Have a Dickens of a Christmas!

A Christmas Carol 1938 movie poster public domainWe all know that last week before Christmas vacation can be a real bugger in the classroom. The kids get so worked up about yule logs and gingerbread houses (or, more truly, about the L.O.L. Doll Box or Nintendo Switch under the tree), they’re no longer able to see straight, let alone sit still for a geometry test. You can have one Dickens of a Christmas, though, by adding a couple holiday plays to your Santa letters and holiday art projects.

Charles Dickens, of course, is the undisputed master of Christmas-oriented literature, so allow me to share with you three nifty class plays based on his work.

Whether you plan to fully enact it or just play around with it during language arts class, my traditional, kid-friendly version of A Christmas Carol is a great place to start—and it’s just three bucks for a full class set. Challenging for 3rd, but great for 4th-6th graders. If you want to take things a bit further, consider creating a movie version, or merely having your students adapt the play to their liking. A few years ago my fifth graders added extra dialogue, a few additional scenes, and a contemporary setting to my “Elenora Scrooge” female-lead version and ended up with this lovely sixteen minute film. Use it as an introduction to your work on the play (it’ll really motivate your students) or as a follow-up compare and contrast activity.

Also consider pairing ol’ Scrooge with ol’ Gabriel Grub. This script is a spooky, Christmas tale about a grumpy grave digger who is dragged away on Christmas Eve by a group of wretched goblins. It’ll scare the dickens out of the younger kids, but your fourth through eighth graders will find it a fun and fascinating comparison to Scrooge. You can check out a radio pod cast my students created by clicking here.

Another Dickens classic comes from his novel, Great Expectations. My original Pip & the Prisoner play depicts the opening chapters. Though not explicitly about Christmas, it takes place on Christmas Eve when the orphaned Pip encounters an escaped convict on the marshes. It’s full of angst and adventure, but best suited for 6th through 9th graders (though a talented or motivated group of 5th graders could probably handle it, too).

So if you want to have a great week before the vacation, put away that geometry test. Show your Christmas spirit with some holiday plays.

Happy directing!

Rikki Tikki Tavi

Rikki-tikki-tavi coverOriginally published by Scholastic, here’s another of my classroom plays getting new life on TeachersPayTeachers! Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, Rudyard Kipling’s classic short story from The Jungle Books, tells the story of a courageous mongoose who must protect an English family living in India from vengeful cobras. The product includes my original play script, a comprehension quiz, teacher notes and key, plus the original text broken into sections corresponding with the scenes from the play. It makes for some excellent compare & contrast! Aimed at grades three through seven, there are parts for eleven students. It’s great for reader’s theater, a classroom play, or full stage production, and it’s makes a great pairing with my other Kipling play, How the Elephant Got Its Trunk. Plus, it’s aligned to a host of Common Core standards. Happy directing!

There’s Still Time for Some Halloween Monstrosities!

Cyclops Scope cover Scope Monkey's Paw cover The Birthmark scope cover page

It’s not too late to stage a Halloween drama fest. Here are half-a-dozen plays that will allow your students to dress in costume while still doing something academically valid. And if Thursday’s festivities are too packed or to near, there’s nothing wrong with staging these monstrosities on that awkward, sleepy, problematic day-after.

Click here for Halloween Madness!

Penelope coverString coverNathaniel Hawthorne’s short stoy classic, The Birth-mark, 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 YouTube segments from the original Disney flick. My newly re-released version of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart 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 for great Halloween fun.) 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 from which some of the above coveres originate), 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!

Just in Time for Halloween!

The Tell-Tale Heart Read Aloud PlayHaving recently reclaimed my publishing rights from Scholastic for a bank of my classic short story plays, I’m very pleased to offer Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to my readers. This script was originally published in the October 2008 issue of Storyworks, but it was so well-received that it was quickly reprinted in Scope magazine, then in Scholastic News, and then finally included in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. The play’s unique text formatting helps middle grade and early high school readers comprehend the unreliable narrator’s insanity, but what really sets this play apart is the clever way we’ve made it appropriate for the classroom. After all, Poe’s story is about murder. It’s violent. It makes administrators cringe. But teachers who’ve used this script like the way it remains true to the gruesome original despite only implying the gory details. The package also includes a comprehension worksheet, the original text (also formatted to make it more accessible to kids), and a mock trial activity in which “the villainous narrator” must stand before a jury of his peers. It’s a great way to make Poe’s work accessible to your students. Be sure also to contrast it to its partner play, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, which tells the same story but involves crimes against an annoying cell phone rather than an old man. My 5th graders love it when one play group presents the traditional version while a second group presents the cell phone version. Your students will too. Happy directing!

How to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing

Apollo Extension Systems Lunar Base conceptI was seven years old when the Apollo 11 mission blasted off for the moon in mid-July of 1969. I remember it well. My little sister and I spent much of July playing with a litter of puppies, though I can’t recall now if these belonged to my black lab Cookie or the family’s boxer, Peaches (we had a lot of dogs back then). But even those puppies couldn’t peel us away from Walter Cronkite’s non-stop newscast.

Here we are fifty years later. Space travel has become rather commonplace. Consider that the TV networks used to broadcast every launch, how we used to sit breathless watching the capsules plunge into the sea or the space shuttles touch down. These days we hardly glance up at the heavens, let alone note the passing of the International Space Station. Few of us can name even a single astronaut. Skylab has fallen, we’ve suffered human casualties, and exploration has been turned over to private enterprise.

Yet the moon remains as captivating as ever.

My reader’s theater play about the Apollo Moon Landing is based on my own childhood perspective from my backyard and living room on Beall Lane in southern Oregon. It accurately recounts the historic details of the event, details I wasn’t aware of then but make for some compelling drama now. Just as he did on television all those years ago, the famous newsman Walter Cronkite narrates the mission while astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins communicate with Control in Houston.

Fly Me to the Moon
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I plan on making Apollo part of my lineup of plays this fall. It’s not only a great history lesson, it’s a “blast” to enact. The last time I used it, my students and I created a 1960’s television set out of a cardboard box, cut out the oval-ish screen, and made some “rabbit ears” for the top. The kiddo playing Cronkite sat inside to deliver lines such as “The date is now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as man survives. And that’s the way it is, July 20, 1969, the day man reached and walked on the moon. This is Walter Cronkite signing off.” My goal for this year is to create some funky space suits for Armstrong’s first step and Aldrin’s giant leap (off an aluminum ladder on to the stage).

Now imagine your students walking on the moon! Imagine them re-enacting the “Eagle has landed“ and “One small step” scenes while reciting the exact words spoken by Mission Control, Walter Cronkite, and the astronauts themselves. Imagine watching them explore the moon as if for the first time. What a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing!

You can check out my play and its related comprehension material, along with a wide array of other great Read Aloud Plays, at TeachersPayTeachers.

We Are Taxi Drivers

America’s Power Companies’ advertisement from 1956 depicting a future with autonomous cars.Ever notice how determined Uber and Lyft are to develop autonomous cars? After replacing taxi drivers with contract laborers (many of whom are now on strike), their next goal seems to be that of replacing the drivers with robots. Ridesharing execs have always made it seem like their app-based service was a win-win for everybody, but others suggest it’s destined to make a ton of extra cash for CEOs and stockholders at the expense of tens of thousands of unemployed people.

Could the same thing happen in education? It seems to me, teachers around the country are facilitating their own demise by turning their teaching over to online platforms. Students come to school and plug into programs such as Moby Max, Summit Learning, and Zearn while the teachers stare out the window or play Solitare. People are starting to wonder if someone will eventually point at those teachers and say, “What are we paying them for?” and then suggest replacing them with low-wage, unlicensed proctors.

Might the schools themselves be the next to go? One must assume the companies offering the online programs are collecting data—including contact information—and could eventually use that info to “cut out the middleman”—that is, the school itself. After all, why send your kid to an unsafe place like a school campus when they can “Zearn” in their own home?

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseThe digital age promised to revolutionize education, but these days, some are beginning to wonder if the revolution hasn’t gone too far. Could teachers be merely taxi drivers in the Uber era?

While there are certainly many programs beneficial to instruction, perhaps teachers should be asking if the system to which they’re subscribing isn’t after their job. Summit, Zearn, and Moby Max may, in fact, be quite useful, but teachers need to continue to provide the one commodity “autonomous teachers” cannot: themselves. When it comes to education, a robot cannot match the passion great teachers bring to the profession. Accelerated Reader isn’t going to be able to convey your enthusiasm for a great piece of literature. IXL won’t convince little Johnny the multiplication tables are a stepping stone to veterinary school. Nor is Summit going to get your whole class talking in a Russian accent for a stage performance of Gogol’s “The Nose.” That’s where you come in.

So enough with all this screen time. Let’s grab some good books, a Read Aloud Play (such as my Peter Rabbit adaption–a fun one to conclude the year), or something new from TpT and do what teachers do best.

Happy directing!

“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!

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!