes of seeing the presidential swimming pool before being caught by a guard and sent back to her post. Despite her brush with security, she was eventually offered a permanent position but, regretfully I suspect, turned it down because the bus commute from her quarters in Virginia was too long.  Those, she would later tell me, were the best years of her life.

My dad, meanwhile, served in both World War II and Korea. I’m told his experiences were vast and extreme, that he piloted a plane, that he commanded a POW camp, that he was at the disastrously fierce Battle of Kasserine Pass. But he himself never spoke of any of it. Not a word. For him it was far too painful—as it is for many veterans. 

It was with them in mind that I crafted “War Stories” for Scholastic several years ago.  It speaks to the pain of war, the sacrifice of those who’ve served, and the meaning of Veterans’ Day. I encourage you to share it with your students in grades four and up prior to the holiday on November 11.

Happy directing.    

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!

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.

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!