Archive for January, 2013

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!

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How Engaging are Read Aloud Plays?

Why Use Drama cover 220x289How 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!

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Engaging Kids for MLK Day

King and Johnson With Martin Luther King Day just around the corner, I’ve frequently been asked of late, “How do you get kids meaningfully engaged in Civil Rights and Black History?” It’s a good question. Other than the appeal of the teacher, why should some white kid in suburban Flagstaff care about King’s work fifty years after the fact?

I’ve heard about good simulations, such as the one where classrooms segregate students based on eye-color, hair-color, or by lottery and allow one group to abuse the other for a day. Such activities are powerful—but they’re also controversial. Civil Rights is an important topic, but there’s no reason to do something that’s going to make your students cry, land you in your administrator’s office, or possibly require the services of an attorney.

A better way, I’m convinced, is to re-enact actual events through Read Aloud Plays. Imagine your students actually marching in Birmingham, getting thrown off the bus in Montgomery, or being tear-gassed in Selma.
How can we create in our students true empathy for what victims of racism experienced? How about having them enact the play The Girl Who Got Arrested in which—a year before Rosa Parks—a teenaged girl becomes the first to get thrown in jail for challenging Montgomery’s segregated bus system?

How do we get kids today to feel what the crusaders felt? Have them enact the play, Sitting Down for Dr. King, in which a white boy in Greensboro watches the Lunch Counter Sit-ins unfold around him and ultimately sacrifices his own interests to join the protestors.

Using Read Aloud Plays to teach Civil Rights comes with the added benefits that the approach improves reading fluency, aids comprehension, and helps meet 47 Common Core Standards. Forty-seven!  Nearly all of my Black History plays have been previously published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Storyworks and Scope, so they meet the highest standards. And because I’ve been writing and using Black History plays with my own students for nearly twenty years, I can attest to the fact that kids LOVE enacting these plays and learning about these events.

We Shall Overcome, my most popular Civil Rights play on TeachersPayTeachers, re-enacts the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. Television reporters cover the events as Bull Conner bullies protestors and school kids, and firehouses blast away as crusaders sing, “We shall overcome/we shall overcome/ we shall overcome someday…” Donning the persona of these characters, be they Bull Conners, MLKs, or Ruby Bridges, changes a person. Kids love to discuss how it makes them feel.

So, how do you get kids meaningfully engaged in Civil Rights and Black History this MLK Day? With Read Aloud Plays. For tips on how to get the most out of Read Aloud Plays, download my free article, “Why Use Drama?”

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