Talk Like a Russian Day

The Nose read aloud play“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.”

Happy directing!

Act Aloud Plays

The Lewis Hine photo that serves as an inspiration for the fictional AnielaThat you’re visiting my blog tells me you’re most likely already a fan of reader’s theater, so I needn’t tell you how reader’s theater makes literature class that much more compelling, or how drama is referenced 47 times in the Common Core, or how nearly all my plays are first “vetted” by the editors of Scholastic classroom magazines where they’re published long before hitting TeachersPayTeachers. Instead, let me tell you how my Read Aloud Plays could just as easily be called “Act Aloud Plays.” My evidence? Well, every so often I stumble upon a classroom webpage featuring a videocast of a school play or musical that turns out to be mine. And because most publishers charge a pound of flesh, a fatted cow, and a hefty fee for performance rights, I frequently get emails from polite teachers verifying that such rights are indeed included in the original purchase price (they are). I also get requests to adapt my stories or include them in performances outside the school setting. For example, last year a community theater in Carolina included my adaption of A Christmas Carol in its holiday dinner theater, and the Tshwane Children’s Theatre in Irene, South Africa, performed my Peter Rabbit play in rural African schools. Pretty cool.

I think the popularity of these plays stems from the fact that they’re written to be acted out, not merely read aloud. When I create a play for Scholastic, I imagine students performing it on stage. How will the kids move across the floor? How simple can the set be? What must the characters say and do to help the audience grasp what’s going on? Is the setting consistent throughout the scene? How can I minimize the presence of the narrator? Such questions help build plays teachers can use on the actual stage.

Click on the cover to preview or purchaseSays Officer Lockstock, the narrator in the Broadway musical Urinetown, “nothing can kill a show like too much exposition.” Save for the occasional soliloquy, narration is rare in 3-act shows, yet it’s often necessary in classroom plays. It quickly provides the background information required to reduce a complex story to a 15 or 20 minute performance. Still, as I craft scripts, I ‘m constantly looking for ways to minimize the exposition or find creative ways to deliver it. In my Jackie Robinson play, for example, the narration is delivered by the hot dog and peanut vendors. They set-up Jackie’s story while simultaneously hawking ballpark franks and Cracker Jacks. It’s as if they themselves are characters speaking to a grandstand full of spectators.

Though my latest TpT release utilizes narrators, it was most certainly designed with the stage in mind. The Newsies first appeared in the March 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. It tells the story of the New York newsboy strike of 1899 through the eyes of a 12-year-old Polish immigrant. Aniela Kozlowski goes to work selling newspapers just as the strike unfolds (no pun intended, just questionable blogging). Ani’s character is based upon one of my own students who shares with me a Polish heritage, so I was particularly thrilled to watch her play the role late this past school year. Historically-accurate, rich with dialect, and embedded with great pictures from famed photographer Lewis Hine, The Newsies is unquestionably one of my best plays to date. Not only is it a play about actual kids showing the grit, determination, and unity necessary to overcome some pretty extreme challenges, it’s also a nice reminder that battles had to be fought to establish some degree of balance between the interests of big business and the common laborer, that unionism has played a significant role in establishing the American Dream.

You can preview or purchase The Newsies at TeachersPayTeachers. I encourage you to pair it with Stolen Childhoods, my play from the same era about Lewis Hine’s crusade to end child labor. Or, take The Newsies to a whole other level and make it a musical. I did this very thing with a Br’er Rabbit script this past year. Though initially rather daunting, something magical happened once the kids started singing (and eventually dancing) to Zippity Doo Dah and Sinatra’s High Hopes. Br’er Rabbit ended up being the highlight of our school year. By incorporating songs from the 1890s, The Newsies will be a smash hit, too. You’ll find Ta-ra-ra Boom de-ay, The Sidewalks of New York, A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, In the Good Ol’ Summer Time, and My Wild Irish Rose all on Youtube and/or Amazon. I can see places in the script for all of them.

Of course, there are dozens of other “act aloud plays” on my webpage and TpT site. Any one of them might be just what you need to get your students up and active on stage—to bring a little extra magic to your language arts class.

Happy directing!