Having 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!
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.
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.
Ruby 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.
Folks have been pestering me about why I haven’t released any new plays lately. Like you, I’m a practicing classroom teacher, and when the school year came to an end I wasn’t much more than a mass of vibrating pulp in the corner of my room. Think mealworm pupa. That’s how exhausted I was.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a wonderful class, exciting year-end activities, and a supportive admin. It was one of my best years ever! Yet there I lay for a full week, drooling. Was I burned out, or merely lightly chewed and regurgitated? Upon finally waking from my stupor I stumbled upon a nifty post about teacher stress. It appears on a UK blog called TeacherToolkit. It quotes Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin from her book First Aid for Teacher Burnout: How You Can Find Peace and Success. To paraphrase Dr. Rankin, there are six big factors that lead to burnout. In evaluating my own stress, I’ve assigned points from 0 to 5 for each.
1.) The overwhelming workload. The job is never-ending. There is always something more to be done and no matter how hard you work, something important gets left behind. Every day. Every week. Every year. I’m just hopeful I didn’t leave one of my fifth graders behind at outdoor ed. Stress points: 5, though I admit a lot of my work tasks were self-imposed. Because teachers tend to be highly motivated, I suspect that’s true for many of you.
2.) The unrelenting school day. Dr. Rankin mentions “poorly vetted resources” here. I take that to mean lousy textbook programs your school district paid thousands of dollars to shove at you. The backrooms and closets of my school building are crammed with them. My best advice comes from a veteran teacher way back in 1998. “Sure I’m using the adopted curriculum. It’s right there holding up that shelf.” These days I’m fortunate because I’m allowed—even encouraged—to use alternative resources such as Storyworks magazine, all my reader’s theater scripts, and programs such as Super Sentences & Perfect Paragraphs. For this last bit, I’ve recently re-acquired the rights from Scholastic and plan on offering a variety of revamped versions of it on TpT. But I think the unrelenting stress to which Dr. Rankin refers is really about being “on” all day, about the constant stimulation, about being pulled in too many directions, about not having enough time to go to the bathroom, let alone plan your next unit. I know I was feeling that stress as the year concluded. Stress points: 3.
3.) Oh the tedium! See item #2 and make a ditto of my snarky comments about textbooks, but add in a few more about commercial curricula, and then consider trying out some of my plays and programs. Stress points: 0. Academic freedom is bliss.
4.) Student behavior (or lack thereof). They’re calling it “Disrupted Learning,” or something like that, and it seems to be getting worse. Some experts are suggesting video game addiction is behind it, and if so, one wonders if schools contributing to it with all the additional screen time given to computer-based learning. Stress points: 3. I had a particularly lovely group this year, but behavior management is always a stress.
5.) The pointy-haired man (see Dilbert, Chapter 1). A bad administrator can destroy the school climate in a hurry. I’m fortunate to have one that facilitates a healthful culture. Stress points: 0. I’m lucky.
6.) Disrespect (from parents, the media, Betsy DeVos, et al.). In most years I’d give this a 5, but I feel like the pendulum is swinging back in our favor. From my distant view, it seemed like the public was largely supportive of educators during the strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere. Although politicians continue to tout test scores and privatization, because the public is starting to acknowledge our stress, I’m only going to assign this 3 points.
So what’s my total: 14 (out of 30 possible). I guess I’m only 47% burned out. Not too shabby given the nature of the job, but I think I’m going to check out Dr. Rankin’s book anyway. If your score is up there, perhaps you should too. Until then, allow me to close with three push-backs against the stress:
X. Tell it like it is. When people make sometime-snarky comments about you being on “vacation,” boldly remind them that this is summer furlough, NOT summer vacation. Like most teachers, you’ve been laid off for a couple months. You’re not getting paid. You’re on a 200 day (+/-) contract and it ended. In fact, you probably only get one paid vacation day off per year, and unlike most professionals, you DON’T get to take it whenever you want. That’s why you’ve never seen the fall colors of New England, the Pendleton Round-up, or a decent price on a plane ticket. (I really don’t think saying this will help combat stress, but in the long run it might lower your stress score for item #6.)
Y. Get involved in your union. I’m not a fan of all my union’s policies and positions, but the NEA and AFT are the only organizations fighting against privatization of public schools. Your state-level union is probably the only organization protecting your retirement or working for adequate school funding. And your local association is probably the only thing standing between you and working conditions guaranteed to burn you out.
Z. Enjoy your summer furlough. Imagine how high your stress score would be if you didn’t have the summer months to recover! Me, I’d still be drooling in the corner. Instead, I’m busy working on some new reader’s theater products…which I hope you’ll come back and check out this fall.
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.
“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.”
TeachersPayTeachers has grown immensely over the last decade. Back when I first started using it as a secondary market for my plays, products could be pretty simple. In fact, most were in black and white. These days there are a bazillion teacher-marketers selling product, so competition has become pretty fierce. Consequently, I’m constantly trying to update my Read Aloud Play packages and post new ones. Thanks to a couple of snow days here in southern Oregon, I was recently able to revamp several products. I’ve added comprehension activities, teacher notes, and answer keys to The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs’ fabulous masterpiece about three wishes, The Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wickedly wonderful “mad scientist” story, and Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey. These three plays are perfect for introducing middle-schoolers to the otherwise difficult original stories. Whether you use the play before or after, student engagement and comprehension skyrocket when you pair the original with a play. But they’re also engaging stories for fourth and fifth graders to read and act aloud. (What could be better than your 5th grade Cyclops eating a bunch of 4th grade Greeks?) All three of these plays originally appeared in Scholastic classroom magazines, so they’ve been “vetted” by Scholastic’s professional editors. Add to that the new comprehension activities and they’re a fantastic deal.
I’ve also updated The Secret Soldier, which has previously appeared in both Scope and Storyworks. It’s the true story of Deborah Samson, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Military. Samson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the militia near the end of the American Revolution, was twice seriously wounded, and even performed surgery on herself to avoid being found out. It’s a must-have for any Revolution unit study. Like the other updated plays, it now comes with the additional support material—as do my other plays from the era. Be sure to check out Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, Two Plays from the American Revolution, and my newest product, So You Want to Be President. This last one is another “Two for One” pack. It comes with two of my favorite plays from my 2003 Scholastic title, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, which is no longer in print. Both plays cover the history of the presidency and the character traits necessary to serve successfully. Given today’s political climate, they’re important additions to your history and reading curriculum, but they’re also a lot of fun to read and enact.
Finally, MLK Day and Black History Month are already upon us. If you haven’t yet read my earlier post about my Civil Rights and African-American history plays, be sure to scroll down and take a look.
It’s not my aim to be political, but no matter one’s affiliation, it’s hard to deny that racial tension has resurfaced in this country. It would seem teachers have their work cut out for them, and with Martin Luther King Day and Black History Month right around the corner, now is the time to start preparing lessons that will help the current generation of children overcome such issues. In my humble opinion, one of the best ways is to put your children in the middle of the action by using Read Aloud Plays.
Sitting Down for Dr. King, for example, puts students inside the Greensboro Woolworth’s during the 1963 lunch counter sit-ins. They’ll see this pivotal protest through the eyes of David, a white boy who recognizes the injustice of prejudice and decides to set aside his own interests to stand with the African-American college students.
Gonna Let it Shine tells the true story of Sheyenne Webb, an eight year old crusader there on the bridge in Selma when state troopers and local police used tear gas and billy clubs to disperse and intimidate peaceful protesters.
And Martin’s Big Dream relates an incident from the childhood from Martin Luther King, Jr., in which two white boys in the neighborhood refused to play baseball with him because of the color of his skin. It is one of the most highly-regarded play scripts ever to appear in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine.
Other plays about Jackie Robinson, Claudette Colvin, the March on Washington, and the Birmingham Children’s Crusade provide engaging stories that will give your students an intimate understanding of race in America. While still others, such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate and Freedom for the First Time, reveal to your students the injustice of slavery.
Nearly all my plays have been vetted and edited by Scholastic’s amazing editors, and for just three or four bucks, you get the rights to reproduce a class set every year. What’s more, most come with support material and comprehension activities.
Black history is our history. It’s America’s history. As educators, it’s our responsibility to share this history with our students. It’s quite possibly the most important thing you’ll teach this year.
Some of my colleagues were complaining recently that kids today don’t have much in the way of grit, meaning that indefinable resilience that pushes one to overcome hardship. I’ve had enough kids with runny noses whine about needing to call home sick to think maybe it’s true. Then again, as I write this I’m picturing the faces of former students who overcame poverty and homelessness to earn college degrees. Whatever the case, “grit” is an important “soft skill” worthy of our attention. It can be taught, and a great way to teach it is by sharing the story of Sybil Ludington.
Few folks outside upstate New York know much about Sybil–if you’ve ever passed through Carmel, maybe you caught a glimpse of a statue depicting her grit—but she’s considered a hero of the American Revolution.
When General Tryon’s British fleet landed near Danbury, Connecticut, Sybil leapt upon her horse and rode forty miles in the dead of night to call to arms the American troops. She was just sixteen at the time, and her grit and determination is believed to have saved the Hudson Highlands from invasion.
Sybil’s story is a compelling one, and the best way to share it is through a Read Aloud Play. My play about Sybil appeared in the September 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine, and this month it makes a reappearance in Storyworks. Imagine your students playing the part of Sybil, or General Washington, or the famous American spy, Enoch Crosby. How much more powerful the story when kids actually get to be Tories and bandits, minutemen, or even Sybil herself?
You can still snag a class set of the Sybil play by becoming a Storyworks subscriber. Storyworks has been providing fantastic language arts content for twenty-four years, and these days it also comes with a host of extraordinary online support material and extensions, all carefully aligned with Common Core standards. On top of that, nearly all my plays appear in Storyworks at least a year before they’re available at TpT. You can check out Storyworks by clicking here.
But Sybil isn’t the only resilient character around whom I’ve built a Read Aloud Play. Deborah Sampson demonstrates grit in The Secret Soldier, as does Sheyann Webb’s character in Gonna Let it Shine and Claudette Colvin’s in The Girl Who Got Arrested. The Newsies, Stolen Childhoods, Box Brown, Jackie Robinson, and Bird Girl are equally great scripts for teaching toughness and determination.
Do any of today’s students have Sybil Ludington’s kind of grit? Let’s hope they never have to face the same conditions. But just in case, consider giving them a bit of training through a Read Aloud Play.
I read an article recently about the merits of “gradelessness” in the classroom. It suggested that the assigning of letter grades to children is neither healthy nor effective. The premise works like this: if “Rafael” works hard on a writing task and shows progress compared to previous work, yet still lacks certain skills, will giving him a C-minus motivate him to improve? Or, is it better if we applaud Rafael for his effort and growth, show him where he did well, and give him specific things to work on? In other words, can a teacher forsake grades while still raising standards and providing effective evaluation?
Yes, and Read Aloud Plays provides an exceptional medium to do exactly that.
Plays provide an avenue to teach your students how to give and receive constructive feedback. Here’s how: Lead your students to define appropriate standards before you begin a play, post those standards, and consistently revisit them as you rehearse.
During practices, ask your students, “What are we doing well?” and “What do we need to work on?” “Maureen spoke with character and personality,” might be a comment you’ll hear. “Paulie lost her spot; she needs to follow along better,” is another.
Early in the year, teach your students to say, “Some of us…” as in “Some of us need to practice more at home so we’re better prepared.” As the year progresses, graduate to more specific statements such as “Charles, you have a really pleasant voice, but you need to speak up more so we can all hear it.” By using this approach, students will be not only be able to provide valuable feedback to their peers, they’ll also synthesize evaluative factors which they will naturally apply to their own performance, all without the negative emotional charge of a grade. As students become proficient at providing constructive criticism, consider applying it to other subject matter as well, such as writing, art, and presentations.
There may be perfectly good reasons to assign grades under some circumstances. You may also be faced with mandates requiring grades, but even in those cases, by teaching students to give and receive feedback, you can de-emphasize the grade and focus instead on developing the given skill through constructive criticism.
These days when trolls roam the internet slamming people and businesses with nasty and often unjustified reviews, it’s especially important for students to learn the ethics of giving constructive criticism.
Whatever the case, as you kick-off a new school year, spend some time contemplating your approach to grading and consider using Read Aloud Plays to teach your students to develop their constructive feedback skills. If you’re already using Read Aloud Plays, leave a comment to let us know how you’re assessing play performances.
Speaking of plays, I’ve just released two new ones packaged together for the price of one. Revolutionary War Plays comes with two exclusive plays, comprehension activities, and additional supplementary material. Originally published in my book Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America (Scholastic), “Eagles Over the Battlefield” tells the story of the bald eagle becoming the emblem of the United States, and “A Bell for the Statehouse,” reveals the history of the The Liberty Bell. Both are fun, easy, and ideal for trying out some ungraded constructive feedback.