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!

Why You Need a Cardboard Box for Black History Month

Box Brown's Freedom Crate graphicIf you’ve never heard one of your students attempt a southern drawl you must give Box Brown’s Freedom Crate a whirl during Black History Month. Ever since I wrote it for Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine back 1999, Box Brown has always been a favorite among my students. Consequently my class learns and performs it almost every year. Even if you’re teaching in the Southern U.S.—where the dialect might not be so unique—there remain many compelling reasons to teach with this play.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is based on The Autobiography of Henry “Box” Brown. Henry was the slave who mailed himself to the North inside a wooden crate and lived—just barely—to tell the world about it. Why do kids like this play so much? The large cardboard box we use as the main prop is one reason It’s painted to look like an old-fashioned shipping crate and is just big enough for a moderately-sized fifth grader to climb inside. The student playing Henry disappears within it during Scene 4 and then discreetly exits while the curtains are closed. From there he appears to get battered as the box is tossed from wagon to train to steamer until it finally gets cracked open at the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Henry then rises from his coffin only to quickly swoon away from exhaustion and dehydration. This is of course a dramatic moment in Henry’s true story, and one kids don’t soon forget.

There are also sound academic reasons to enact plays such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate. For example, because kids are willing to read and reread their lines over and over again, Read Aloud Plays build reading fluency. The brain science behind this repetition suggests it actually forms the neural pathways that make reading possible. Read Aloud Plays are easily leveled and they provide the exposure to drama the new Common Core Standards demand. They also allow students to experience history “first hand,” which helps them to relate to people like Henry, to understand some of the heartache and suffering Henry might have felt. …Plus there’s still that whole southern accent thing.

Visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers to download a free preview of Box Brown or one of my other Black History plays about such important events and people as Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, and the Day of Jubilee. I’ve used every one in my own classroom, and because most have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, you can rest-assured they’re of the highest quality.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is suitable for 4th-8th graders and includes parts for from ten to twenty students depending on your needs. Hear Box Brown being performed by students by clicking on the “podcasts” tab, and to get the most out of your reader’s theater, be sure to download my free article entitled “Why Use Drama?” Happy directing!

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!