New Plays and Product Updates

Click on the cover to preview at TpTTeachersPayTeachers 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.

Happy directing!

Teaching Grit & Resilience

Sybil Cover_ScopeSome 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.

Happy directing!

What’s Hindering Your Low Readers?

Perhaps many of you have figured this stuff out long ago. Me, after nearly 25 years of teaching, I recently had a couple of instructional epiphanies.

Click here to visit Lauren Tarshis' author pageThe first one was when one of my 5th graders showed me a picture of her mother. “This was at the visitation center,” she said. “The only time I get to see my mom is when we go to the visitation center.” A day later we were on our way to the local science museum when another student pointed out the window and piped up, “I think that’s the safe house we stayed at one time.” Later that same day my admin handed me my latest set of Oral Reading Fluency scores showing both of those students near the bottom. As I looked over the rest of the data, I suddenly realized all my lowest performing students are victims of childhood trauma: violence, tempestuous divorce, drugs, homelessness… Then, taking a look at my top performers, I realized nearly all are from healthy, financial stable, intact families. Thinking back over years of high and low test scores, the correlation is obvious. Early-childhood trauma and neglect may be the most significant factor contributing to academic failure. Politicians who ignore it are insincere in their efforts to “improve schools.”

If you’re like me, you’re constantly wrestling with how to help these kids. What works? We’re not going to undo the trauma or erase their memories. When it comes to reading, however, I’ve landed on three things that appear to hook them, three things that seem to motivate even these reluctant readers to put some “miles on the tongue.”

The first, naturally, is Read Aloud Plays. I write and promote read aloud plays not merely because I want to sell you a script, but because they’re exceptionally effective. I don’t need to belabor the point here. If you want to know more about reader’s theater, including the brain research that supports it, check out my free download entitled, “Why Use Drama?”

Roald Dahl books are also compelling for this group of kids, though admittedly this may be as much about my own enthusiasm for Matilda and The Witches as it is the books themselves. I have so much fun reading aloud sections of Boy or having small groups read Fantastic Mr. Fox, even my most reluctant readers catch the Dahl bug.

But the best thing I’ve discovered lately is the I Survived series. These books are written by my editor at Storyworks, Lauren Tarshis, so it surprises me that it’s taken me so long to start using them in class. This year, having finally amassed enough copies, I was able to assign all my students the task of reading one during silent reading sessions. Yeah, I know: SSR is often a waste of time; many students—especially the struggling ones—only pretend to read. Consequently, I use an approach I call “Directed Silent Reading.” It works with any age-appropriate books, but because these I Survived books have consistent themes, high-interest plots, and conquerable reading levels, they’re particularly fruitful. So much so that even my lowest performing students are begging for more.

I begin by telling my students they’re only going to read for a minute. At the end of the minute, I ask the kids to “turn and talk” to a neighbor about something they found interesting from their minute (or two) of reading. After they’ve had a couple minutes to share, I then ask for three or four volunteers to share out with the class. As the students hear their classmates tell about Hurricane Katrina or Pearl Harbor, the enthusiasm becomes contagious. We repeat the process, this time for three or four minutes of reading, and then again for eight to ten more. You can vary the questioning, too. “Be prepared to tell us something you know about your main character,” or “Provide some details about the story’s setting” are other “go to” questions. By the end of the session, all my kiddos have read for 20 minutes, discussed what they’ve read, and have invested enough in the story that they’ve committed to it. You don’t get such enthusiasm or commitment from homework reading, traditional SSR, or even oral reading, especially not from struggling readers.

There are no easy answers when it comes to overcoming the childhood trauma suffered by our lowest-performing students. But by using plays, Roald Dahl books, the I Survived series, and Directed Silent Reading, perhaps we can help them create a survival story of their own.

Happy directing.

MLK Day Inspiration

Click on the cover to preview at TpT!I’ve been fortunate to have forged a lasting relationship with Scholastic publishers, particularly the wonderful editors at Storyworks and Scope magazines. Through my work with them I’ve developed a reputation for writing compelling reader’s theater about Martin Luther King and African-American history in general. Somehow, I’ve been able to accurately represent the historical events and, more importantly, convey the spirit of Dr. King’s work through such plays as “Sitting Down for Dr. King.” With MLK Day upon us, and given that February is Black History Month, I want to encourage you to give some of my reader’s theater scripts a try.

I’m particularly proud of “Sitting Down.” I remember struggling over it when I was writing it back in 2002.There I was, bouncing one bad idea after another off my laptop screen, regretting having accepted the contract at all, when I realized how very simple my task was in comparison to the mammoth challenge undertaken by Dr. King. Soon thereafter I crafted the fictional story of “David,” a twelve-year-old white kid frustrated that these African-American college students were getting in the way of his birthday shortcake at the Woolworths. “Sitting Down” has since appeared in three different Scholastic venues including Storyworks, a text book series, and a leveled reading set, but I’m proud of it because it has a powerful ending that I believe Dr. King would have respected.

Click on the cover to preview or purchase!I think my play, “Gonna Let it Shine” also conveys the spirit of Dr. King’s work. It’s based upon the true story of Sheyann Webb, who was just eight years old when she braved tear gas and posse men while marching alongside Dr. King. She became known as “Dr. King’s Youngest Freedom Fighter,” and her story is the subject of the Disney movie, “Selma, Lord, Selma.” The play originally appeared in Storyworks under the title “Pigtails & Protests.” In the process of re-writing it for release on TeachersPayTeachers, I had the privilege to talk with Sheyann herself, who is today–some fifty years later–a public speaker and Civil Rights advocate. It was surreal to speak with someone who in my writing was still just a child. It was inspiring to connect with someone who not only knew Dr. King and numerous other heroes of the Movement, but was in fact a Civil Rights hero in her own right.

We Shall Overcome” tells the story of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. That’s the event where students, some nearly young as Sheyann, were attacked by police dogs and knocked to the ground by blasts from fire hoses. News coverage of their sacrifice swayed worldwide public opinion in favor of desegregation.

The Girl Who Got Arrested,” meanwhile, tells the true story of Claudette Colvin, the first person to be hauled off a city bus and tried in court for defying Montgomery’s segregated busing law. Her story is depicted in the book, “Twice Toward Justice.” I certainly don’t want to diminish the work of Rosa Parks, but in my humble opinion, Claudette’s story is far more compelling.

One of my “under sung” plays is “MLK’s Freedom March.” It’s a work of historical fiction about a girl named Lucy who helps her ailing grandmother get to Washington to hear MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There’s also “In the Jailhouse with Dr. King,” about a troubled teenage who turns it around when he witnesses King’s calm demeanor in the face of violence during the Bus Boycott. These and other plays capture the essence of MLK’s work. Consider celebrating MLK Day and/or Black History Month in your classroom by picking any three, dividing your class into three groups, practicing for a couple weeks, and then presenting them with opportunity for discussion in between. In so doing, you’ll be giving your students a strong foundation in MLK history, and perhaps the inspiration to make history themselves.

Happy Directing!

Thanks!

SCOPE-110113-PlayAs we wrap up 2014, I just want to thank you for making this the best year yet for Read Aloud Plays. In the coming year, watch for a variety of new plays to become available including A Piece of String, which was originally published in the Nov. 2013 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine, and I Have a Dream, the story of Martin Luther King’s childhood, which originally appeared in the January 2000 issue of Storyworks. I also plan to revamp the formatting on nearly all my plays, making sure that each comes with a comprehension activity designed to help your students meet the Common Core. No need to wait to purchase them, however. One of the great features on TeachersPayTeachers is that buyers can download updated versions without additional charge. Each time I update a play, I’ll let you know that a new version is available. Here’s to a great 2015 full of fluency-building reader’s theater for the classroom!

Happy directing!

Six Tips on Writing Your Own Classroom Plays

Every so often I get a request from a reader to draft a play based on a specific book: The Hobbit, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Roald Dahl’s The Twits, for example. I’m certain they’d all make wonderful plays and they’d be fun to write, but due to copyright restrictions, I’d be unable to legally publish any of them. That doesn’t mean you—or even your students—couldn’t attempt to turn your favorite book into a play on your own. If you’re ready to give it a try and bring “The Twits” to a stage near you, here are a few pointers:

SCOPE-110113-PlayKeep it short. Most of my plays, particularly those that have appeared in Storyworks, are limited to about 1500 words. If too much longer, the students tend to lose interest. Such brevity requires cutting every extraneous scene, line, and word. It can be quite painful (which is why I sometimes cheat and leave the hard cuts up to my editors).

Avoid narration. “Too much exposition,” as the saying goes on Broadway, will kill your play. While you’ll need narration to quickly advance the story, keep the narrator’s lines to a minimum. Never let a narrator speak more than three sentences in a row, and whenever possible, find unique ways to narrate. In my play about Jackie Robinson, for example, it’s the peanut vendor and hot dog man telling the story from the grandstands of Yankee Stadium.

Use a child’s perspective. Kids relate to kids. That’s why many of my civil rights plays are told through the eyes of a child. “MLK’s Freedom March”–my play about the day Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech”—might be rather dry were it not seen through the eyes of a child with a story of her own to tell.

Imagine your play acted out on stage, even if you intend it just for reader’s theater. Avoid changing settings within a given scene, and always try to include some action. Plays where the characters merely stand around and talk are easy to write and stage but boring to watch and perform.

Emphasize the literary elements you do when teaching literature such as setting, conflict, rising action, and climax. A powerful ending like the one in “Freedom for the First Time” when Mama strides into the Big House to reclaim her youngest daughter, will make the play memorable for your students. In less-serious plays, create endings that let your students ham it up, such as in my “Cyclops” play.

Incorporate dialect. There’s nothing better than having a kid growl like a pirate, drawl like a redneck, or pontificate like an English gent. I’ve had kids bring down the house with their countrified version of Mr. McGregor in my “Peter Rabbit” play. You can do the same simply by having your narrator refer to the way a character speaks.

So, rather than waiting until 2060 for me to publish a play adaption of James and the Giant Peach, consider trying it yourself. Not so inclined? Too busy? Then check out my long list of professionally published titles such as Charles’ Dickens’ Christmas goblin story, “Gabriel Grub,” coming next month, and Maupassant’s “A Piece of String,” available on TeachersPayTeachers in January. Like all my plays, just a few dollars buys you the license to print and use a class set every year. In the meantime, keep sending your ideas for story adaptions and re-enactments of historical events to lewis@jeffnet.org.

Happy Directing!

Text Books vs Read Aloud Plays

Common Core logoAdmit it. You’re using one of those big fat textbooks to teach reading, one of those monstrosities brought to you by publishers determined to make sure its refrigerator-box full of materials met every standard ever concocted in Texas, California, Pennsylvania, the U.S. Protectorates, and Saturn’s Ring. Too bad the kids are yawning.

If you’re like most people, the new Common Core Standards might have you a bit flustered. You can rely on those textbooks, which will provide certain coverage of the standards but will drive your students back to their video games, or you can delve into literature, classroom magazines, and reader’s theater, which will require more documentation on your part but will more likely create lifelong readers. The truth is, using what administrators like to call “supplementary material” is more engaging to students, more enjoyable to teach, and not so hard to justify against the CCSs. Consider this: “drama” is mentioned nearly fifty times in the Standards! That being the case, reader’s theater is more relevant than ever.

Here are just a few examples from the Reading Standards for Literature (RL) where drama or an element of drama is explicitly referenced:

RL4.5Explain major differences between poems, dramas, and prose….
RL5.4Explain how a series of chapters, scenes or stanzas fits together….
RL5.6Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.
RL6.3Describe how a particular story’s or drama’s plot unfolds in a series of episodes….
RL7.3Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact.

cyclops coverAnd don’t assume that using drama is only useful in teaching drama. One user of my play adaption of the classic short story, The Monkey’s Paw, commented how reading the play helped her students comprehend the original text. Because plays have to break stories down to their essence, using adaptions of classic stories is likely to help students meet the RL standards for any number of otherwise challenging texts at the high end of the “complexity band” (RL4-8.10)

But plays also help students meet standards in Reading Fluency. Consider RF 4.4cUse context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding…. Because drama puts the reader in the moment, and because the playwright cannot waste words within a 20 minutes classroom script, students are more able to make immediate contextual connections. In fact, drama is ideal for improving reading fluency in general. Because it mimics the repetition beginning readers use when first learning to read, it actually forms new neural pathways. (Check out the brain research by Vgotsky and others, or for a shortcut, read my article “Why Use Drama.”)

Recently, a former student of mine provided a powerful endorsement of using drama to teach literature. I hadn’t seen this young man for over four years, but he told me he’d just been thinking of me the day before. He’d been sitting in his 8th grade English class yawning over yet another mundane text book assignment when his mind drifted back to my then-third grade classroom. “I was just thinking about hopping around our classroom stage when we did that Aesop’s Fables play,” he said. “I enjoyed that.” That seems pretty telling to me.

Ready to set aside that textbook for a while and give drama a try? You can find a wide variety of read-aloud plays at my TeachersPayTeachers store. Stock up on titles for the next school year. Nearly all my plays have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazine’s such as Storyworks and Junior Scholastic, so you can rest assured that they meet the highest standards. Not sure how to make it all work? Click here. For samples of kids performing classroom plays click on the “podcasts” tab up top. And for still more validation of using drama to meet the CCSs, check out this article from the New York Times or this podcast from the folks at Literacy Special Interests.

Happy directing!