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.

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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!

Celebrate Our Unsung Heroes

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseIn case you weren’t aware, March was Women’s History Month. Celebrating the contributions of women to history, though, needn’t be limited to a single month. Nor should it be limited to the same handful of heroines we’re all familiar with. In fact, given that the heroic actions of women often went unnoticed or unrecorded, one wonders how many sacrifices we’ve never heard about.

One heroine who was nearly forgotten by history is Sybil Ludington. Sixteen-year-old Sybil is credited with riding 40 miles on horseback to muster the militia when the British invaded Danbury, Connecticut, in 1777. Her story, which had been passed down within her family for nearly 100 years, wasn’t recorded until 1880. My play about Sybil gives students an impression of the perils of living in the American colonies at a time when neighbors–some Patriots and others Tories–might be violently opposed to one another. It speaks directly to issues of equality and gives students plenty to discuss in the way of character traits such as determination, independence, and work ethic.

The play was originally published in the Sept. 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. It was so well received that it was reprinted a year or so later in Storyworks. It’s now available for the first time on TpT, so I invite you to check it out. I also want to encourage you to pair it with my other plays from the Revolutionary War, including The Secret Soldier and Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, both which examine the contributions of women.

From Sheyann Webb to Christa McAuliffe, from Molly Pitcher to the recently deceased Linda Brown, the impact of heroic women on American history has been profound. Let’s celebrate that year ’round!

Happy directing.

Reader’s Theater for Presidents’ Day

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseHere are two plays in one package with which to celebrate and teach about Presidents’ Day. The first, President’s Day Dream, lets your actors portray several well-known presidents from history as a current “student” day dreams about becoming president herself. She, of course, sees only the glamour of the job, while presidents such as William Howard Taft tell her about the hard work, the constant criticism, and the tough decisions. The play gives students an intimate look at the personalities of each president while showing your kids “what it takes to be a good one.”

Argument at Mount Rushmore, meanwhile, imagines the four faces on the monument can actually talk. They celebrate their accomplishments while revealing their own distinct personalities: the stoic Washington, the underappreciated Jefferson, and the wise-cracking Lincoln contrast the bravado of a bullish Roosevelt. A great line in the play comes when Roosevelt says to Lincoln, “We’d have made a great tag team, Abe!” It’s a fun play to read and enact. Both plays provide students with some historical background about the presidency and democracy, and both come with standards-based comprehension activities and support material–a perfect fit for your Presidents’ Day instruction. Both plays originally appeared in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America (2003, Scholastic). Visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers to preview or purchase.

Happy directing!

Great Reader’s Theater for Martin Luther King Day

Whether for RT or stage performance, here are half-a-dozen kid-friendly scripts to ramp up your MLK Day celebrations and Black History Month curriculum. To preview or purchase, just click on a cover and you’ll be taken to my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.

Martin Luther King Jr. reader's theaterMontgomery Bus Boycott reader's theaterSelma to Montgomery March reader's theaterAll my plays are carefully researched and fact-checked, providing accurate representations of the historic events themselves. Martin’s Big Dream was originally published in Storyworks under the title, “I Have a Dream.” It comes directly from MLK’s own writing and depicts an incident from his childhood that helped set him on the path as a champion civil rights. In the Jailhouse with Dr. King views the Montgomery Bus Boycott through the eyes of a troubled teen, culminating in a historic moment in front of King’s own home. Gonna Let it Shine tells Sheyann Webb’s true story of courage during the Selma “Bloody Sunday” events. Just eight years old at the time, Sheyann was known as King’s “youngest crusader.” All of these stories are fun to stage and offer poignant conclusions your kids will be talking about long after MLK Day has passed.

I Have a Dream Readers TheaterMartin Luther King readers theater Here are three more compelling titles. Like all my plays, they come with detailed teaching notes and comprehension activities. Sitting Down for Dr. King looks at the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins from the perspective of a ten year old white boy. When the sit-ins interfere with David’s celebration, he’s faced with a tough decision. MLK’s Freedom March comes from the viewpoint of a working class family who overcome challenges to attend the March on Washington where King delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. And We Shall Overcome, my best-selling MLK script, offers a creative look at the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Kids enjoy posing as a television crew to narrate this one, but like the bulk of my plays, the perspective is that of a child similar in age to your students. It also embeds protest songs from the Civil Rights Crusade.

MLK Plays Free Preview PackReaders Theater Teaching TipsFree Stage Acting Hacks mini posterBecause nearly all my titles were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines, they’ve been vetted by professional editors and are designed to meet the latest standards. Still not sure? Download my FREE MLK Preview Pack. It provides a detailed look at each of four African-American History plays including the first few pages of each and a glimpse of the accompanying comprehension activities. Also download my FREE guide to teaching with RT, which provides tips and ideas as well as the brain science behind using drama to teach reading. Finally, my mini-poster, 5 Stage Acting Hacks for Kids, will help keep your students focused on some of the more important elements of performing. It’s also free.

Explore ReadAloudPlays.com for More

That’s right, I have a ton of other professionally-published read aloud plays for the elementary and middle school classroom.Start by taking a gander at my collections: Classic Short Story Plays such The Monkey’s Paw, Black History Plays such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, and American History Plays such as The Secret Soldier. They’re all available at ReadAloudPlays.com or at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers.

Thanks, and Happy Directing!

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!

Eerie Reader’s Theater for Halloween

Harry_Clarke_The_Tell-Tale_HeartFairies waving candied wands… Goblins drooling chocolate malt… Halloween has such a bizarre place in our classrooms. In my school it’s been informally “banned,” though the kinders still get to parade through the school in their costumes, and the rest of the student body gets to have an afternoon “party” that presumably has nothing to do with ghouls and ghosts. Personally, I like “Monte Carlo Day,” a party in which kids set-up, run, and risk candy tokens at a variety of “probability games” such as Roulette, 21, and the Shell Game. The kids still get their candy fix, but at least there’s a bit of math involved.

An even better approach to Halloween is to replace your parades and parties with a collection of play performances. Kids still get to dress up, you can serve treats at the performance, and it’s not only academically valid, but a fine way to satisfy standards. A trio of plays takes a few weeks to prepare and an afternoon to perform. You can also invite other classes to attend, thereby helping your colleagues with their Halloween alternatives.

I have a number of Read Aloud Play titles that are perfect for Halloween. The Birth-mark, which is a classic short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 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 YouTubeThe Birthmark scope cover page segments from the original Disney flick. You’ll also find Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in the same book, which 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 it a lot of fun for Halloween.) 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, 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!

Great Reader’s Theater for Back-to-School

Before you crack those text books or assign that homework reading, how about blasting away all that summer slog with some kid-friendly reader’s theater? Because nearly all my titles were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines, they’ve been designed to meet the latest standards. Here’s a baker’s dozen of timely titles to get your kids up and interacting right from the start, but there are dozens more under the links to the left. Click on any cover to download a free preview from our storefront at TpT.

Plays About Kids in Poverty

The Library Card readers theater play script for kidsThe Newsies readers theater class play scriptLewis Hine Child Labor Crusade readers theater playThe Library Card tells the true story of a sharecropper’s child who overcomes poverty and racism on his way to becoming the internationally-acclaimed author, Richard Wright. The Newsies shares the tale of immigrant street children who survive by selling newspapers during the great depression. When the big publishers stick it to them, the kids go on strike. This one’s also based on real events and the subject of a Disney musical of the same name. Stolen Childhoods shares the work of depression-era photographer Lewis Hine’s crusade to end child labor. Based on real events, the story follows a trio of fictional kids who bide their time working in the textile mills rather than going to school. These are dramatic, heart-wrenching stories your kids will love.

Just for Fun Plays

Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave readers theater play scriptPeter Rabbit reader's theater play scriptThe Tell Tale Heart modernized readers theater scriptEach of these plays has a distinct academic theme and literary focus, but the main reason for enacting them is pure get-up-and go amusement. In Cyclops, kids get to play Greek soldiers who get eaten one by one, the heroic Odysseus, and of course the one-eyed beast himself. Blood and guts for sure, but a ton of humor as well. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is also a carrot patch full of silliness. Let your older students adapt the script to their liking and then enact it for the littl’uns down the hall! Finally, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone is a modernized version of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” only the old man is the main character’s best friend and the beating heart is a buzzing flip phone.

Plays About Racism

Jackie Robinson classroom RT play scriptLunch Counter Sit-ins readers theater play scriptClaudette Colvin Twice Toward Justice readers theater play script for kidsRegardless of one’s political persuasion, there’s no questioning that issues about racism have recently exploded. Open constructive dialogue about it by reading How Jackie Saved the World, which shows how Jackie Robinson overcame racism to change the landscape of American sports. Sitting Down for Dr. King looks at the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins from the perspective of a ten year old white boy. When the sit-ins interfere with David’s celebration, he’s faced with a tough decision. The Girl Who Got Arrested shows what it was like to be a black child in the South during the mid-20th Century. Long before Rosa Parks, teenager Claudette Colvin was dragged off a bus, beaten, and jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. Powerful stuff.

Plays About the American Revolution

Revolutionary War readers theater plays for kidsBetsy Ross American Flag readers theatre play scriptThe Secret Soldier read-aloud play script for kidsMany intermediate-grade text books start the year focused on the American Revolution. You can get your kids better engaged by jump-starting your unit with some reader’s theater. Two Plays from the American Revolution is a two-for-one deal that includes “Eagles Over the Battlefield,” a nifty skit in which Jefferson and Franklin argue about the adoption of the eagle, and “A Bell for the Statehouse” provides the real history behind that infamous crack in the Liberty Bell. Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction lets your kiddos sleuth out the facts about the creation of the Stars & Stripes. Lastly, Secret Soldier shares the compelling real story of America’s first female soldier. No one knew it at the time because she fought the war disguised as a man. After doing these plays, kids will be chomping at the bit to read those textbook stories about Tories and minutemen.

Plenty More Where Those Came From

That’s right, I have a ton of other professionally-published read aloud plays for the elementary and middle school classroom. Take some time to explore my collection here at ReadAloudPlays.com or at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers, and be sure to use RT all year long. Thanks, and Happy Directing!

How to Create a Library Culture

Historic library checkout cardOne of the greatest things my mother ever did for me was regularly take me to the public library when I was a kid. I don’t recall any exact schedule or regular routine, but I’m guessing every two weeks or so—perhaps more during the summer. On these days my mom would drag my little sister Karen and me away from whatever mud puddle or walnut tree we were in, and we’d all slither into her Ford Falcon and head off to the main branch downtown.

Karen was my best friend growing up, but at the library we mined different tracts. So engaged was I by our library outings that I have no recollection whatsoever of Karen even being present, though I know she was. I sought Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket novelizations, wildlife fiction, and sports biographies, always coming home with a stack of books to conquer before the next visit. I also Dewey-decimaled my way into the architecture section upstairs, pouring over books about drafting and design. When my mom bought me a drafting set one Christmas, I became a master with a t-square and determined to become an architect myself. I got side-tracked during the adolescence of high school, but I’ve used those drafting and design skills in many endeavors. Such was the power of those public library visits.

Click on the library card to preview this play at TpTThe library remains a significant aspect of my lifestyle today. It befuddles me when I see letters to the editor decrying the latest library bond. The writers of these letters want our libraries to charge user fees. They begrudge the $127.45 in annual taxes they pay to maintain our library system. Clearly, these folks never developed that library culture. Perhaps their mothers never took them to the library when they were young.

These days I find myself missing those childhood trips to the library. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to produce my latest Read Aloud Play, The Library Card. I originally wrote this script for Storyworks, where it appeared in October of 2001. It tells the story of African-American author Richard Wright’s relationship with the library. Wright wrote numerous books of significance during the middle of the 20th-century including Native Son and the semi-autobiographical Black Boy. The play is based on an incident from Wright’s youth in which he was denied access to the public library due to his race. The racism theme is obvious, making it an ideal fit for Black History Month, but make no mistake, this play is ultimately about the love of reading and the significance of libraries. With any luck, students who act-out this play will quit taking their access to the library for granted. Should you give the play a run, you might also consider pairing it with a trip to your local public library where you can help kids apply for their own library cards. It’s also worth noting that the story was popularized in William Miller’s inspiring picture book, “Richard Wright and the Library Card,” which makes for another ideal pairing.

Well, I’m off to the library. More plays are coming soon. Happy directing!

Talk Like a Russian Day

The Nose read aloud play readers theater skit by Mack Lewis“Talk Like a Russian Day” was a big hit in my classroom. Though it coincided with certain political events, there was nothing political about it. We started the day by watching a YouTube short of a Hollywood voice actor giving us hints about speaking with a Russian accent. He told us not to emulate Chekov from the Star Trek series. Russians, he said, don’t substitute w’s for v’s. None-the-less, we decided Chekov’s style was to our liking, as was Gru’s in Despicable Me. We also liked the cosmonaut in the Armageddon movie. So after watching short clips of each, we embarked on a day in which the goal was to “talk like a Russian” all day long.

Though it seems like a crazy way to run a classroom, especially when I’m trying to deliver instruction on converting between decimals and fractions, the point was to encourage my students to use an accent in their presentation of my play, “The Nose.” The Nose is a short story by Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol, who lived and wrote in the 1800’s. It’s an example of literary farce, meaning a story that defies explanation. Gogol used it to criticize the Russian hierarchy. As the story goes, a mid-level but prideful bureaucrat awakes one morning to find that his nose has inexplicably gone missing. Clasping a handkerchief over his face, he heads straightaway for the police inspector, but on his way he spots his nose getting out of a carriage. Amazingly, it appears to be dressed as a Vice-Governor! Well, the story follows the bureaucrat as he attempts to reclaim his nose, one crazy twist after another.

One of my students, R____, is particularly engaging with her accent and an inspiration to the rest of us. Her enunciation is so scintillating, her sense of timing and inflection so ideal, well, when she is on stage, the play reaches a magical level. R____, by the way, is a Sped student, which just goes to show how powerful Read Aloud Plays can be for otherwise struggling readers.

This week we’re busy building the papier-mâché nose costume, which will be the final touch on what I think will be a smash performance. My second play group, meanwhile, is preparing for their performance of an as of yet unreleased play set in the Wild West, so we followed “Talk with a Russian Day” with “Talk Like a Cowpoke Day.” (The day after that we tried, “Talk Like a Russian Cowpoke,” which we decided meant speaking in a Russian accent while using phrases like “Yippeekayay.”)

The final stretch of another school year is a great time to be messing around with Read Aloud Plays. And no matter how silly the story, plays are an excellent way to promote fluency and engage young readers. Some fun ones to end with include The Nose (which can be found in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories and online here), The Open Window (also from Classic Short Stories), and Peter Rabbit (while the story may seem young, my upper elementary students always have a blast with it). My Jackie Robinson play is both socially impactful and fun to perform, as is The Newsies (“Talk like a Bronxite Day” doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it’d be fun anyway).

If you’ve been doing plays all year and are ready for something more powerful, some hard-hitting titles worth considering include Sitting Down for Dr. King, Stolen Childhoods, and Freedom for the First Time. I try to incorporate accents, dialect, or tidbits of foreign language into my plays whenever I can, so whether serious or silly, you can almost always have a “Talk Like a ____ Day.”

Happy directing!