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 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!

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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!

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!

Watch the Movie. Stage the Play!

See the movie. Stage the play.Take advantage of high student interest in the Peter Rabbit movie by enacting my read aloud play script, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It includes the play script, the original text in an easy-to-read short story format geared toward intermediate and middle-grade students, and several comprehension activities—seventeen pages in all.
Peter Rabbit was the first play I submitted to Storyworks. Though for various reasons it never made it into print, it led to my now twenty-year relationship with Scholastic. One reason it didn’t see the pages of the magazine is that the Peter Rabbit story tends to be “aged-down.” But I can attest, every fifth grade class I’ve ever had has loved enacting this play, and now that it’s hit mainstream movie screens, there’s no question your 3rd-6th grade students will love it too!
The reviews for the Peter Rabbit film are mixed—as if that’s anything to be surprised about. But elementary and early middle school students are attending and enjoying it. Grab their attention while it’s hot and download the Peter Rabbit play today!

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!

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!

Summer Furlough

New Read Aloud Plays coming soonSeven years ago I assigned my fifth grade class a task called Letter to Myself at Graduation. “I want your fifth grade self to write to your future self,” I told them. “Talk about what’s important to you now, about your time in elementary school, and what you expect to be doing when you graduate from high school. Share some memories. Make some predictions. Say whatever you like. No one but your future-self will ever read it.”

The kids cranked out their letters and, with a bit of coaching, addressed their envelopes (it always surprises me how many fifth graders don’t know their own address). I then stashed the letters away with a yellow sticky note marked, “Class of 2017.” Well, obviously, last week I finally got to give them out! Some I handed directly to kids visiting our elementary school as part of our “Graduation Walk.” Others I delivered at graduation itself. A few more I mailed, having encouraged students over the years to keep their address updated with me.

The results were quite fun. After reading her letter, one young lady said, “Mr. Lewis, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. Fifth graders are so stupid!” Like many kids, her goals and interests had changed profoundly over the years. Another boy came up to me and said, “This is hysterical.” He’d spent a good portion of his letter talking about which girls in class he found cute. One such girl was across the gym reading her own letter. Another young lady opened her letter while standing in front of me and immediately let out a delightful squeal. “I gave myself a dollar!”

By no means do I think this activity is particularly unique. I’m sure many teachers all across the continent do something similar. These days, it’s a regular part of my year-end activities. I’m sharing about it here for three reasons: 1.) I recommend it to other teachers. It’s rewarding for all involved and provides a nice connection to kids who are no longer four feet tall or interested in Pokemon; 2.) it serves to explain why I haven’t crafted a post or published a play in awhile. As it was for many of you, the last weeks of the school year were exceptionally crowded with things like finding purple shore crabs during our outdoor ed trip, creating meaningful comments on report cards, building a giant nose costume for a play performance, and convincing my principal in my performance review why I’m still relevant. There were softball games to watch, middle school honors night to attend, high school graduation itself, and numerous other events. Many of them—like handing out those graduation letters–were wonderfully rewarding. All of them were time consuming, which is my excuse for being so doggone slow at posting something new. And 3.) I have no doubt that at least a few of those kids made mention in their letters something about a play in which they appeared or a role they got to play. Read aloud plays are always among the significant memories.

So, now that I’ve sent all the litter buggers home to immerse themselves in video games and YouTube, and the bigger buggers off to figure out real life, I’m using my summer “furlough” from teaching to get back to work on some new plays. Having succeeded with my principal, perhaps I’ll try convincing my editors at Scholastic that I’m still relevant, as well. Stay tuned. Thank you for your patience. And 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!