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!

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!

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!

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!

How to Create that Interactive Vibe

I’ve heard many teachers lament that this online instruction deal isn’t what they signed-up for, yet here we are. What we miss most is that teacher-to-student interaction. That being the case, allow me to review a couple interactive activities that worked well in the spring.

“Zoom-Aloud” Plays

The Legend of Sleepy HollowThere’s still a place for reader’s theater in your remote instruction. During the spring, I had a lot of fun interacting with my kids using “Zoomer’s Theater.” I assigned parts to each of my “active” students, had them practice independently, and then met regularly via Zoom for rehearsals. The goal of each play was to eventually record them as “performances.” Granted, absenteeism and broadband speed caused glitches that required some patience, but in the end, I found I got a lot of favorable mileage out of each play. Not only did students tend to be more engaged than with regular reading assignments, they were usually willing to read and re-read their play repetitively, which not only improved their fluency, but filled hours of instruction time. Plus, unlike regular reading assignments, when I was done I had a sharable product: a performance that could be posted on my webpage or sent to parents.

This fall, I plan on keeping my expectations low for the first set of plays, but I think once my students see how they work and how much fun they are, the second set should be dynamite. I also think I’ll try having kids show up to their final Zoom session in costume, too. That should be a hoot! Note: it doesn’t matter whether you’re using Zoom or some other meeting platform. The only requirement is that you have some way to record and share your final session, even if just the audio.

I want to encourage you to give it a try, too. In grades 3 through 6 or maybe 7, start out with something simple. My Peter Rabbit play, Argument at Mount Rushmore, and Two Plays from the American Revolution are ideal. For October, try something more elaborate, such as any of my “Halloween plays” including my newest posting, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Pair it with The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, or The Tell-Tale Heart.

Almost all my plays were previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Storyworks and Scope, so you know they meet the highest standards. Most also come with Common Core-based comprehension activities that have been digitized for online instruction.

Super Sentences

Super Sentences & Perfect ParagraphsPerhaps the most productive and rewarding element of my instruction in the spring was my Super Sentences program. It’s a straight-forward way to teach and practice writing on a daily basis, it doesn’t overwhelm kids, it’s fun, and it’s well-suited to Google Classroom. By the end of the spring, my students were spending 45 minutes in a live Classroom stream nearly every day, and each of these sessions produced more than 300 back and forth comments–student-to-student feedback about writing. To get the details, check out this post from last spring, then take a look at Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs on my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Happy directing (and interacting)!

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!