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!

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!