Build better Readers, Writers, and Math Masters from Day One

My Fact Car Rally program is overdue for an update, but that doesn’t mean you can’t snag a copy right now and use it to lead your elementary students toward mastery of the math facts. When the update comes out, you’ll have full access to the revision. Did I say that kids love Fact Car Rally? They do! Much more so than competing programs—and it’s more effective, too! Follow the simple directions to create your racetrack during pre-service week, and then give your kids some low-key time during Week One to create their “fact cars.” By the second week, your students will be well on their way to true mastery of the facts–the foundation of all things math. Preview or purchase FCR here, and be sure to check out the tutorial video here.

In addition to building math masters, build better writers in grades 3 through 7 with my Super Sentences and Perfect Paragraphs program. It’s a teacher-friendly, student-friendly, daily writing method—the only thing you’ll need all year. No complicated teacher editions to wade through. No workshops to attend. It’s practically plug and play! Check out both the full version, the various ala-carte pieces, and the tutorial videos.

If you’ve never read my shtick about repetitive reading and how read aloud plays build beautiful readers, check it out here, and then snag some fun plays plays to start the year.  Peter Rabbit, Nature Talks Back, and my latest, a “slightly twisted” version of The Pied Piper (see previous post) are all fantastic icebreakers. They’re all available on my TpT storefront.

While you’re there, don’t forget that Halloween is just around the corner, so grab copies of The Monkey’s Paw, Tell-Tale Heart, the Birth-mark, or the Mad Scientist’s Daughter for your Gothic RT!

Happy directing!

The Anatomy of a Play

Like most of you, summer furlough is upon me, which for me means some time to find my mojo on a variety of writing projects. Having just finished a new Read Aloud Play based on the legend of The Pied Piper, I’m reflective about how much work went into it. Allow me to explain.

You might think it easy to churn out these plays, but writing can be quite laborious. Take my friend and Storyworks editor Lauren Tarshis, author of the I Survived series. She tells me how hard it often is to sit down and produce another disaster story. Play writing is no different. It’s serious work, especially since we’re both determined to tell a great story.

In the case of The Pied Piper, my first inclination was to tell the traditional folktale, but I learned something while watching episodes of the The Regular Show with my granddaughter: kids like silliness. The main characters on The Regular Show, which you’ll find on Disney+, include a talking, walking gumball machine, a raccoon, a bluejay, and what I think might by a cloud. They’re all a bunch of nitwit employees of “The Park.” Yes, the plain ol’ park. Much to my astonishment, it’s a great show with strong lessons.

Well, I’m at my best when I get a bit silly, when I think like an elementary kid. So after watching a few episodes (a bit of Jeff Goldblum didn’t hurt, either), I was able to craft a semi-twisted kind of absurd version of The Piper. The traditional story is still there, but there’s just enough silliness to make it extra fun for kids—and easier for me to write. After a couple days of germination, the story sprouted in just two days of writing. Compare that to my more hardcore titles, many of which took weeks of serious slogging.

The writing, though, is only a small portion of the task. Editing takes a few days. I’m guessing I’ve read through a script twenty to thirty times before I share it with you. I also force my poor wife or friends to give it a read, and during the school year, I test run it with my students. (That’ll still happen, by the way, and no doubt I’ll make a few corrections and adjustments afterwards, but it’ll have to wait until September. Should you decide to snag a copy of the script before then, you’ll be notified and provided with a revised copy.)

Meanwhile, I’m pulling images from different sources, verifying copyright and public domain status, building the cover and title banner on Illustrator, and double checking my research. Next begins the formatting. When I’m writing for Scholastic, I don’t need to worry about any of that, but when I’m packaging up a project for ReadAloudPlays.com, developing a pleasing format suitable for kids is really time consuming. It can also be frustrating when images, textboxes, and footers migrate from where I stick ‘em to some random spot three pages away!

There’s also the process of developing comprehension activities. I always try to include a bubble quiz because I think teachers like to be able to give a quick assessment just to keep kids accountable and to have something for the grade book (I’m not a proponent of grading the play performance itself—but that’s a topic for a different day).  I also try to include other activities when I can. In the case of the Piper, I spent a couple days creating a good bubble quiz and a nifty paired text reading activity. They don’t require any real prep for the classroom teacher, and they’re straight-forward enough for kids to figure out without much direction, but they represent quite a bit of labor on my part.

Even after all that’s done, there’s still the task of putting together the information pages and teacher notes, of combining them into a single PDF, of double checking the PDF for weirdness (like migrating images), and of creating a preview file. I just finished accomplishing all that…yet I’m still not done. There remains the process posting the product on TpT, Etsy and ReadAloudPlays.com (All those log-ins! All those Captchas!), and of promoting the darned thing with a nice little blog post like this one.

I hope you like it!  With any luck, there’ll be more to come.

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!

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)!