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!

Rikki Tikki Tavi

Rikki-tikki-tavi coverOriginally published by Scholastic, here’s another of my classroom plays getting new life on TeachersPayTeachers! Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Rudyard Kipling’s classic short story from The Jungle Books, tells the story of a courageous mongoose who must protect an English family living in India from vengeful cobras. The product includes my original play script, a comprehension quiz, teacher notes and key, plus the original text broken into sections corresponding with the scenes from the play. It makes for some excellent compare & contrast! Aimed at grades three through seven, there are parts for eleven students. It’s great for reader’s theater, a classroom play, or full stage production, and it’s makes a great pairing with my other Kipling play, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk. Plus, it’s aligned to a host of Common Core standards. Happy directing!

There’s Still Time for Some Halloween Monstrosities!

Cyclops Scope cover Scope Monkey's Paw cover The Birthmark scope cover page

It’s not too late to stage a Halloween drama fest. Here are half-a-dozen plays that will allow your students to dress in costume while still doing something academically valid. And if Thursday’s festivities are too packed or to near, there’s nothing wrong with staging these monstrosities on that awkward, sleepy, problematic day-after.

Click here for Halloween Madness!

Penelope coverString coverNathaniel Hawthorne’s short stoy classic, The Birth-mark, tells the story of a mad scientist who, in his quest to make his already beautiful bride “perfect,” kills her instead. The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs’ classic Gothic tale about getting three wishes. The disturbing result will stay with your students long after Halloween has passed. The well-known Legend of Sleepy Hollow is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (you can purchase and download it instantly at Scholastic Teacher Express). Pair it with YouTube segments from the original Disney flick. My newly re-released version of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart can be paired with my modernized version, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. (At least one of my reader’s has commented that it’s “too strange,” which I think makes for great Halloween fun.) Finally, A Piece of String has a ghostly conclusion and Cyclops has a ferocious monster. All of these plays were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Scope and Storyworks from which some of the above coveres originate), so you know they’re up to snuff, and they all come with reproduction and performance rights.

Ready to give it a try but unsure how to start? Download my free guide to teaching with plays. It’ll give you tips and ideas on how to use plays to make your language arts block the best section of the day. But get to it right away…those ghouls and goblins are already knocking at your door.

Happy Halloween and happy directing!

Just in Time for Halloween!

The Tell-Tale Heart Read Aloud PlayHaving recently reclaimed my publishing rights from Scholastic for a bank of my classic short story plays, I’m very pleased to offer Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to my readers. This script was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Storyworks, but it was so well-received that it was quickly reprinted in Scope magazine, then in Scholastic News, and then finally included in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. The play’s unique text formatting helps middle grade and early high school readers comprehend the unreliable narrator’s insanity, but what really sets this play apart is the clever way we’ve made it appropriate for the classroom. After all, Poe’s story is about murder. It’s violent. It makes administrators cringe. But teachers who’ve used this script like the way it remains true to the gruesome original despite only implying the gory details. The package also includes a comprehension worksheet, the original text (also formatted to make it more accessible to kids), and a mock trial activity in which “the villainous narrator” must stand before a jury of his peers. It’s a great way to make Poe’s work accessible to your students. Be sure also to contrast it to its partner play, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, which tells the same story but involves crimes against an annoying cell phone rather than an old man. My 5th graders love it when one play group presents the traditional version while a second group presents the cell phone version. Your students will too. Happy directing!

Pip & the Prisoner

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!When most people think about Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, they land on Miss Havisham and her creepy old mansion full of spider webs, or on the adult Pip’s aspirations for greatness, or on his unrequieted love for Estella. But what I like best about the novel are those chapters focusing on Pip as a child. Maybe it has something to do with why I’m an elementary school teacher, or maybe it’s because there’s something Roald Dahl-like about Pip (no doubt Dahl was heavily inspired by Dickens), or maybe it’s just the marvelous way Dickens penned young Pip’s encounter with the escaped convict (How terrifying for a little kid—and an orphan, too—to encounter such a “wretched varmint,” and in a graveyard yet!). Whatever the case, I’ve long wanted to craft a play focusing on those early chapters of Great Expectations and am very pleased to introduce it here.

“Pip & The Prisoner” is an original script based on the first five chapters of the Dickens’ masterpiece. The script endeavors to introduce the main character, Pip, in such a way as to motivate students to want to read the full novel (presumably when assigned to them in high school), but whether Great Expectations is in one’s curriculum or not, I think you’ll find “Pip & the Prisoner” to be a lovely stand-alone bit of literature. It’s aimed at 6th through 8th graders, but could potentially be used with students in other grades (I intend to use it with my 5th graders). The story is full of irony, anxiety, and engaging dialect as Dickens successfully captures Pip’s innocence and fears while weaving in marvelously subtle humor. The play seeks to capitalize on that humor.

Great Expectations, incidentally, was published in 1860 in Dickens’ own weekly periodical, All Year Round. Because it was published serially—or one exciting section at a time—it reminds many readers of a modern soap opera, or perhaps a binge-worthy television series with a ton of twists, turns, and suspenseful cliffhangers.

The 20-minute play includes parts for ten students and numerous non-speaking “soldiers.” It was written with the stage in mind, but it can also be presented as reader’s theater or a pod-casted radio drama. The script comes with embedded discussion prompts, a standards-based comprehension and essay writing activity, teacher’s notes, answer key, and a printable of the novel’s first five chapters for easy comparing and contrasting.

Consider pairing with my other Dickens’ plays including “Gabriel Grub” and “A Christmas Carol.” Though it isn’t indicated in the play, the story take place on Christmas Eve, so all three plays could be presented as a holiday event.

Happy directing!

How to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing

Apollo Extension Systems Lunar Base conceptI was seven years old when the Apollo 11 mission blasted off for the moon in mid-July of 1969. I remember it well. My little sister and I spent much of July playing with a litter of puppies, though I can’t recall now if these belonged to my black lab Cookie or the family’s boxer, Peaches (we had a lot of dogs back then). But even those puppies couldn’t peel us away from Walter Cronkite’s non-stop newscast.

Here we are fifty years later. Space travel has become rather commonplace. Consider that the TV networks used to broadcast every launch, how we used to sit breathless watching the capsules plunge into the sea or the space shuttles touch down. These days we hardly glance up at the heavens, let alone note the passing of the International Space Station. Few of us can name even a single astronaut. Skylab has fallen, we’ve suffered human casualties, and exploration has been turned over to private enterprise.

Yet the moon remains as captivating as ever.

My reader’s theater play about the Apollo Moon Landing is based on my own childhood perspective from my backyard and living room on Beall Lane in southern Oregon. It accurately recounts the historic details of the event, details I wasn’t aware of then but make for some compelling drama now. Just as he did on television all those years ago, the famous newsman Walter Cronkite narrates the mission while astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins communicate with Control in Houston.

Fly Me to the Moon
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I plan on making Apollo part of my lineup of plays this fall. It’s not only a great history lesson, it’s a “blast” to enact. The last time I used it, my students and I created a 1960’s television set out of a cardboard box, cut out the oval-ish screen, and made some “rabbit ears” for the top. The kiddo playing Cronkite sat inside to deliver lines such as “The date is now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as man survives. And that’s the way it is, July 20, 1969, the day man reached and walked on the moon. This is Walter Cronkite signing off.” My goal for this year is to create some funky space suits for Armstrong’s first step and Aldrin’s giant leap (off an aluminum ladder on to the stage).

Now imagine your students walking on the moon! Imagine them re-enacting the “Eagle has landed“ and “One small step” scenes while reciting the exact words spoken by Mission Control, Walter Cronkite, and the astronauts themselves. Imagine watching them explore the moon as if for the first time. What a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing!

You can check out my play and its related comprehension material, along with a wide array of other great Read Aloud Plays, at TeachersPayTeachers.

We Are Taxi Drivers

America’s Power Companies’ advertisement from 1956 depicting a future with autonomous cars.Ever notice how determined Uber and Lyft are to develop autonomous cars? After replacing taxi drivers with contract laborers (many of whom are now on strike), their next goal seems to be that of replacing the drivers with robots. Ridesharing execs have always made it seem like their app-based service was a win-win for everybody, but others suggest it’s destined to make a ton of extra cash for CEOs and stockholders at the expense of tens of thousands of unemployed people.

Could the same thing happen in education? It seems to me, teachers around the country are facilitating their own demise by turning their teaching over to online platforms. Students come to school and plug into programs such as Moby Max, Summit Learning, and Zearn while the teachers stare out the window or play Solitare. People are starting to wonder if someone will eventually point at those teachers and say, “What are we paying them for?” and then suggest replacing them with low-wage, unlicensed proctors.

Might the schools themselves be the next to go? One must assume the companies offering the online programs are collecting data—including contact information—and could eventually use that info to “cut out the middleman”—that is, the school itself. After all, why send your kid to an unsafe place like a school campus when they can “Zearn” in their own home?

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseThe digital age promised to revolutionize education, but these days, some are beginning to wonder if the revolution hasn’t gone too far. Could teachers be merely taxi drivers in the Uber era?

While there are certainly many programs beneficial to instruction, perhaps teachers should be asking if the system to which they’re subscribing isn’t after their job. Summit, Zearn, and Moby Max may, in fact, be quite useful, but teachers need to continue to provide the one commodity “autonomous teachers” cannot: themselves. When it comes to education, a robot cannot match the passion great teachers bring to the profession. Accelerated Reader isn’t going to be able to convey your enthusiasm for a great piece of literature. IXL won’t convince little Johnny the multiplication tables are a stepping stone to veterinary school. Nor is Summit going to get your whole class talking in a Russian accent for a stage performance of Gogol’s “The Nose.” That’s where you come in.

So enough with all this screen time. Let’s grab some good books, a Read Aloud Play (such as my Peter Rabbit adaption–a fun one to conclude the year), or something new from TpT and do what teachers do best.

Happy directing!

“Musifying” Your Next Play

I have a theory about Walt Disney. Disney, of course, is known for animation. Way back in 1928—almost a century ago—Disney released Steamboat Willie to world-wide acclaim. Disney, though, wasn’t the first to produce an animated cartoon. What set Steamboat Willie apart and turned Disney into the $100 billion company it is today, wasn’t the animation.

It was the music.

Steamboat Willie and all of Disney’s subsequent productions included musical scores. Disney knew early on that something magical happens when you add music to a project.

That’s certainly true with classroom plays. Plays are wonderful vehicles for teaching reading and engaging reluctant readers, but when you add music, they become something altogether extraordinary. It’s no wonder the musicals I’ve directed are among the highlights of my career.

Needing a class-wide collaborative project to present at my school’s “Exhibition Night,” I recently embarked on the task of “musifying” my Newsies play script. Why so, you might ask, when Disney has a perfectly good Newsies musical of its own? First of all, Broadway musical scores (and Disney scripts) require costly performance licenses, which I can’t afford. Secondly, Disney’s script is way too complex for my fifth graders. And thirdly, like many (if not most) commercial movie projects, it isn’t as historically accurate as I would like it to be. The newsboy strike of 1899, and all the child labor issues surrounding it, is already quite fascinating. One needs only to Google the images—shoe shine boys dressed in rags, child coal miners covered in soot, newsboys sleeping in alleys—to be completely drawn in to the era. So why change the facts? Why dramatize something that’s already colorful and dramatic?

Newsies Against the World Mini MusicalUnfortunately, my class returned from Christmas break surly and unmotivated. If it didn’t involve an emoji, YouTube, or Fortnite, they simply weren’t interested. Memorize a play script? You must be kidding.

But then I introduced the music: Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling,” Guy Lombardo’s version of “The Sidewalks of New York,” and most fun of all, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” It didn’t matter that these were ancient tunes originally recorded on 78 rpm vinyl. It didn’t matter that the tracks crackle as if being played on a hand-cranked gramophone. Just like Disney has taught us, the music had turned our ordinary class play into something enchanting.

Plays are tremendously rewarding and often hysterically unpredictable—and there are certainly a ton of awesome ones on ReadAloudPlays.com. But if you want to take it up a notch, if you want to experience that Disney-esque magic, try “musifying” a play. I’ve already done a lot of the work for you by creating my Newsies Against the World mini musical. It tells the story of Aniela Kozlowski, an eleven year-old Polish immigrant who must take to the streets to sell “papes” during the 1899 newsboy strike. Though dramatically different than the Disney Newsies show, it’s historically accurate and includes “sing-along” period music from the early 20th-century, all of which is available for free (non-commercial) download from archive.org. (Hint: visit my classroom webpage, The Daily Platypus, and check out my edited versions.) The script includes production notes, is prints in booklet form, and comes with performance rights for public schools.

Happy directing!

Sub Planning 101

Nine Ways to Prep for a Sub1. Don’t! Ignore that cough. Cancel that meeting. Show up to class with a box of Kleenex and a bottle of DayQuil.

2. Don’t. Let the sub fend for him- or herself.

3. Don’t. Put a kid in charge instead. Your students can tell the sub where to find all the “worksheets,” the tempera paints, the science chemicals….

4. Stay up late. Use the night before to get all those sub notes written out. Why not? You’re gonna sleep all day tomorrow, right?

5. Go in early. You’ll probably already be up vomiting at 4 a.m. anyway.

6. Give ‘e more screen time. Leave a collection of Disney movies and Bill Nye videos on your desk.

7. Copy. Leave the same sub plans your neighboring teacher used last week and hope the sub can adjust.

8. Hope for a snow day.

9. Or, download EZSubPlans. It’s the easiest and most professional way to prepare for a sub. We all know preparing for a sub is tedious and time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. Just click, print, and relax! Rather than staying up late, showing up sick, or throwing your sub under the bus, give our emergency lesson plans a try. Because they provide your students with quality, standards-based lessons that don’t interfere with your regular instruction, EZSubPlans represent good practice. And they’re just a click away. Download your EZSubPlans today so you’re prepared tomorrow!

Whether a classroom teacher, substitute, or administrator, EZSubPlans will provide you with inexpensive, kid-tested plans at the touch of a button. Each EZSubPlans package includes at least seven hours of grade-specific lessons designed to make your next absence easy and worry-free. Classroom teachers wanting to avoid the frustrating and time-consuming process of preparing for an absence and substitute teachers needing back-up material will find everything they need with EZSubPlans. Days are labeled by grade level, but each can be easily adapted to suit one grade level up or down. A fifth grade teacher, for example, could use the lesson plans for grades 4, 5, and 6–that’s six days in all. Each set includes a reading text and comprehension exercise, a spiraling math activity with extensions, a grammar lesson, an art project, a writing task, and even opening and closing activities.Teachers need only to download and print–the sub does everything else.

Click here for more information about EZSubPlans or click here to preview or purchase at TeachersPayTeachers. How much is a stress-free sub day worth? Who can say? How much does a stress-free sub day cost? Just $5 a day with EZSubPlans.

10 Compelling Paired Texts for Black History Month

Here are ten great paired texts with which to recognize black history month 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!