Archive for February, 2013

Unleash Your Reluctant Readers

The Necklace_SWTwo of my fifth graders recently confided to me that they wish to become actors. This after each starred in a classroom play—one as a ghost in our Scrooge movie, and the other as Maupassant the cat, the lead in my read aloud play based on Guy de Maupassant’s, The Necklace. What’s extraordinary about this is that these two boys are among my most reluctant readers–two struggling readers who’ve sat through every Title I intervention, every SPED evaluation, and every differentiated reading program known to humankind and yet have still managed to “flatline.”

Until now.  Read aloud plays have unleashed them.

When using read aloud plays, assigning parts can be tricky. If your goal is to impress the audience, cast your best readers in all the lead roles. But if your goal is to improve reading fluency, be sure to spread the parts around. Over the course of a school year, I try to make sure each student plays a lead role at least once. (Of course, my students enact 15 to 20 plays per year, so there are plenty of lead roles to divvy up.)

Struggling readers get more fluency-building practice from read aloud plays that any other reading activity. They get the text modeled for them by more experienced readers, they have the opportunity to practice it on their own before exposing themselves to scrutiny, and they’re willing to—happy to–read it over and over again. It looks a lot like what preschoolers go through when first learning to read, which according to brain researchers and development theorists such as Lev Vgostsky, is critically important.

Admittedly, I was initially worried when I gave the lead role in The Necklace to my struggling reader. My frustration grew as day after day he mumbled, bungled, and stumbled through his lines, often to the dismay of his fellow cast members (pause for a minute and imagine their heavy sighs). And day after day I implored him to work harder practicing his lines at home. Sure enough, over time he improved substantially, and during our final practice he was reading his lines well—not perfect, mind you—but well.

And now he wants to be an actor. I can’t recall getting results like that from a text book or leveled reader.

Remember when assigning parts that an Oscar or Tony Award isn’t what you’re pursuing. Your goal is to build capable, enthusiastic readers. When it comes to your struggling readers, read aloud plays is the perfect format to re-create that preschool parent-child brain chemistry.

Good “leads” on which to unleash your struggling readers include Henry in “Box Brown’s Freedom Crate,” Jackie Robinson in “How Jackie Changed the World” and Young David in “Sitting Down for Dr. King.” Good roles for reluctant girls include Tess in “Fly Me to the Moon,” and Young Claudette in “The Girl Who Got Arrested.”  All these plays and more are available for preview and/or purchase in my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Happy directing!


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So Easy a Squirrel Could Do It

Rikki Tikki TaviOkay, that’s not a squirrel, but a mongoose, as in Rikki Tikki Tavi from The Jungle Book. My students are all jazzed about the play Rikki Tikki Tavi, which they just recorded for use as a podcast. If you’re a fan of using Read Aloud Plays but haven’t yet experimented with podcasting, I encourage you to give it a try. Hear our sample by clicking on Rikki, or better yet, read on for two minutes and find out how easy it is for you and  your students to make your own.

Using Read Aloud Plays in the classroom has numerous academic benefits. One, the Common Core State Standards put a great deal of emphasis on using drama to teach reading. In fact, the word drama appears 47 times in the standards. Two, kids love reading and enacting plays, meaning their engagement is heightened. Three, plays rapidly improve fluency. Using Read Aloud Plays accomplishes this because most students are willing to read and re-read the same script repetitively (the same way they probably read picture books when they were tots). One additional key to success, I think, is to offer authentic and varying ways to present your plays.

Don’t get me wrong. Divvying up parts and reading a play just once has its merits. In fact, my class will be doing just that for President’s Day. Using three plays from my book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, we’ll be touching on the significance of the holiday without devoting an excess of class time. But in this case the emphasis is on teaching a specific history lesson rather than improving reading skills.

To really build fluency (and comprehension), I want my kids working with a given script for three to four weeks. They meet with me in “play groups” for “cast table readings” three times over the first week. Each play group is about a third of the class. Once they’ve demonstrated command of their given script, we move on to rehearsals. After two or three weeks of rehearsing (roughly three times a week for 20 minutes a pop), we present our plays in a few basic ways: Simple classroom staging, school stage production, full-blown musical, movie making, or podcasting.

Podcasting may initially seem daunting, but will become fairly simple with a bit of practice. You’ll need a laptop pre-loaded with Audacity software (a free download), a decent omnidirectional mic such as Samson’s Go Mic, and a quiet room.  Students simply read their lines. You can stop between each scene, re-do scenes as necessary, and edit out some of the stumbles, stutters, and pauses. Editing may consume a couple hours of your weekend, but once you’ve done so you can export your play as an mp3 file. Share it with you class as you would any other digital sound clip. In my classroom, we post them on our webpage.

Visit my classroom website at to see and hear samples of podcasts, play productions, and our Christmas Carol movie. If you’re working on plays for African-American History Month, it’s not too late to record your students for all posterity via a podcast. I admit, neither a squirrel or a mongoose can do it, but you can!

Happy directing!

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Your Happy Place

The Birthmark scope cover pageAfter 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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