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. Click here to see the fantastic things the kids at the Baker Montessori School in Houston did with the script! It’s available on TpT and Etsy, and like all my plays, it includes performance rights. Be sure to also check out Box Brown’s Freedom Crate and Richard Wright & the Library Card. Happy directing!
Tag Archives: reading fluency
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.
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!
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!
Why You Need a Cardboard Box for Black History Month
If 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.
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!
New Plays and Product Updates
TeachersPayTeachers has grown immensely over the last decade. Back when I first started using it as a secondary market for my plays, products could be pretty simple. In fact, most were in black and white. These days there are a bazillion teacher-marketers selling product, so competition has become pretty fierce. Consequently, I’m constantly trying to update my Read Aloud Play packages and post new ones. Thanks to a couple of snow days here in southern Oregon, I was recently able to revamp several products. I’ve added comprehension activities, teacher notes, and answer keys to The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs’ fabulous masterpiece about three wishes, The Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wickedly wonderful “mad scientist” story, and Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey. These three plays are perfect for introducing middle-schoolers to the otherwise difficult original stories. Whether you use the play before or after, student engagement and comprehension skyrocket when you pair the original with a play. But they’re also engaging stories for fourth and fifth graders to read and act aloud. (What could be better than your 5th grade Cyclops eating a bunch of 4th grade Greeks?) All three of these plays originally appeared in Scholastic classroom magazines, so they’ve been “vetted” by Scholastic’s professional editors. Add to that the new comprehension activities and they’re a fantastic deal.
I’ve also updated The Secret Soldier, which has previously appeared in both Scope and Storyworks. It’s the true story of Deborah Samson, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Military. Samson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the militia near the end of the American Revolution, was twice seriously wounded, and even performed surgery on herself to avoid being found out. It’s a must-have for any Revolution unit study. Like the other updated plays, it now comes with the additional support material—as do my other plays from the era. Be sure to check out Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, Two Plays from the American Revolution, and my newest product, So You Want to Be President. This last one is another “Two for One” pack. It comes with two of my favorite plays from my 2003 Scholastic title, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, which is no longer in print. Both plays cover the history of the presidency and the character traits necessary to serve successfully. Given today’s political climate, they’re important additions to your history and reading curriculum, but they’re also a lot of fun to read and enact.
Finally, MLK Day and Black History Month are already upon us. If you haven’t yet read my earlier post about my Civil Rights and African-American history plays, be sure to scroll down and take a look.
The End of Standardized Testing?
We’ve been seeing it for the last year or so: the education pendulum on the verge of swinging. Standardized testing, Common Core standards, standards-based report cards (with all their annoying numbers), all being shown the door—or at least a dingy corner of the room. Enter, stage right, what I’m calling “purpose-driven instruction.” If you’re not familiar with it, check out this TED talk by education expert Sir Ken Robinson. He shows how the “factory model” of education created by the industrial revolution is outdated. The education documentary “Most Likely to Succeed,” which debuted not long ago at Sundance and is now in limited release, takes it a step further. It shows how “soft skills” such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and leadership need to be the focal point of instruction. Rather than having students memorize content (which is all readily available at our thumb-tips), we teach these soft skills through purpose-driven instruction.
Purpose-driven instruction involves having an end product. This end product determines the skills that need to be learned and provides the motivation to learn them. A person building a deck, for example, needs to know about the permit requirements, how to prepare the site, footings, measurement, using a chop saw, and a host of other things. Said person learns all this stuff, in a sense, “on the job,” while actually working on his or her deck. And because he or she is motivated to finish the project, said person is willing to learn the skills, even when it’s as uncomfortable as navigating the city’s building permit process. This person gains mastery through authentic application. (Sound like project-based learning, right? Sure, but keep reading.)
To teach those same skills independent of actually building a deck seems rather ludicrous, but it’s what we do in school all the time. For example, we typically teach calculus without any purpose other than that we might need to know it at some point in the future. No wonder kids ask, “Why do I need to know this?” And even when kids do “know it,” they usually don’t. The “Most Likely to Succeed” filmmakers demonstrate how even students who demonstrate assessed mastery forget pretty much everything within just a few months.
What’s all this got to do with Read Aloud Plays? Well, plays, by their nature, are purpose-driven. Simply by scheduling a performance and inviting an audience, a read aloud play becomes an authentic way to teach a host of “soft-skills.” Get this: in “Most Likely to Succeed,” a play performance is presented as the epitome of purpose-driven instruction and with amazing results (I can’t wait for you to see the documentary!). Plays are especially effective in that you can use them even with large classes (a fundamental symptom of our industrialized education approach). In any given month, I have my class of 34 split into three groups, each working on a play. Granted, these are rather simple performances. Sets are kept to a minimum, if at all, costuming is limited to just a few accessories to signify character (a parasol or a certain hat, for instance), and kids can carry their script in their hand if they want. But it remains that students must collaborate and cooperate, they must practice independently and as a team, and they must “finish” (the play must go on) regardless of broken legs, absenteeism, or fire bells. Students learn about subtle forms of communication such as inflection and innuendo, about body language and movement, all while happily developing their core reading skills. Instead of being forcibly required to read a text book, presumably to improve assessable fluency, they’re willingly—even eagerly—honing their fluency to present a successful performance. That’s a significant shift of the paradigm, as Robinson calls it.
With Read Aloud Plays, students can do more than just read and act, too. They can direct. They can build sets. They can write and adapt scripts. They can design and make costumes. They can create playbills. They can create tickets to the show. They can build online promos. They can create posters. They can film and post the video of the play online. They can serve as ushers. They can run a snack bar. They can write reviews. And, of special importance, they can self-evaluate and provide feedback. No letter grade, report card, or standardized test required.
Those of you who’ve been around for a couple decades have probably seen “purpose-driven instruction” under different names. And critical thinking skills certainly aren’t new to the education community. But whether you’re a proponent of project-based learning, student-led conferences, or reader’s theater who has had to fly under the radar of the standardized data miners, Read Aloud Plays are for you. Whether you’re someone looking to try something other than the text book, or someone who remains committed to teaching to the Common Core, Read Aloud Plays are for you. They’re a fantastic purpose-driven way to teach to the reading standards while simultaneously developing those essential “soft skills.”
Click on the Read Aloud Plays tab for access to a wide-variety of plays with focused content. You’ll find great classroom plays about explorers, the Revolution, Civil Rights, and more, or visit my store at TeachersPayTeachers. And if you haven’t yet seen “Most Likely to Succeed,” look for a screening near you.
What’s Hindering Your Low Readers?
Perhaps many of you have figured this stuff out long ago. Me, after nearly 25 years of teaching, I recently had a couple of instructional epiphanies.
The first one was when one of my 5th graders showed me a picture of her mother. “This was at the visitation center,” she said. “The only time I get to see my mom is when we go to the visitation center.” A day later we were on our way to the local science museum when another student pointed out the window and piped up, “I think that’s the safe house we stayed at one time.” Later that same day my admin handed me my latest set of Oral Reading Fluency scores showing both of those students near the bottom. As I looked over the rest of the data, I suddenly realized all my lowest performing students are victims of childhood trauma: violence, tempestuous divorce, drugs, homelessness… Then, taking a look at my top performers, I realized nearly all are from healthy, financial stable, intact families. Thinking back over years of high and low test scores, the correlation is obvious. Early-childhood trauma and neglect may be the most significant factor contributing to academic failure. Politicians who ignore it are insincere in their efforts to “improve schools.”
If you’re like me, you’re constantly wrestling with how to help these kids. What works? We’re not going to undo the trauma or erase their memories. When it comes to reading, however, I’ve landed on three things that appear to hook them, three things that seem to motivate even these reluctant readers to put some “miles on the tongue.”
The first, naturally, is Read Aloud Plays. I write and promote read aloud plays not merely because I want to sell you a script, but because they’re exceptionally effective. I don’t need to belabor the point here. If you want to know more about reader’s theater, including the brain research that supports it, check out my free download entitled, “Why Use Drama?”
Roald Dahl books are also compelling for this group of kids, though admittedly this may be as much about my own enthusiasm for Matilda and The Witches as it is the books themselves. I have so much fun reading aloud sections of Boy or having small groups read Fantastic Mr. Fox, even my most reluctant readers catch the Dahl bug.
But the best thing I’ve discovered lately is the I Survived series. These books are written by my editor at Storyworks, Lauren Tarshis, so it surprises me that it’s taken me so long to start using them in class. This year, having finally amassed enough copies, I was able to assign all my students the task of reading one during silent reading sessions. Yeah, I know: SSR is often a waste of time; many students—especially the struggling ones—only pretend to read. Consequently, I use an approach I call “Directed Silent Reading.” It works with any age-appropriate books, but because these I Survived books have consistent themes, high-interest plots, and conquerable reading levels, they’re particularly fruitful. So much so that even my lowest performing students are begging for more.
I begin by telling my students they’re only going to read for a minute. At the end of the minute, I ask the kids to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about something they found interesting from their minute (or two) of reading. After they’ve had a couple minutes to share, I then ask for three or four volunteers to share out with the class. As the students hear their classmates tell about Hurricane Katrina or Pearl Harbor, the enthusiasm becomes contagious. We repeat the process, this time for three or four minutes of reading, and then again for eight to ten more. You can vary the questioning, too. “Be prepared to tell us something you know about your main character,” or “Provide some details about the story’s setting” are other “go to” questions. By the end of the session, all my kiddos have read for 20 minutes, discussed what they’ve read, and have invested enough in the story that they’ve committed to it. You don’t get such enthusiasm or commitment from homework reading, traditional SSR, or even oral reading, especially not from struggling readers.
There are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming the childhood trauma suffered by our lowest-performing students. But by using plays, Roald Dahl books, the I Survived series, and Directed Silent Reading, perhaps we can help them create a survival story of their own.
A Good Time to Say Thanks.
This week I just want to say THANK YOU to all you FANTASTIC teachers who have used Read Aloud Plays in class. I hope they’ve brought you and your students a ton of enjoyment and value. Thank you also for all your positive comments. With 38 fifth graders demanding my attention every day, I simply don’t have enough time to respond to many of them, but here are a few recent ones I think are especially fruitful.
Your plays are wonderful and they make the original texts more approachable to my students! Thank you! ~ Laura M. (regarding The Monkey’s Paw gothic masterpiece)
I think we can all relate to the challenges of reading a piece of Victorian literature. Why subject yourself to the yawns of middle school readers when you can first wake them up with a read aloud play?
I added songs in between each of the scenes and used this for our Black History Month performance! The children enjoyed it, and learned a lot in the process. Thank you! ~ Linsey P. (Jackie Robinson black history play)
Two of my plays—“We Shall Overcome” and “Gonna Let in Shine”—have the songs built in to the play, but several others are easily adapted. Black History Month is just around the corner, so take Lindsey’s advice and consider staging a Civil Rights musical.
I like how it’s short and to the point. After reading the novel, the 6th grade wants to make a movie and we’re using that script. Thanks! ~ Barbara Ann M. (Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol play)
Thank you! Because the majority of my plays were first published in classroom magazines including Scope and Storyworks, they’re specifically designed to be short and to the point. My goal is to capture the essence of the original story while limiting the play to about fifteen minutes in length. Still, I encourage teachers and students to edit and adapt. A few years ago my 5th graders also used this script to make a movie, but they added several short scenes, modernized the setting, and changed several lines to suit what they wanted to portray. I consider that 16 minute movie (which can be viewed here, if you’re interested) as one of the highlights of my career.
Lewis never disappoints. This will be terrific as part of my Spooktober unit for theater class. ~ Lu J. (Hawthorne’s The Birthmark Gothic Reader’s Theater)
What a wonderful compliment! Thank you. And I love the idea of a Spooktober theater event. I’m going to try that next year!
Great resource and student engaging. You can practice RT daily to work on fluency and comprehension. Thank you! ~ Heather W. (Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl: Sacagawea play )
Fluency practice is really the academic justification for reader’s theater, isn’t it? But I think the foundation is that most kids love it. Simply put, Read Aloud Plays make school fun. Admittedly, my plays are geared to intermediate and lower middle school, but when you can find good material, even jaded upper middle school and high school kids enjoy RT.
Excellent play. This tied in perfectly with my Civil Rights unit. ~ Dayan S. (Montgomery Bus Boycott MLK “Twice Toward Justice” Play)
Thank you. I’m particularly proud of my civil rights plays. My editors at Storyworks recently asked me to work on a new one for this spring. To create a consistent “feel,” I re-read some of the old ones. I think the “Twice Toward Justice” play is indeed powerful, but I also rediscovered what I think is a real gem in the play entitled “MLK’s Freedom March.” I highly recommend it.
Next month, I’ll be releasing on TpT my very first Civil Rights play. “I Have a Dream: the Childhood of Martin Luther King, Jr” first appeared in Storyworks sixteen years ago. How fortunate I am that my editors liked it so much. They’ve been feeding me much-loved Black History assignments ever since.
Our high school graciously offered to perform this for my middle school class. To prepare in a jiffy, we did this reader’s theater and the kids loved it – especially the ghost noises. Turns out the HS play was very ‘stylized’ and there is NO WAY my kids would have known what was happening if they hadn’t had this resource as a basis to get the underlying plot. This was absolutely perfect. Many thanks. ~ Michelle C. (Ebenezer Scrooge: A Christmas Carol play)
I love this. Haven’t we all at some point shared a story, taken our students to a performance, or watched a movie that was beyond the developmental level of our students? How nice it is to have a Read Aloud Play to introduce kids to the story or historical event before hitting them with the original text or text book account.
Thanks again, and cheers to a new year of Read Aloud Plays! I have a lot of great items planned for 2016, so stay with me, won’t you?