Your Happy Place

The Birthmark Scope CoverAfter announcing the approach of my first grandchild via Facebook, I received a message from a former student thanking me for the year she spent in my class a decade ago. “Samantha” told me how the only happy moments of her childhood were in my classroom. Although I’m proud that I was able to provide her with a safe, nurturing environment, I’m saddened I hadn’t done more to make her life less chaotic. Whatever the case, it has prompted me to ponder what makes a classroom “happy.” Certainly there’s the nurturing that all good teachers provide their kids, loving them despite their flaws, considering their interests when writing lesson plans, being accessible, consistent, and safely predictable. But in my classroom I’ve also concluded that Read Aloud Plays has something to do with it. I know this because my students always seem to be happiest when we’re working on a play, and former students always seem to mention a play when reflecting on their time with me.

My current students recently performed my adaption of Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” It appears in the Jan. 14th issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. Like nearly all the plays I craft for Scholastic, my students performed it in advance of publication. Judging by the always-awesome Scope cover, you wouldn’t think it a “happy” play at all, but it had the kids giggling and gaffawing like mad. It’s simultaneously romantic and ghoulish, giving them the chance to express a wide variety of emotions. Why, how often does your average fifth grade boy get to get on one knee and profess his love to a classmate? How often does your second-language learner get to stuff a pillow in his shirt and pretend to be a hunchback Boris Karloff?

Textbooks, standardized tests, and leveled readers may perhaps be worthwhile academic tools, but they’re not in themselves able to contribute toward that happy place Samantha remembers. If you haven’t tried using Read Aloud Plays, now is a great time to start. Although The Birthmark won’t be available on my website until next year, I have dozens of others–all written with the student in mind. Black History Month titles such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate, Sitting Down for Dr. King, and How Jackie Changed the World are consistently ranked as favorites with the kids. Give ‘em a try and help create that happy place students will write to you about.

Happy directing!

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Why You Need a Cardboard Box for Black History Month

Box Brown's Freedom Crate graphicIf you’ve never heard one of your students attempt a southern accent you must give Box Brown’s Freedom Crate a whirl this February during Black History Month. Ever since I wrote it for Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine back 1999, Box Brown has always been a favorite among my students. Consequently my class learns and performs it almost every year. Even if you’re teaching in the Southern U.S.—where the dialect might not be so unique—there remain many compelling reasons to teach with this play.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is based on The Autobiography of Henry “Box” Brown. Henry was the slave who mailed himself to the North inside a wooden crate and lived—just barely—to tell the world about it. Why do kids like this play so much? The Deep South dialect of slaves and slave bosses is certainly one reason. So too is the large cardboard box we use as the main prop. It’s painted to look like an old-fashioned shipping crate and is just big enough for a moderately-sized fifth grader to climb inside. The student playing Henry disappears within it during Scene 4 and then discreetly exits while the curtains are closed. From there he appears to get battered as the box is tossed from wagon to train to steamer until it finally gets cracked open at the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia. Henry then rises from his coffin only to quickly swoon away from exhaustion and dehydration. This is of course a dramatic moment in Henry’s true story, and one kids don’t soon forget.

There are sound academic reasons to enact plays such as Box Brown’s Freedom Crate. For example, because kids are willing to read and reread their lines over and over again, Read Aloud Plays build reading fluency. The brain science behind this repetition suggests it actually forms the neural pathways that make reading possible. Read Aloud Plays are easily leveled and they provide the exposure to drama the new Common Core Standards demand. They also allow students to experience history “first hand,” which helps them to relate to people like Henry, to understand some of the heartache and suffering Henry might have felt. …Plus there’s still that whole southern accent thing.

Visit my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers to download a free preview of Box Brown or one of my other Black History plays. I’ve used every one in my own classroom, and because most have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines, you can rest-assured they’re of the highest quality.

Box Brown’s Freedom Crate is suitable for 4th-8th graders and includes parts for from ten to twenty students depending on your needs. Hear Box Brown being performed by students by clicking on the “podcasts” tab, and to get the most out of your reader’s theater, be sure to download my free article entitled “Why Use Drama?” Happy directing!

How Engaging are Read Aloud Plays?

Why Use Drama cover 220x291How engaging are read aloud plays? Consider this bit of anecdotal evidence: In December my students were working on my adaption of Guy DeMaupassant’s The Necklace for presentation on stage, as well as a movie version of A Christmas Carol (which you can view if you scroll down a couple of posts). Consequently the kids went home for vacation with both these scripts tucked away in their binders. Upon returning, one of my students shared how on Christmas her family decided to use the scripts and act out the plays themselves. Imagine the scene: Dad croaking out “Bah Humbug,” middle school brother haunting him in the night, and Grandma chiming in as The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Note, too, that my student at the core of all this receives SPED services. These plays have gripped her (and her family) in a way that novels and text books haven’t. In my classroom, students regularly read chapter books in our “Book Clubs” and get plenty of instruction with short works, poetry, and non-fiction using Storyworks classroom magazine, but over twenty years of teaching, it’s consistently been the read aloud plays that most engage them. And let’s conclude with this, when was the last time your students took the text book home and read it around the Christmas tree? Visit my TeachersPayTeachers store for access to dozens of engaging play scripts. Each has been classroom-tested, most were originally published by Scholastic–which means they meet the highest standards–and all come with full production rights, meaning your $3 gets you a class set you can use year-after-year. Happy directing!