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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Two New Plays (and Free Comprehension Stuff, Too!)

Click here to preview or purchase at TpT!I guess you can qualify me as a “Vitamin D Addict.” This time of year, the sun is typically obscured by the greyness of the southern Oregon winter, so whenever it’s out and abundant, I make it a habit to soak in as much as I can. I just can’t bring myself to come inside and work until it disappears behind my neighbor’s chimney. I haven’t been entirely unproductive, however. My Read Aloud Play, A Piece of String, has finally been uploaded to TeachersPayTeachers, and my new play about the New York City newsboys strike of 1899 appears this month in Scholastic’s Scope magazine.

“Newsies” follows a Polish immigrant named Aniela as she embarks on a brief career as a newsboy. Following the Spanish-American War, thousands of children like Ani went on strike to protest the way papers such as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World passed their expenses down to the lowly newsboy. It’s a compelling story about kids and child labor similar in theme to my play about Lewis Hine (“Stolen Childhoods”). “Newsies” is exclusively available from my friends at Scope. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, my adaption of Guy De Maupassant’s classic short story, “A Piece of String,” tells about a habitual liar who gets hoisted on his own petard. When he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit, his long history of lies make it impossible for him to prove his innocence. The play originally appeared in Scope’s Dec. 2013 edition. As with all my Scope and Storyworks plays, I’ve waited about a year to re-package it for TpT. Part of the reason this one took longer than usual—other than the sun’s pleasant cameo— is that I packaged it with a trio of free Common Core comprehension activities. You can download the free comprehension pack or the whole package. Middle school and early high school teacher s will find this play package to be a great way to introduce students to classic literature. Pair it with the original story to enhance engagement and comprehension. The lessons about good habits and a positive reputation will also play well with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders. Plus, your kids will enjoy using terms like “clodhopper” and “coot.”

Finally, Spring is a great time to engage students with The Checkbook Project. It’s math, it’s personal finance, it’s a behavior management program, and it’s entirely free. My own students started last week and are totally engrossed by it. Check it out by clicking on The Checkbook Project tab!

Happy directing!