My class of fifth graders staged a nifty trio of plays recently. Eric paced about the stage as the insanely villainous narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart, Jacqueline put on her best 1930’s gangster dialect, performing the roll of safe-cracking Jimmy Valentine in A Retrieved Reformation, and Emilee engaged us with a delightful French accent in The Necklace. Though staging these plays can be hard work for the teacher, the rewards are gargantuan. Some good props—a cardboard safe for the gangster play, for example—help turn the plays into memorable performances, but over the twenty-plus years of doing this stuff, I’ve come to the conclusion that for young actors, there are five areas of greatest importance.
Projection: I’m not a believer in microphones. Instead, I want students to “fling” their voice into the audience, to “almost yell” their lines—and by way of example, I admit to myself doing a lot of shouting to help get them there.
Attention: Students often get lost in the performance, becoming spectators instead of performers. My best performers pay attention to the script so they come in on cue. We repeat whole scenes over and over again until performers recognize their cues without thinking.
Characterization: Memorable performances come from actors who use dialect, accents, and inflection to put personality into their parts. Jacky’s gangster dialect, Emiliee’s French accent—they brought their plays to life!
Enunciation: I’m painfully aware of my own tendency to mumble—especially when in a rush—and I bet you’ll agree your students have the same issue. We want our kids to slow down and speak crisply. This flies in the face of so-called “fluency standards” in which success is measured by words per minute, so you might have to do some “unteaching” to get your kids to enunciate properly on stage.
Direction: My kiddos think it’s funny when I say, “No one wants to see your rear end!” But said often enough, it does the trick to get kids facing the audience, a critical element when acting.
To help teachers turn kids into good actors and even better readers, I’ve put together a little poster called “5 Stage Acting Hacks for Kids.” It’s available for free on my TeachersPayTeachers site. If you like mnemonic devices, it uses the “PACED” acronym to help students remember the five elements. You can print it as an 8 ½ b 11 handout in color or a low-ink versions, or you can enlarge version #3 by 154% to create an 11×17 mini-poster.
A few weeks ago I blogged tongue-in-cheek about swiping reader’s theater scripts through nefarious means, so I thought I’d follow it up with a legitimate opportunity to grab some free reader’s theater while simultaneously honoring America’s veterans. I’ve repackaged my play “War Stories,” which originally appeared in my now out-of-print book, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, and am presenting it free from now until Veterans’ Day on November 11th. It comes with a set of comprehension activities and full reproduction rights, which means the original downloader can copy a full class set for use in his or her classroom every year. It’s an engaging way to reveal to your students the real meaning of the holiday. Happy directing!
Fairies waving candied wands… Goblins drooling chocolate malt… Halloween has such a bizarre place in our classrooms. In my school it’s been informally “banned,” though the kinders still get to parade through the school in their costumes, and the rest of the student body gets to have an afternoon “party” that presumably has nothing to do with ghouls and ghosts. Personally, I like “Monte Carlo Day,” a party in which kids set-up, run, and risk candy tokens at a variety of “probability games” such as Roulette, 21, and the Shell Game. The kids still get their candy fix, but at least there’s a bit of math involved.
An even better approach to Halloween is to replace your parades and parties with a collection of play performances. Kids still get to dress up, you can serve treats at the performance, and it’s not only academically valid, but a fine way to satisfy standards. A trio of plays takes a few weeks to prepare and an afternoon to perform. You can also invite other classes to attend, thereby helping your colleagues with their Halloween alternatives.
I have a number of Read Aloud Play titles that are perfect for Halloween. The Birth-mark, which is a classic short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, tells the story of a mad scientist who, in his quest to make his already beautiful bride “perfect,” kills her instead. The Monkey’s Paw is W.W. Jacobs’ classic Gothic tale about getting three wishes. The disturbing result will stay with your students long after Halloween has passed. The well-known Legend of Sleepy Hollow is available in my book, Read Aloud Plays: Classic Short Stories (you can purchase and download it instantly at Scholastic Teacher Express). Pair it with YouTube segments from the original Disney flick. You’ll also find Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart in the same book, which can be paired with my modernized version, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone. (At least one of my reader’s has commented that it’s “too strange,” which I think makes it a lot of fun for Halloween.) Finally, A Piece of String has a ghostly conclusion and Cyclops has a ferocious monster. All of these plays were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines such as Scope and Storyworks, so you know they’re up to snuff, and they all come with reproduction and performance rights.
Ready to give it a try but unsure how to start? Download my free guide to teaching with plays. It’ll give you tips and ideas on how to use plays to make your language arts block the best section of the day. But get to it right away…those ghouls and goblins are already knocking at your door.
Happy Halloween and happy directing!
I’m sure you remember those big FBI warnings at the beginning of our old VHS movies. Aren’t you glad the TpT products we buy for our classroom don’t have one slapped over the cover page? Well, maybe they should. Though we may be perfectly honest, totally committed educators, we might still be tromping all over somebody’s hard-earned copyright. That’s right. This month’s post is one of those in which I have to be a curmudgeon and complain about copyright infringement. But stop! Don’t click away. Here are five ways you (yes, you!) may be violating copyright laws:
#1 You Post Stuff on Teacher Websites
I commend efforts to engage students by posting class content online, but we have an ethical obligation to make sure only our own students can access it. Search engines crawl sites like Weebly and Wikispaces, which means anyone can locate, download, and print the copyrighted material posted there. A safer bet is to use Google Classroom and set such docs as “View Only.”
#2 You Pay for 20 Subscriptions but Print 25 Copies
Let’s say you subscribe to a classroom magazine such as the ever-wonderful Storyworks, but because you know students will spindle, tear, mark-on, and lose scripts when they’re working on a play, you, like many teachers, print photocopies. That’s fair use—as long as you print just twenty. A subscription to a classroom magazine is like a software license. Twenty subscriptions means only twenty copies are being used at any given time. Consider too how that might apply to posting content online.
Note that my ReadAloudPlays.com branded plays come with full reproduction rights. The original purchaser is licensed to print a full class set for use in his or her classroom. That means when you buy just one copy—usually for around three or four bucks—all your students can use it. You can’t give copies away to colleagues, post it online for anyone to download, or, as one unscrupulous fellah tried to do, put your name on it and try to sell it on TpT, but every one of your students can access it.
#3 You Adapt a Story as a Play
For those of you who like to write your own plays, that’s great! Nothing precludes you from picking up a copy of James & the Giant Peach and creating a play.
Unless you post it for the public.
Because you don’t own the rights to Roald Dahl’s stories, Dr. Seuss’ rhymes, or Charlotte’s Web, you can’t legally offer an adaptation to the masses–even for free. To post a play based on Harry Potter, you must either have permission from J.K. Rowling or wait until the story is in the public domain. In the case of Harry, that won’t happen in any of our lifetimes. In the case of James & the Giant Peach, you’ve got another forty years or so.
Can students create plays of their favorite picture book? Absolutely. They just can’t post them online.
What if you download somebody’s adaption of James & the Giant Peach from TpT? Well, you’re supporting someone who is infringing on Roald Dahl’s copyright. Sophie Dahl may be well-to-do, but her father earned that copyright. It should be respected.
Here again I get to promote my ReadAloudPlays.com brand. All my plays are either original (such as my history plays), adapted from works in the public domain (such as classic short stories), or originally published through agreements between the author/publisher and my publishers at Scope or Storyworks. Note, however, that the original graphics and layout appearing in Scholastic magazines belongs to the illustrator and/or company. Consequently, when I repackage a play I have to re-create all that from scratch using public domain images and graphics I’ve purchased.
#4 You Perform a Play for an Audience
Most professionally-written plays require you purchase performance rights, which can range into the hundreds of dollars. To stage a showing of The Lion King without purchasing rights is infringement–even if you don’t charge admission.
I periodically get requests from small theater companies requesting performance rights for my ReadAloudPlays.com scripts. (Typically I donate such rights to non-profit groups.) Teachers, though, needn’t worry about requesting permission at all. I include performance rights with all my plays.
#5 A Nasty Bonus
The Web seems to have blurred the lines of acceptable use, so these days copyright issues pop up all the time. My most recent Internet review turned up several innocent violations—teachers who posted a play on their webpage so that students could pre-read it, for example. But I also found a couple malicious violations in which “dark web” organizations are posting my content illegally and using that content to infect user computers with malware and adware. If you’re unconcerned about copyright, you can get free copies of my “Birth-mark” and “Tell-Tale Heart” plays. But be warned. Cloudfront.net is an Amazon-related site that I’m told is frequently pirated. That big red button that says, “Download Now”? Well, my play won’t be the only thing you’ll be getting for free. Better to buy my plays—and anyone’s plays, for that matter—from respected sites such as TeachersPayTeachers and Scholastic Teacher Store.
Those of you who respect copyright and download only legal copies of material, thank you! Happy directing!
Before you crack those text books or assign that homework reading, how about blasting away all that summer slog with some kid-friendly reader’s theater? Because nearly all my titles were originally published in Scholastic classroom magazines, they’ve been designed to meet the latest standards. Here’s a baker’s dozen of timely titles to get your kids up and interacting right from the start:
Plays About Kids in Poverty
The Library Card tells the true story of a sharecropper’s child who overcomes poverty and racism on his way to becoming the internationally-acclaimed author, Richard Wright. The Newsies shares the tale of immigrant street children who survive by selling newspapers during the great depression. When the big publishers stick it to them, the kids go on strike. This one’s also based on real events and the subject of a Disney musical of the same name. Stolen Childhoods shares the work of depression-era photographer Lewis Hine’s crusade to end child labor. Based on real events, the story follows a trio of fictional kids who bide their time working in the textile mills rather than going to school. These are dramatic, heart-wrenching stories your kids will love.
Just for Fun Plays
Each of these plays has a distinct academic theme and literary focus, but the main reason for enacting them is pure get-up-and go amusement. In Cyclops, kids get to play Greek soldiers who get eaten one by one, the heroic Odysseus, and of course the one-eyed beast himself. Blood and guts for sure, but a ton of humor as well. The Tale of Peter Rabbit is also a carrot patch full of silliness. Let your older students adapt the script to their liking and then enact it for the littl’uns down the hall! Finally, Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone is a modernized version of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” only the old man is the main character’s best friend and the beating heart is a buzzing flip phone.
Plays About Racism
Regardless of one’s political persuasion, there’s no questioning that issues about racism have recently exploded. Open constructive dialogue about it by reading How Jackie Saved the World, which shows how Jackie Robinson overcame racism to change the landscape of American sports. Sitting Down for Dr. King looks at the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins from the perspective of a ten year old white boy. When the sit-ins interfere with David’s celebration, he’s faced with a tough decision. The Girl Who Got Arrested shows what it was like to be a black child in the South during the mid-20th Century. Long before Rosa Parks, teenager Claudette Colvin was dragged off a bus, beaten, and jailed for refusing to give up her seat on a city bus. Powerful stuff.
Plays About the American Revolution
Many intermediate-grade text books start the year focused on the American Revolution. You can get your kids better engaged by jump-starting your unit with some reader’s theater. Two Plays from the American Revolution is a two-for-one deal that includes “Eagles Over the Battlefield,” a nifty skit in which Jefferson and Franklin argue about the adoption of the eagle, and “A Bell for the Statehouse” provides the real history behind that infamous crack in the Liberty Bell. Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction lets your kiddos sleuth out the facts about the creation of the Stars & Stripes. Lastly, Secret Soldier shares the compelling real story of America’s first female soldier. No one knew it at the time because she fought the war disguised as a man. After doing these plays, kids will be chomping at the bit to read those textbook stories about Tories and minutemen.
Plenty More Where Those Came From
That’s right, I have a ton of other professionally-published read aloud plays for the elementary and middle school classroom. Take some time to explore my collection at ReadAloudPlays.com or at my storefront on TeachersPayTeachers, and be sure to use RT all year long. Thanks, and Happy Directing!
One of the greatest things my mother ever did for me was regularly take me to the public library when I was a kid. I don’t recall any exact schedule or regular routine, but I’m guessing every two weeks or so—perhaps more during the summer. On these days my mom would drag my little sister Karen and me away from whatever mud puddle or walnut tree we were in, and we’d all slither into her Ford Falcon and head off to the main branch downtown.
Karen was my best friend growing up, but at the library we mined different tracts. So engaged was I by our library outings that I have no recollection whatsoever of Karen even being present, though I know she was. I sought Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket novelizations, wildlife fiction, and sports biographies, always coming home with a stack of books to conquer before the next visit. I also Dewey-decimaled my way into the architecture section upstairs, pouring over books about drafting and design. When my mom bought me a drafting set one Christmas, I became a master with a t-square and determined to become an architect myself. I got side-tracked during the adolescence of high school, but I’ve used those drafting and design skills in many endeavors. Such was the power of those public library visits.
The library remains a significant aspect of my lifestyle today. It befuddles me when I see letters to the editor decrying the latest library bond. The writers of these letters want our libraries to charge user fees. They begrudge the $127.45 in annual taxes they pay to maintain our library system. Clearly, these folks never developed that library culture. Perhaps their mothers never took them to the library when they were young.
These days I find myself missing those childhood trips to the library. Perhaps that’s what inspired me to produce my latest Read Aloud Play, The Library Card. I originally wrote this script for Storyworks, where it appeared in October of 2001. It tells the story of African-American author Richard Wright’s relationship with the library. Wright wrote numerous books of significance during the middle of the 20th-century including Native Son and the semi-autobiographical Black Boy. The play is based on an incident from Wright’s youth in which he was denied access to the public library due to his race. The racism theme is obvious, making it an ideal fit for Black History Month, but make no mistake, this play is ultimately about the love of reading and the significance of libraries. With any luck, students who act-out this play will quit taking their access to the library for granted. Should you give the play a run, you might also consider pairing it with a trip to your local public library where you can help kids apply for their own library cards. It’s also worth noting that the story was popularized in William Miller’s inspiring picture book, “Richard Wright and the Library Card,” which makes for another ideal pairing.
Well, I’m off to the library. More plays are coming soon. Happy directing!
Seven years ago I assigned my fifth grade class a task called Letter to Myself at Graduation. “I want your fifth grade self to write to your future self,” I told them. “Talk about what’s important to you now, about your time in elementary school, and what you expect to be doing when you graduate from high school. Share some memories. Make some predictions. Say whatever you like. No one but your future-self will ever read it.”
The kids cranked out their letters and, with a bit of coaching, addressed their envelopes (it always surprises me how many fifth graders don’t know their own address). I then stashed the letters away with a yellow sticky note marked, “Class of 2017.” Well, obviously, last week I finally got to give them out! Some I handed directly to kids visiting our elementary school as part of our “Graduation Walk.” Others I delivered at graduation itself. A few more I mailed, having encouraged students over the years to keep their address updated with me.
The results were quite fun. After reading her letter, one young lady said, “Mr. Lewis, this is the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. Fifth graders are so stupid!” Like many kids, her goals and interests had changed profoundly over the years. Another boy came up to me and said, “This is hysterical.” He’d spent a good portion of his letter talking about which girls in class he found cute. One of them was across the gym reading her own letter. Another young lady opened her letter while standing in front of me and immediately let out a delightful squeal. “I gave myself a dollar!”
By no means do I think this activity is particularly unique. I’m sure many teachers all across the continent do something similar. These days, it’s a regular part of my year-end activities. I’m sharing about it here for three reasons: 1.) it’s rewarding for all involved and provides a nice connection to kids who are no longer four feet tall or interested in Pokemon; 2.) it serves to explain why I haven’t crafted a post or published a play in awhile. As it was for many of you, the last weeks of the school year were exceptionally crowded with things like finding purple shore crabs during our outdoor ed trip, creating meaningful comments on report cards, building a giant nose costume for a play performance, and convincing my principal in my performance review why I’m still relevant. There were softball games to watch, middle school honors night to attend, high school graduation itself, and numerous other events. Many of them—like handing out those graduation letters–were wonderfully rewarding. All of them were time consuming, which is my excuse for being so doggone slow at posting something new. And 3.) I have no doubt at least a few of those kids made mention in their letters something about a play in which they appeared or a role they got to play. Read aloud plays are always among the significant memories.
So, now that I’ve sent all the litter buggers home to immerse themselves in video games and YouTube, and the bigger buggers off to figure out real life, I’m using my summer “furlough” from teaching to get back to work on some new plays. Stay tuned. Thank you for your patience. And happy directing!