Free Reader’s Theater Teaching Tips

My class of fifth graders recently staged a nifty trio of plays. Eric paced about the dais as the insanely villainous narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, Jacqueline put on her best 1930’s gangster dialect, performing the roll of safe-cracking Jimmy Valentine in A Retrieved Reformation, and Emilee engaged us with a delightful French accent in The Necklace. Though staging these plays can be hard work for the teacher, the rewards are gargantuan. A few carefully-selected props—a cardboard safe for the gangster play, for example—help turn the plays into memorable performances, but over the twenty-plus years of doing this stuff, I’ve come to the conclusion that for young actors, there are five areas of greatest importance.

Projection: I’m not a believer in microphones. Instead, I want students to “fling” their voice into the audience, to “almost yell” their lines—and by way of example, I admit to myself doing a lot of shouting to help get them there.

Attention: Students often get lost in the performance, becoming spectators instead of performers. My best performers pay attention to the script so they come in on cue. We repeat whole scenes over and over again until performers recognize their cues without thinking.

Characterization: Memorable performances come from actors who use dialect, accents, and inflection to put personality into their parts. Jacky’s gangster dialect, Emiliee’s French accent—they brought their plays to life!

Enunciation: I’m painfully aware of my own tendency to mumble—especially when in a rush—and I bet you’ll agree your many of your students have the same issue. Instead, we want our kids to slow down and speak crisply. This flies in the face of so-called “fluency standards” in which success is measured by words per minute, so you might have to do some “unteaching” to get your kids to enunciate properly on stage.

Direction: My kiddos think it’s funny when I say, “No one wants to see your rear end!” But said often enough, it does the trick, getting kids facing the audience, a critical element when acting.

To help teachers turn kids into good actors and even better readers, I’ve put together a little poster called “5 Stage Acting Hacks for Kids.” It’s available for free on my TeachersPayTeachers site. If you like mnemonic devices, it uses the “PACED” acronym to help students remember the five elements “of a well-paced play.” You can print it as an 8 ½ by 11 handout in color or a low-ink versions, or you can enlarge version #3 by 154% to create an 11×17 mini-poster.

Happy directing!

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How to Swipe a Free Play Part 2

Veterans' Day Reader's TheaterA few weeks ago I blogged tongue-in-cheek about swiping reader’s theater scripts through nefarious means, so I thought I’d follow it up with a legitimate opportunity to grab some free reader’s theater while simultaneously honoring America’s veterans. I’ve repackaged my play “War Stories,” which originally appeared in my now out-of-print book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, and am presenting it free from now until Veterans’ Day on November 11th. It 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. Happy directing!

5 Ways to Swipe a Play

Copyright notice on play scriptsI’m sure you remember those big FBI warnings at the beginning of our old VHS movies. Aren’t you glad the TpT products we buy for our classroom don’t have one slapped over the cover page? Well, maybe they should. Though we may be perfectly honest, totally committed educators, we might still be tromping all over somebody’s hard-earned copyright. That’s right. This month’s post is one of those in which I have to be a curmudgeon and complain about copyright infringement. But stop! Don’t click away. Here are five ways you (yes, you!) may be violating copyright laws:

#1 You Post Stuff on Teacher Websites

I commend efforts to engage students by posting class content online, but we have an ethical obligation to make sure only our own students can access it. Search engines crawl sites like Weebly and Wikispaces, which means anyone can locate, download, and print the copyrighted material posted there. A safer bet is to use Google Classroom and set such docs as “View Only.”

#2 You Pay for 20 Subscriptions but Print 25 Copies

Let’s say you subscribe to a classroom magazine such as the ever-wonderful Storyworks, but because you know students will spindle, tear, mark-on, and lose scripts when they’re working on a play, you, like many teachers, print photocopies. That’s fair use—as long as you print just twenty. A subscription to a classroom magazine is like a software license. Twenty subscriptions means only twenty copies are being used at any given time. Consider too how that might apply to posting content online.

Note that my ReadAloudPlays.com branded plays come with full reproduction rights. The original purchaser is licensed to print a full class set for use in his or her classroom. That means when you buy just one copy—usually for around three or four bucks—all your students can use it. You can’t give copies away to colleagues, post it online for anyone to download, or, as one unscrupulous fellah tried to do, put your name on it and try to sell it on TpT, but every one of your students can access it.

#3 You Adapt a Story as a Play

For those of you who like to write your own plays, that’s great! Nothing precludes you from picking up a copy of James & the Giant Peach and creating a play.

Unless you post it for the public.

Because you don’t own the rights to Roald Dahl’s stories, Dr. Seuss’ rhymes, or Charlotte’s Web, you can’t legally offer an adaptation to the masses–even for free. To post a play based on Harry Potter, you must either have permission from J.K. Rowling or wait until the story is in the public domain. In the case of Harry, that won’t happen in any of our lifetimes. In the case of James & the Giant Peach, you’ve got another forty years or so.

Can students create plays of their favorite picture book? Absolutely. They just can’t post them online.

What if you download somebody’s adaption of James & the Giant Peach from TpT? Well, you’re supporting someone who is infringing on Roald Dahl’s copyright. Sophie Dahl may be well-to-do, but her father earned that copyright. It should be respected.

Here again I get to promote my ReadAloudPlays.com brand. All my plays are either original (such as my history plays), adapted from works in the public domain (such as classic short stories), or originally published through agreements between the author/publisher and my publishers at Scope or Storyworks. Note, however, that the original graphics and layout appearing in Scholastic magazines belongs to the illustrator and/or company. Consequently, when I repackage a play I have to re-create all that from scratch using public domain images and graphics I’ve purchased.

#4 You Perform a Play for an Audience

Most professionally-written plays require you purchase performance rights, which can range into the hundreds of dollars. To stage a showing of The Lion King without purchasing rights is infringement–even if you don’t charge admission.

I periodically get requests from small theater companies requesting performance rights for my ReadAloudPlays.com scripts. (Typically I donate such rights to non-profit groups.) Teachers, though, needn’t worry about requesting permission at all. I include performance rights with all my plays.

#5 A Nasty Bonus

The Web seems to have blurred the lines of acceptable use, so these days copyright issues pop up all the time. My most recent Internet review turned up several innocent violations—teachers who posted a play on their webpage so that students could pre-read it, for example. But I also found a couple malicious violations in which “dark web” organizations are posting my content illegally and using that content to infect user computers with malware and adware. If you’re unconcerned about copyright, you can get free copies of my “Birth-mark” and “Tell-Tale Heart” plays. But be warned. Cloudfront.net is an Amazon-related site that I’m told is frequently pirated. That big red button that says, “Download Now”? Well, my play won’t be the only thing you’ll be getting for free. Better to buy my plays—and anyone’s plays, for that matter—from respected sites such as TeachersPayTeachers and Scholastic Teacher Store.

Those of you who respect copyright and download only legal copies of material, thank you! Happy directing!

Pairing Plays & Picture Books for Black History Month

Focus on Common Core Point of View activity freeThe Common Core requires that we teach students to “evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” One way to do that is to pair Read Aloud Plays with developmentally-appropriate books and films so to compare and contrast point of view. Black History Month presents an ideal opportunity for the following pairings:

* The Disney movie, Selma, Lord Selma, and the Read Aloud Play, Gonna Let it Shine.
* My play from the Montgomery Bus Boycott, The Girl Who Got Arrested, and Phillip Hoose’s book about Claudette Colvin, Twice Toward Justice.
*Sitting Down for Dr. King, which depicts the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins of 1960, and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book, Sit-in: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down.
* Peter Golenbrock’s book, Teammates, depicting the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese, and the Read Aloud Play, How Jackie Changed America.
* We Shall Overcome, my play about the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, and Cynthia Levinson’s non-fiction book, We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.
*Days of Jubilee, by Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, and my play, Freedom for the First Time, which is based on slave narratives from the Civil War.
*The Read Aloud Play, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, and Ellen Levine’s book, Henry’s Freedom Box.

To get your classroom discussion going, I’ve developed a simple short-answer comparison activity covering Craft & Structure (Literature item 6 and Informational Text item 6). You can download it for free here and use it with my plays and any paired text to satisfy these standards by having students “analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic.”

Happy directing!

So You Want to Be President?

It would appear being president didn't help Taft with his weight.Ah, politics. Everywhere you turn, folks are questioning the qualifications and competencies of each of the current candidates for the White House. No doubt your students are, too–parroting the perspective of their parents. It leads me to believe that kids need to hear what History reveals about being Commander-in-Chief. Take for example William Howard Taft (at left). Teddy Roosevelt used to call him a fathead, right there in public. And not just on the campaign trail either, but while Taft was serving in the Oval Office! Or how about Benjamin Harrison? He once said the Presidency was akin to being in jail!

With all that in mind, here’s a free play on the subject. It’s from my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, and it’s free. Perhaps it’ll help your students to begin forming their own ideas about leading the country. At the very least, it’ll provide you with a timely language arts activity.

Note that this free version hasn’t been reformatted like all the rest of my plays. My apologies for the low-quality PDF of pages from the book (with an updated copyright notice slapped in place). I felt it was more important to get this to you before the debates and the election itself than take the time to get it reformatted. But if you like it, consider tracking down the original (its out-of-print, so it can be hard to find, but available through Scholastic’s Teacher Express), or watch for the reformatted version coming soon to ReadAloudPlays.com. It’ll be paired with a second “presidential” play and include extension activities, teaching notes, and a comprehension activity. You can also check out a ton of other nifty plays at my TeachersPayTeachers store. Nearly all have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, so you know they’re of professional q