“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!

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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!

The Face of Hate–Why We Need to Teach Black History

One of the things I find fascinating—and disturbing—about photos from the Civil Rights era are the faces in the crowd. Consider this picture of a mob beating Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961. Here are the faces of regular Americans—our neighbors, friends, sons, and grandpas—all caught on the wrong side of history, leaving a legacy of ugliness.

Sadly, an incident this past week in Washington D.C. shows things haven’t changed much. History’s lens caught private school students from Kentucky apparently harassing Native American Nathan Phillips. “The looks in these young men’s faces,” said Phillips, “I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America)…and you’d see the faces on the people…the glee and the hatred in their faces. That’s what these faces looked like.”

Two pictures of the same thing, sixty years apart: faces in the crowd caught on the wrong side of history. It shows we have a lot more work to do.

Character, kindness, justice, and tolerance should be taught year-roundnot just during Black History Monthbut here are a number of great reader’s theater scripts and classroom plays to make February especially meaningful. When combined with your excellent teaching, perhaps more of our students will be caught on the right side of history, leaving behind a legacy of courage and kindness.

The Ruby Bridges Storythe integration of New Orleans Public School
The Girl Who Got ArrestedClaudette Colvin and the Montgomery Campaign
Freedom for the First Timethe Day of Jubilee—the end of the Civil War
How Jackie Changed the WorldJackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues
The Library Cardauthor Richard Wright’s efforts to become literate
Gonna Let it ShineSheyann Webb’s participation in the Selma to Montgomery March
We Shall Overcomethe Birmingham Children’s Crusade
Martin’s Big Dreamhow an incident from MLK’s childhood inspired him
MLK’s Freedom Marchthe March on Washington in which MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech
In the Jailhouse with Dr. Kinga unique perspective on the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Sitting Down for Dr. Kingthe 1963 lunch counter sit-ins
Box Brown’s Freedom CrateHenry Brown’s escape from slavery

All these plays are available on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. They typically come with comprehension activities developed around the CCSs, and they include reproduction and performance rights. Not sure where to begin? Try downloading my free MLK Preview Pack.

Happy directing!

New Play for MLK Day

Click to Preview or Purchase at TpT!Celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy and teach his core values with any of a number of plays available on my storefront at TpT. “Martin’s Big Dream,” which is about MLK’s childhood, is one of the most highly-regarded plays ever to appear in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. “In the Jailhouse” offers a unique perspective on the events in Montgomery, “Gonna Let it Shine” covers the Selma march, and “We Shall Overcome”—my most popular civil rights play—depicts the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. But allow me to add a new one to the fold. Though not specifically about MLK, “A Simple Act of Courage” will give your students unique insights into everything Dr. King stood for.

Through My Eyes by Ruby BridgesRuby Bridges was headline news in 1960 as she naively trudged into the all-white William Frantz School. Her compelling story, that of a first grader—a mere first grader!—integrating New Orleans Public Schools is indelible. Famed American author John Steinbeck wrote about it. Norman Rockwell painted it. And Ruby herself, nearly forty years later, revisited it in her stunning book, Through My Eyes. Ruby’s book is likely in your school library if not on your classroom bookshelf. By pairing it with this lovely reader’s theater script, you’ll have MLK curriculum that’ll stay with your students for years to come.

All of my MLK plays are emotional retellings based on carefully-researched real events. Your students will enjoy enacting them on stage or simply reading them in class, and the comprehension activities and support material will ensure your kids will meet the standards, too.

Happy directing!

Here’s Help for that Pre-Holiday Chaos!

That last week before Christmas vacation can be a real doozy. While thoughts of sugar plums may not derail that lesson you’ve been planning on verb gerunds, knowing there are new gaming systems, cell phones, and hoverboards under the tree certainly will. There’s no doubt about it: this time of year the kids are all a twitter, prompting many a teacher to set aside serious content in favor of coloring pages featuring Rudolph, Frosty, or an occasional dreidel. But it needn’t be so. This is a great time to stage a play! In so doing your students will get some quality fluency practice, partake in some interesting literary discussions, and, depending on how far you want to take it, occupy themselves with meaningful work creating sets, props, and costumes. Here are four classroom reader’s theater scripts ideal for the next few weeks.

Click on the cover to preview or purchase! Click on the cover to preview or purchase!“Ebenezer Scrooge” is a traditional retelling of the Dickens classic. This age-appropriate version from the Dec. 1998 issue of Storyworks is available on TeachersPayTeachers only during December. It includes roles for fourteen students (though some can be doubled-up) as well as two or more non-speaking extras. I also have a version of this play in which Scrooge is cast as a woman, available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories.

Long before Scrooge there was “Gabriel Grub,” the gravedigger. From Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, this eerie adaption is a perfect complement to “A Christmas Carol” or a wonderful stand-alone Gothic holiday play. Gabriel is the sullen sexton who scowls at holiday mirth. He goes to the churchyard on Christmas eve to dig a grave and there encounters the Goblin King and a chorus of imps. It’s Dickens’ at his best! It includes enough parts for an entire class, or double up roles and stage it with as few as twelve. (Warning: it may be too scary for younger students, so use it with grades 5 and up).

Click here to preview The Gift of the Magi Click here to preview The Necklace!The Gift of the Magi is the endearing story of a husband and wife who pawn their most precious things in order to buy gifts for one another, only to discover the gifts are no longer needed. This O.Henry classic originally appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2001 issue of Storyworks, and is currently available for immediate download through Scholastic Teacher Express. Students will likely be familiar with the plot because it’s been so readily adapted everywhere from Sesame Street to the Simpson’s to Walt Disney. Parts for nine students in grades 4 through 8.

Maupassant the Cat and Flaubert the Mouse tell the exasperating tale of the discontented Matilda Loisel in Guy deMaupassant’s 1884 classic, “The Necklace.” Matilda is a young French woman who takes her happiness for granted and consequently trades it all for a string of false pearls. Students consistently rank this among their favorite plays to perform. Originally published in the Nov./Dec, 2002 issue of Storyworks, it includes parts for eight actors (and numerous non-speaking extras). It isn’t specifically a holiday play, but could be made so simply by referring to “The Ambassador’s Ball” as “The Ambassador’s Christmas Ball.” It’s appropriate for students in grades 4 through 8 and is currently available in Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories on Scholastic Teacher Express.

Happy directing!

A Just So Adaption Just Right for Class

Elephant's Chil readers theaterI’ve just released a new reader’s theater play script. I put it together early in the summer but have waited until now to release it because, like nearly all my plays, I wanted to try it out with my own students before offering it to you. By doing so, not only do I catch (nearly) all my typos, I’m also able to figure out which lines work and which lines need a bit more pep. It amazes me how adding an innocuous word such as “always” bolsters an otherwise flat one-liner (in this case, spoken by an elephant to a hippo).

“How the Elephant Got Its Trunk” is my new play. It’s based on Rudyard Kipling’s oft-adapted “Elephant’s Child” from his 1902 work, Just So Stories. Yes, there are a lot of adaptions of this one out there, but I think you’ll find mine to be unique. First of all, Kipling’s original story is about an elephant that get’s spanked by all his relatives. I’m not intending to make any political statements, but there’s little question these days that spanking isn’t considered school-appropriate. Consequently, I’ve come up with a clever way to re-work the story without altering its mojo. It’s a Just So adaption just right for class!

My script also encourages students to experiment with dialect. I’ve found that any time I can get kids talking like a southern belle, a Bronx street urchin, or a Russian cowpoke (see my Talk Like A Russian Day post), the stories come to life in profound ways. We also have a lot more laughs. “Elephant’s Child” sets the tone with Swahili storytellers, then tosses in a baboon with a British accent, a snake with a lisp, a hip-hop jivin’ giraffe, and others. If your kids like it as much as my students do, I think you’ll be pleased.

I’ve also included two versions in one package: my original, which is geared toward 5th through 8th graders, and a simplified “Youngers Version” for 3rd through 5th. My fifth graders are using the upper version and doing fine with it. It includes leveled comprehension activities based on Common Core standards. Older students can pair the play with the original short story–available all over the Web. You can also enact it alongside another of my Kipling plays, “Rikki Tikki Tavi,” which is available through Scholastic.

Preview or purchase How the Elephant Got Its Trunk at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers. While there, also be sure to check out my “Halloween Collection,” plays perfect for October: The Birth-mark, The Monkey’s Paw, and Cyclops.

Happy directing!

Would You Want Your Grandchild Working Like This?

Photo by Lewis Hine -- Library of CongressIn honor of Labor Day, the Washington Post published an excellent feature on Lewis Hine, whose photography a century ago brought an end to ugly child labor practices. The Post’s cover photo, a Hine classic of a young textile mill worker, was the inspiration for my play, “Stolen Childhoods.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Hine’s work, be sure to read the Post article. In the late 1900’s, because there were no labor laws to prevent it or unions to defend against it, companies quit hiring adult men and instead hired children at a fraction of the cost. Both unemployment and illiteracy skyrocketed. Hine brought the practice “into the light” by surreptitiously gaining access to mines, factories, and farms and photographing children working long hours under deplorable conditions. He often convinced floor bosses that he was merely there to take pictures of the company’s “impressive” machinery. The children, he’d tell them, needed to be in the picture to provide a sense of scale. He was often threatened with violence, but his effort eventually paid off for the American worker, leading to labor laws that still exist today. Hine, however, died impoverished and with little fanfare.

Stolen Childhoods coverMy play, “Stolen Childhoods,” has been published in both Storyworks and Scope magazines. It follows Hine as he finagles his way into factories and a trio of endangered siblings, whom he eventually photographs. Hine’s photographs are poignant and powerful; I’m hopeful I’ve captured a bit of that poignancy in my play. You can preview it or purchase it on my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.

Allow me to conclude with a politically-charged statement: unions today have been vilified by politicians and corporate interests, but given their role defending the American worker, it seems more important than ever that young people know the history behind organized labor. The Post article, my play, and certainly the work of Lewis Hine go a long way in teaching that history.

Happy directing.

Fun, Simple, and Sustainable!

Technology has it benefits, but sometimes I wish I could go back to teaching the way it was when there were blackboards, 35 mm film projectors, and life-threatening playground structures. Ah, simpler times! Wasn’t all this new-fangled technology supposed to make things simpler? You’re probably thinking that in many ways it has and in other ways it’s made thing massively over-complicated. Whatever the case, it reminds me that all the products I post on TpT, I’ve created out of a need for materials that are a.) kid-centric (I want my students to love being in my class); b.) easy-to-use (I don’t want to wade through a massive teacher’s edition to figure out how to do something); and c.) sustainable (I want regular routines that won’t keep me up at night). Simple. With all that in mind, here are a few items you’ll want right from day one of the new school year.

Fact Car Rally Race. Mastery of the math facts is the foundation of all things math, so a program that keeps kids focused on truly memorizing their tables is essential. In Fact Car Rally, students create their race cars during the first week of school and spend the year progressing around the race route as they pass fact quizzes—addition and subtraction for youngers, multiplication and division for olders. “Way better than Rocket Math,” say kids and teachers alike!

Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs. No need for expensive textbooks, software licenses, or complicated teacher editions! Everything you need for an entire year’s writing program is right here in one, easy-to-use and engaging package. Try out a free sample by clicking here, and if you like it, snag Volume 1 from Scholastic Teaching Resources (it’s cheap), or my new Vol. 2, which will be available on TpT soon.

EZSubPlans. Be prepared for that emergency absence by prepping your plans now, before you’re desperate. It’s easy with EZSubPlans—just click, print, and relax! There are sets for 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grades, but they’re largely interchangeable. In fact, I use all four sets at fifth grade, meaning I’m already covered for up to eight emergency absences. Eight!

Why Use Drama? My free reader’s theater primer outlines ways to make Read Aloud Plays work for you. Take a look, and then download a couple especially fun plays to break the back-to-school ice such as Peter Rabbit, Two Plays from The American Revolution, and Ponce de Leon and the Fountain of Youth.

Have a great school year and—Happy Directing!

Burned Out?

Folks have been pestering me about why I haven’t released any new plays lately. Like you, I’m a practicing classroom teacher, and when the school year came to an end I wasn’t much more than a mass of vibrating pulp in the corner of my room. Think mealworm pupa. That’s how exhausted I was.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful class, exciting year-end activities, and a supportive admin. It was one of my best years ever! Yet there I lay for a full week, drooling. Was I burned out, or merely lightly chewed and regurgitated? Upon finally waking from my stupor I stumbled upon a nifty post about teacher stress. It appears on a UK blog called TeacherToolkit. It quotes Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin from her book First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. To paraphrase Dr. Rankin, there are six big factors that lead to burnout. In evaluating my own stress, I’ve assigned points from 0 to 5 for each.

1.) The overwhelming workload. The job is never-ending. There is always something more to be done and no matter how hard you work, something important gets left behind. Every day. Every week. Every year. I’m just hopeful I didn’t leave one of my fifth graders behind at outdoor ed. Stress points: 5, though I admit a lot of my work tasks were self-imposed. Because teachers tend to be highly motivated, I suspect that’s true for many of you.

2.) The unrelenting school day. Dr. Rankin mentions “poorly vetted resources” here. I take that to mean lousy textbook programs your school district paid thousands of dollars to shove at you. The backrooms and closets of my school building are crammed with them. My best advice comes from a veteran teacher way back in 1998. “Sure I’m using the adopted curriculum. It’s right there holding up that shelf.” These days I’m fortunate because I’m allowed—even encouraged—to use alternative resources such as Storyworks magazine, all my reader’s theater scripts, and programs such as Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs. For this last bit, I’ve recently re-acquired the rights from Scholastic and plan on offering a variety of revamped versions of it on TpT. But I think the unrelenting stress to which Dr. Rankin refers is really about being “on” all day, about the constant stimulation, about being pulled in too many directions, about not having enough time to go to the bathroom, let alone plan your next unit. I know I was feeling that stress as the year concluded. Stress points: 3.

3.) Oh the tedium! See item #2 and make a ditto of my snarky comments about textbooks, but add in a few more about commercial curricula, and then consider trying out some of my plays and programs. Stress points: 0. Academic freedom is bliss.

4.) Student behavior (or lack thereof). They’re calling it “Disrupted Learning,” or something like that, and it seems to be getting worse. Some experts are suggesting video game addiction is behind it, and if so, one wonders if schools contributing to it with all the additional screen time given to computer-based learning. Stress points: 3. I had a particularly lovely group this year, but behavior management is always a stress.

5.) The pointy-haired man (see Dilbert, Chapter 1). A bad administrator can destroy the school climate in a hurry. I’m fortunate to have one that facilitates a healthful culture. Stress points: 0. I’m lucky.

6.) Disrespect (from parents, the media, Betsy DeVos, et al.). In most years I’d give this a 5, but I feel like the pendulum is swinging back in our favor. From my distant view, it seemed like the public was largely supportive of educators during the strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere. Although politicians continue to tout test scores and privatization, because the public is starting to acknowledge our stress, I’m only going to assign this 3 points.

So what’s my total: 14 (out of 30 possible). I guess I’m only 47% burned out. Not too shabby given the nature of the job, but I think I’m going to check out Dr. Rankin’s book anyway. If your score is up there, perhaps you should too. Until then, allow me to close with three push-backs against the stress:

X. Tell it like it is. When people make sometime-snarky comments about you being on “vacation,” boldly remind them that this is summer furlough, NOT summer vacation. Like most teachers, you’ve been laid off for a couple months. You’re not getting paid. You’re on a 200 day (+/-) contract and it ended. In fact, you probably only get one paid vacation day off per year, and unlike most professionals, you DON’T get to take it whenever you want. That’s why you’ve never seen the fall colors of New England, the Pendleton Round-up, or a decent price on a plane ticket. (I really don’t think saying this will help combat stress, but in the long run it might lower your stress score for item #6.)

Y. Get involved in your union. I’m not a fan of all my union’s policies and positions, but the NEA and AFT are the only organizations fighting against privatization of public schools. Your state-level union is probably the only organization protecting your retirement or working for adequate school funding. And your local association is probably the only thing standing between you and working conditions guaranteed to burn you out.

Z. Enjoy your summer furlough. Imagine how high your stress score would be if you didn’t have the summer months to recover! Me, I’d still be drooling in the corner. Instead, I’m busy working on some new reader’s theater products…which I hope you’ll come back and check out this fall.

Happy directing!

And the Oscar for Best Comedic Performance Goes to…

Yup, the last weeks of the school year can be rough. The end is near, and the kids (and teachers) all know it. What to do? Well, this time of year is a great time to let your students funnel all that extra energy and excitement into some dramatic roles. There’s no reason to assess anything. You can take your hands off the reins, let the kids direct, and just sit back and enjoy their giggles, forgotten lines, and silly grins.

Here are six play scripts that’ll keep your kids engaged until the very end (and there are dozens more at my TpT storefront):
Fly Me to the Moon Reader's Theater Script Jackie Robinson Reader's Theater Script Cyclops reader's theater scriptFly Me to the Moon re-enacts the Apollo moon landing including such famous lines as “The Eagle has landed” and “One small step….” The story is told from the perspective of a young girl who dreams of the stars while following the event via television—itself a feat of innovation. In my classroom, we made an old-fashioned television set out of a cardboard box (complete with tin foil rabbit ears) and stuck a kid inside it to play Walter Cronkite. It’s not a comedy—in fact, it’s a historically-accurate bit of drama—but it’ll have everyone laughing while simultaneously learning a bit of history.

It’s baseball season! Jackie Robinson’s contribution to the civil rights struggle is profound, but why read about it in a text book? In this play, vendor at a modern day Yankee’s game interact with the audience, telling Jackie’s story while hawking hot dogs and flinging bags of peanuts (I like to use real bags). It’s another important bit of history told in a fun way.

There’s a monster and kids get eaten. What could be better? Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave depicts Homer’s classic in all its vomitous glory. Your students will have a blast with this one.

Peter Rabbit reader's theater The Newsies reader's theater script Poe reader's theater script Over the years, few plays have rivaled my Peter Rabbit adaption for gut busting guffaws. It’s not necessarily supposed to be that way, but fifth graders have a natural aptitude for slapstick. These days, thanks to the motion picture, your kids may want to make some adaptions of their own. Should be a kick!

The Newsies tells the story of a young immigrant girl who goes to work selling newspapers just before the 1899 New York City newsboy strike in which kids stood up to millionaire publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. In this play, kids get to talk in a heavy Bronx dialect, stage a protest, and throw newspapers over the side of the Brooklyn Bridge! Sounds jus’ like da end a da school year, don’t it?

Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone is a modernized version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In this version, the protagonist is driven to madness by her best friend’s annoying cell phone. After smashing it to smithereens, she hides it in the depths of her desks only to later be driven to confess by the phone’s perturbing and inexplicable ringtone. It’s my best-selling play, but not everyone has liked it. “Too Weird,” said one reviewer. Well of course it is, it’s Poe! And that makes it ideal for the chaos of late May and early June!

Happy directing!