Pip & the Prisoner

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!When most people think about Charles Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations, they land on Miss Havisham and her creepy old mansion full of spider webs, or on the adult Pip’s aspirations for greatness, or on his unrequieted love for Estella. But what I like best about the novel are those chapters focusing on Pip as a child. Maybe it has something to do with why I’m an elementary school teacher, or maybe it’s because there’s something Roald Dahl-like about Pip (no doubt Dahl was heavily inspired by Dickens), or maybe it’s just the marvelous way Dickens penned young Pip’s encounter with the escaped convict (How terrifying for a little kid—and an orphan, too—to encounter such a “wretched varmint,” and in a graveyard yet!). Whatever the case, I’ve long wanted to craft a play focusing on those early chapters of Great Expectations and am very pleased to introduce it here.

“Pip & The Prisoner” is an original script based on the first five chapters of the Dickens’ masterpiece. The script endeavors to introduce the main character, Pip, in such a way as to motivate students to want to read the full novel (presumably when assigned to them in high school), but whether Great Expectations is in one’s curriculum or not, I think you’ll find “Pip & the Prisoner” to be a lovely stand-alone bit of literature. It’s aimed at 6th through 8th graders, but could potentially be used with students in other grades (I intend to use it with my 5th graders). The story is full of irony, anxiety, and engaging dialect as Dickens successfully captures Pip’s innocence and fears while weaving in marvelously subtle humor. The play seeks to capitalize on that humor.

Great Expectations, incidentally, was published in 1860 in Dickens’ own weekly periodical, All Year Round. Because it was published serially—or one exciting section at a time—it reminds many readers of a modern soap opera, or perhaps a binge-worthy television series with a ton of twists, turns, and suspenseful cliffhangers.

The 20-minute play includes parts for ten students and numerous non-speaking “soldiers.” It was written with the stage in mind, but it can also be presented as reader’s theater or a pod-casted radio drama. The script comes with embedded discussion prompts, a standards-based comprehension and essay writing activity, teacher’s notes, answer key, and a printable of the novel’s first five chapters for easy comparing and contrasting.

Consider pairing with my other Dickens’ plays including “Gabriel Grub” and “A Christmas Carol.” Though it isn’t indicated in the play, the story take place on Christmas Eve, so all three plays could be presented as a holiday event.

Happy directing!

One of My Best MLK Plays, Free!

1964-PD Lib of Cong US News World Report CollectionAs part of its Black History Month celebration, Scholastic publishers is offering my most oft-published play for free. I Have a Dream shows how experiences during Martin’s childhood prepared him for the day he’d deliver his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. It’s included in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, but you can download it in PDF simply by clicking here (the download link is near the bottom of the page). Scholastic’s site even includes questioning strategies, and best of all, there are no strings! It’s completely free. If you enjoy “I Have a Dream,” be sure to check out my other Civil Rights plays including Sitting Down for Dr. King, We Shall Overcome, and MLK’s Freedom March.

I Propose a Speed Limit for Young Readers

speed limit for young readersImagine if we tested prospective drivers the way we test our students for reading fluency. Instead of mumbling to the newly-turned sixteen year old to “make a left hand turn at the next intersection,” the DMV test administrator would give a whoop and shout, “Alright Jimmy, if you can get this Taurus doin’ 120, you’ll have your license in no time!”

Driving too fast is dangerous. That’s why we don’t encourage our young drivers to exceed the speed limit. That’s why we have speed limits to begin with. What we want from people is thoughtful driving. Thoughtful driving means being aware of the road signs, pedestrians, and potential hazards. It means being under control. Even NASCAR drivers practice being safe and under control.

Good readers are also thoughtful and under control. They’re aware of hazards, such as awkward sentences, irony, and homographs, which may require them to slow down or re-read. They’re familiar with road signs, such as periods, commas, indentations, and quotation marks, each requiring a change in cadence, a certain inflection, or merely a tap on the brakes. And good readers are aware of those pesky pedestrians—their audience.

Rare is the young reader who can read fast and under-control. Just as there are no ten-year-olds driving at Daytona, we shouldn’t be pushing our fifth graders to read 200 words per minute. In fact, I think the emphasis on speed as the primary measure of reading fluency is probably damaging our young readers. I think we’re actually handicapping our kids.

I was listening to one of my struggling readers the other day. She’s of normal intellect, works hard, and has normal phonic skills (I’ve checked ‘em). But over the past five years, she’s been taught that what’s important is that she attains that magic number—that ever-increasing oral fluency reading rate. It was no surprise listening to her read that she was trying to go so fast that she was stumbling over every third word and having to re-read every other phrase—and this was in a casual reading environment, not the ORF test.

This problem is not limited to struggling readers. How many of your “benchmark-meeting” readers blow through endmarks, substitute minor words, and run-over complex words? How many of your speed readers are thoughtless readers?

Instead of measuring fluency based on words per minute read, we should be emphasizing modest speeds and safe driving habits. Unfortunately, quantifying thoughtful reading is far more complex than generating the data a weekly one minute reading test provides. With no push to get the data miners out of our schools, the question becomes, how do we teach thoughtful reading despite the education industry’s ill-placed emphasis on speed?

One great way is with Read Aloud Plays.

Plays require students to read the way they speak, to use inflection and recognize punctuation. Plays require personality and accuracy. Frequent play reading, particularly if it includes performance, requires thoughtful reading.

To prove my point, try having your students read a play using their best 171 word per minute pace. Make sure the kids have never seen the play before (after all, dry reading is another element of the ORF test). One of my fifteen minute plays will take all of four minutes. The kids may be rolling on the floor with laughter—until you ask them to summarize what they read (many of my plays, such as those from Symbols of America, include comprehension tests).

I encourage you to then spend several sessions reading the same play thoughtfully, culminating with a simple performance in front of the class. Emphasize reading the way the given character would talk. Such plays will be enjoyed and understood by audience and performers alike.

Black History Month is a great time of year to incorporate Read Aloud Plays into your instruction. From slavery and civil war, to Jackie Robinson, to the civil rights struggle, I have numerous scripts ready for your students to hone their thoughtful reading skills. If you’re new to using plays, be sure to download my free guide, Why Use Drama? which provides a host of tips. And if you’re worried about the Common Core, don’t be. Drama is mentioned 47 times in the CCSs.

Turn your wanna-be NASCAR readers into thoughtful readers with Read Aloud Plays.

Happy directing!

Happy Holidays!

Here’s both a holiday treat and an example of how Read Aloud Plays can be adapted to be recorded as short films. This one, developed and enacted by my 5th graders from 2012-13, is based on my Christmas Carol play from Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories, but with a little creative thought (and, admittedly, a lot of logistics), nearly any of my plays can be adapted for film. Happy Directing!

Why You Should End the Year with Algebra

The Little RascalsI think much of what I know about teaching, about kids, about life itself, I learned from Spanky and Our Gang.

Like many of us here near the end of the school year, exhaustion has just about got the best of me. The wide-variety of year-end responsibilities and activities coupled with the cumulative day-to-day stress of the job itself has become a bit overwhelming. It has me looking for some fun but easy lessons to wrap up the last few weeks of school. It got me thinking that I’d like to share with my students some Little Rascals episodes, so I went looking for them on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with the Little Rascals, it’s the depression-era film shorts featuring the antics of impoverished kids such as Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, and Stymie (and a mule named Algebra). I grew up watching “Spanky and Our Gang” on Channel 42 out of San Francisco—beamed to my home in Oregon via the relatively new innovation called cable-tv.

Sure enough, YouTube has a wide variety of clips, and as I watched a few my wife suggested that my love for kids and my destiny to become a teacher may have roots in the Little Rascals. The more I think about this, the more I believe it. There’s no doubt I admired the ingenuity and resiliency displayed by these kids. There were rarely any adults on the show. The kids had to solve complex problems and overcome difficulties without the assistance, guidance, or even supervision of grown-ups. I think this “can-do” attitude has helped me forge my way through life. And there’s no doubt I enjoyed the innocence and sweetness of all these kids. Yes, I think “Our Gang” had a profound impact on my career choices, as well as my penchant for using plays in class.

I have particularly strong recollections of the Our Gang “Follies,” in which the kids built a make-shift theater in a barn and staged a vaudeville show. Although these were not among my favorite episodes, I’m certain they influenced my teaching. In 1998, when I built a stage inside my classroom, I sewed together a heap of scrap fabric to make curtains that, not surprisingly, looked a lot like those that parted for Alfalfa’s performance of “I’m in the Mood for Love” or Darla’s tap and baton-twirling routine. I’m still using those curtains today, and I think about the Little Rascals every time I put them up for a play.

I intend on ending the year with an algebra lesson (that is, a segment of Little Rascals featuring Algebra the Mule), but another good activity with which to fill these last days of schools is reader’s theater. I believe read aloud plays are most beneficial when they’re read repetitively, when kids read and re-read the same text over and over again as they practice for an eventual performance. However, this time of year, there’s nothing wrong with giving kids a set of scripts and letting them wing it. Give them a session or two to utilize their “Spanky-esque Can Do Attitude” and then watch the follies unfold. To help you along, here’s a free PDF of my play based on O.Henry’s depression-era story, A Retrieved Reformation, but you should also try Peter Rabbit, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, A Tell-Tale Heart, and Fly Me to the Moon, all of which are available on my TeachersPayTeachers page, as well as The Nose, Rikki Tikki Tavi, and The Open Window, from my book: Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories. Finally, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America contains Argument at Mount Rushmore, As American as Apple Pie, and Eagles Over the Battlefield, each of which make for fun, impromptu entertainment that beats a real algebra lesson any day.

Happy directing!

Even a Squirrel Can Do It!

Rikki Tikki TaviOkay, that’s not a squirrel. It’s a mongoose, as in Rikki Tikki Tavi of Jungle Book fame. My students are all jazzed about the play Rikki Tikki Tavi, which they just recorded for use as a podcast. If you’re a fan of using Read Aloud Plays but haven’t yet experimented with podcasting, I encourage you to give it a try. Hear our sample by clicking on the mongoose, or better yet, read on for two minutes and find out how easy it is for you and your students to make your own.

Using Read Aloud Plays in the classroom has numerous academic benefits. One, the Common Core State Standards put a great deal of emphasis on using drama to teach reading. In fact, the word drama appears 47 times in the standards. Two, kids love reading and enacting plays, meaning their engagement is heightened. Three, plays rapidly improve fluency. Using Read Aloud Plays accomplishes this because most students are willing to read and re-read the same script repetitively (the same way they probably read picture books when they were tots). One additional key to success, I think, is to offer authentic and varying ways to present your plays.

Don’t get me wrong. Divvying up parts and reading a play just once has its merits. In fact, my class will be doing just that for President’s Day. Using three plays from my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, we’ll be touching on the significance of the holiday without devoting an excess of class time. But in this case the emphasis is on teaching a specific history lesson rather than improving reading skills.

To really build fluency (and comprehension), I want my kids working with a given script for three to four weeks. They meet with me in “play groups” for “cast table readings” three times over the first week. Each play group is about a third of the class. Once they’ve demonstrated command of their given script, we move on to rehearsals. After two or three weeks of rehearsing (roughly three times a week for 20 minutes a pop), we present our plays in a few basic ways: Simple classroom staging, school stage production, full-blown musical, movie making, or podcasting.

Podcasting may initially seem daunting, but will become fairly simple with a bit of practice. You’ll need a laptop pre-loaded with Audacity software (a free download), a decent omnidirectional mic such as Samson’s Go Mic, and a quiet room. Students simply read their lines. You can stop between each scene, re-do scenes as necessary, edit out some of the stumbles, stutters, and pauses, and even alter the pitch. Editing may consume a couple hours of your weekend, but once you’ve done so you can export your play as an mp3 file. Share it with you class as you would any other digital sound clip. In my classroom, we post them on our webpage.

Visit my classroom website at dailyplatypus.com to see and hear samples of podcasts, play productions, and our Christmas Carol movie. If you’re working on plays for African-American History Month, it’s not too late to record your students for all posterity via a podcast. Maybe it isn’t so easy a squirrel can do it, but you can!

Happy directing!