Archive for category American History
I was seven years old when the Apollo 11 mission blasted off for the moon in mid-July of 1969. I remember it well. My little sister and I spent much of July playing with a litter of puppies, though I can’t recall now if these belonged to my black lab Cookie or the family’s boxer, Peaches (we had a lot of dogs back then). But even those puppies couldn’t peel us away from Walter Cronkite’s non-stop newscast.
Here we are fifty years later. Space travel has become rather commonplace. Consider that the TV networks used to broadcast every launch, how we used to sit breathless watching the capsules plunge into the sea or the space shuttles touch down. These days we hardly glance up at the heavens, let alone note the passing of the International Space Station. Few of us can name even a single astronaut. Skylab has fallen, we’ve suffered human casualties, and exploration has been turned over to private enterprise.
Yet the moon remains as captivating as ever.
My reader’s theater play about the Apollo Moon Landing is based on my own childhood perspective from my backyard and living room on Beall Lane in southern Oregon. It accurately recounts the historic details of the event, details I wasn’t aware of then but make for some compelling drama now. Just as he did on television all those years ago, the famous newsman Walter Cronkite narrates the mission while astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins communicate with Control in Houston.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, I plan on making Apollo part of my lineup of plays this fall. It’s not only a great history lesson, it’s a “blast” to enact. The last time I used it, my students and I created a 1960’s television set out of a cardboard box, cut out the oval-ish screen, and made some “rabbit ears” for the top. The kiddo playing Cronkite sat inside to deliver lines such as “The date is now indelible. It’s going to be remembered as long as man survives. And that’s the way it is, July 20, 1969, the day man reached and walked on the moon. This is Walter Cronkite signing off.” My goal for this year is to create some funky space suits for Armstrong’s first step and Aldrin’s giant leap (off an aluminum ladder on to the stage).
Now imagine your students walking on the moon! Imagine them re-enacting the “Eagle has landed“ and “One small step” scenes while reciting the exact words spoken by Mission Control, Walter Cronkite, and the astronauts themselves. Imagine watching them explore the moon as if for the first time. What a great way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing!
You can check out my play and its related comprehension material, along with a wide array of other great Read Aloud Plays, at TeachersPayTeachers.
I have a theory about Walt Disney. Disney, of course, is known for animation. Way back in 1928—almost a century ago—Disney released Steamboat Willie to world-wide acclaim. Disney, though, wasn’t the first to produce an animated cartoon. What set Steamboat Willie apart and turned Disney into the $100 billion company it is today, wasn’t the animation.
It was the music.
Steamboat Willie and all of Disney’s subsequent productions included musical scores. Disney knew early on that something magical happens when you add music to a project.
That’s certainly true with classroom plays. Plays are wonderful vehicles for teaching reading and engaging reluctant readers, but when you add music, they become something altogether extraordinary. It’s no wonder the musicals I’ve directed are among the highlights of my career.
Needing a class-wide collaborative project to present at my school’s “Exhibition Night,” I recently embarked on the task of “musifying” my Newsies play script. Why so, you might ask, when Disney has a perfectly good Newsies musical of its own? First of all, Broadway musical scores (and Disney scripts) require costly performance licenses, which I can’t afford. Secondly, Disney’s script is way too complex for my fifth graders. And thirdly, like many (if not most) commercial movie projects, it isn’t as historically accurate as I would like it to be. The newsboy strike of 1899, and all the child labor issues surrounding it, is already quite fascinating. One needs only to Google the images—shoe shine boys dressed in rags, child coal miners covered in soot, newsboys sleeping in alleys—to be completely drawn in to the era. So why change the facts? Why dramatize something that’s already colorful and dramatic?
Unfortunately, my class returned from Christmas break surly and unmotivated. If it didn’t involve an emoji, YouTube, or Fortnite, they simply weren’t interested. Memorize a play script? You must be kidding.
But then I introduced the music: Louis Armstrong’s “When You’re Smiling,” Guy Lombardo’s version of “The Sidewalks of New York,” and most fun of all, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” It didn’t matter that these were ancient tunes originally recorded on 78 rpm vinyl. It didn’t matter that the tracks crackle as if being played on a hand-cranked gramophone. Just like Disney has taught us, the music had turned our ordinary class play into something enchanting.
Plays are tremendously rewarding and often hysterically unpredictable—and there are certainly a ton of awesome ones on ReadAloudPlays.com. But if you want to take it up a notch, if you want to experience that Disney-esque magic, try “musifying” a play. I’ve already done a lot of the work for you by creating my Newsies Against the World mini musical. It tells the story of Aniela Kozlowski, an eleven year-old Polish immigrant who must take to the streets to sell “papes” during the 1899 newsboy strike. Though dramatically different than the Disney Newsies show, it’s historically accurate and includes “sing-along” period music from the early 20th-century, all of which is available for free (non-commercial) download from archive.org. (Hint: visit my classroom webpage, The Daily Platypus, and check out my edited versions.) The script includes production notes, is prints in booklet form, and comes with performance rights for public schools.
Here are ten great paired texts with which to recognize black history month while meeting numerous Language Arts standards. All the plays are based on the given event–not it’s paired text (in most cases the play was published before the given book). That means each pairing represents distinctly unique points of view (Literature CCSS #6), making for livelier discussions and quality comparisons (CCSS Lit #7). And because these plays are based on real events, they’ll also satisfy CCSS Informational Text #6. Each includes a comprehension activity, too, assuring your students will satisfy numerous other standards as well. And because almost all my plays were originally commission by and published in Scholastic’s Storyworks and Scope magazines, they’ve been professionally vetted, making them the best reader’s theater on the market. Just click on the image to preview or purchase on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. Happy directing!
One of the things I find fascinating—and disturbing—about photos from the Civil Rights era are the faces in the crowd. Consider this picture of a mob beating Freedom Riders in Birmingham in 1961. Here are the faces of regular Americans—our neighbors, friends, sons, and grandpas—all caught on the wrong side of history, leaving a legacy of ugliness.
Sadly, an incident this past week in Washington D.C. shows things haven’t changed much. History’s lens caught private school students from Kentucky apparently harassing Native American Nathan Phillips. “The looks in these young men’s faces,” said Phillips, “I mean, if you go back and look at the lynchings that was done (in America)…and you’d see the faces on the people…the glee and the hatred in their faces. That’s what these faces looked like.”
Two pictures of the same thing, sixty years apart: faces in the crowd caught, perhaps, on the wrong side of history. It shows we have a lot more work to do.
Character, kindness, justice, and tolerance should be taught year-round—not just during Black History Month—but here are a number of great reader’s theater scripts and classroom plays to make February especially meaningful. When combined with your excellent teaching, perhaps more of our students will be caught on the right side of history, leaving behind a legacy of courage and kindness.
The Ruby Bridges Story—the integration of New Orleans Public School
The Girl Who Got Arrested—Claudette Colvin and the Montgomery Campaign
Freedom for the First Time—the Day of Jubilee—the end of the Civil War
How Jackie Changed the World—Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the Major Leagues
The Library Card—author Richard Wright’s efforts to become literate
Gonna Let it Shine—Sheyann Webb’s participation in the Selma to Montgomery March
We Shall Overcome—the Birmingham Children’s Crusade
Martin’s Big Dream—how an incident from MLK’s childhood inspired him
MLK’s Freedom March—the March on Washington in which MLK delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech
In the Jailhouse with Dr. King—a unique perspective on the Montgomery Bus Boycott
Sitting Down for Dr. King—the 1963 lunch counter sit-ins
Box Brown’s Freedom Crate—Henry Brown’s escape from slavery
All these plays are available on my TeachersPayTeachers storefront. They typically come with comprehension activities developed around the CCSs, and they include reproduction and performance rights. Not sure where to begin? Try downloading my free MLK Preview Pack.
Celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy and teach his core values with any of a number of plays available on my storefront at TpT. “Martin’s Big Dream,” which is about MLK’s childhood, is one of the most highly-regarded plays ever to appear in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine. “In the Jailhouse” offers a unique perspective on the events in Montgomery, “Gonna Let it Shine” covers the Selma march, and “We Shall Overcome”—my most popular civil rights play—depicts the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. But allow me to add a new one to the fold. Though not specifically about MLK, “A Simple Act of Courage” will give your students unique insights into everything Dr. King stood for.
Ruby Bridges was headline news in 1960 as she naively trudged into the all-white William Frantz School. Her compelling story, that of a first grader—a mere first grader!—integrating New Orleans Public Schools is indelible. Famed American author John Steinbeck wrote about it. Norman Rockwell painted it. And Ruby herself, nearly forty years later, revisited it in her stunning book, Through My Eyes. Ruby’s book is likely in your school library if not on your classroom bookshelf. By pairing it with this lovely reader’s theater script, you’ll have MLK curriculum that’ll stay with your students for years to come.
All of my MLK plays are emotional retellings based on carefully-researched real events. Your students will enjoy enacting them on stage or simply reading them in class, and the comprehension activities and support material will ensure your kids will meet the standards, too.
In honor of Labor Day, the Washington Post published an excellent feature on Lewis Hine, whose photography a century ago brought an end to ugly child labor practices. The Post’s cover photo, a Hine classic of a young textile mill worker, was the inspiration for my play, “Stolen Childhoods.”
If you’re unfamiliar with Hine’s work, be sure to read the Post article. In the late 1900’s, because there were no labor laws to prevent it or unions to defend against it, companies quit hiring adult men and instead hired children at a fraction of the cost. Both unemployment and illiteracy skyrocketed. Hine brought the practice “into the light” by surreptitiously gaining access to mines, factories, and farms and photographing children working long hours under deplorable conditions. He often convinced floor bosses that he was merely there to take pictures of the company’s “impressive” machinery. The children, he’d tell them, needed to be in the picture to provide a sense of scale. He was often threatened with violence, but his effort eventually paid off for the American worker, leading to labor laws that still exist today. Hine, however, died impoverished and with little fanfare.
My play, “Stolen Childhoods,” has been published in both Storyworks and Scope magazines. It follows Hine as he finagles his way into factories, and a trio of endangered siblings, whom he eventually photographs. Hine’s photographs are poignant and powerful; I’m hopeful I’ve captured a bit of that poignancy in my play. You can preview it or purchase it on my storefront at TeachersPayTeachers.
Allow me to conclude with a politically-charged statement: unions today have been vilified by politicians and corporate interests, but given their role defending the American worker, it seems more important than ever that young people know the history behind organized labor. The Post article, my play, and certainly the work of Lewis Hine go a long way in teaching that history.
In case you weren’t aware, March was Women’s History Month. Celebrating the contributions of women to history, though, needn’t be limited to a single month. Nor should it be limited to the same handful of heroines we’re all familiar with. In fact, given that the heroic actions of women often went unnoticed or unrecorded, one wonders how many sacrifices we’ve never heard about.
One heroine who was nearly forgotten by history is Sybil Ludington. Sixteen-year-old Sybil is credited with riding 40 miles on horseback to muster the militia when the British invaded Danbury, Connecticut, in 1777. Her story, which had been passed down within her family for nearly 100 years, wasn’t recorded until 1880. My play about Sybil gives students an impression of the perils of living in the American colonies at a time when neighbors–some Patriots and others Tories–might be violently opposed to one another. It speaks directly to issues of equality and gives students plenty to discuss in the way of character traits such as determination, independence, and work ethic.
The play was originally published in the Sept. 2015 issue of Scholastic’s Scope magazine. It was so well received that it was reprinted a year or so later in Storyworks. It’s now available for the first time on TpT, so I invite you to check it out. I also want to encourage you to pair it with my other plays from the Revolutionary War, including The Secret Soldier and Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, both which examine the contributions of women.
From Sheyann Webb to Christa McAuliffe, from Molly Pitcher to the recently deceased Linda Brown, the impact of heroic women on American history has been profound. Let’s celebrate that year ’round!