Posts Tagged The Birthmark

New Plays and Product Updates

Click on the cover to preview at TpTTeachersPayTeachers has grown immensely over the last decade. Back when I first started using it as a secondary market for my plays, products could be pretty simple. In fact, most were in black and white. These days there are a bazillion teacher-marketers selling product, so competition has become pretty fierce. Consequently, I’m constantly trying to update my Read Aloud Play packages and post new ones. Thanks to a couple of snow days here in southern Oregon, I was recently able to revamp several products. I’ve added comprehension activities, teacher notes, and answer keys to The Monkey’s Paw, W.W. Jacobs’ fabulous masterpiece about three wishes, The Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wickedly wonderful “mad scientist” story, and Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey. These three plays are perfect for introducing middle-schoolers to the otherwise difficult original stories. Whether you use the play before or after, student engagement and comprehension skyrocket when you pair the original with a play. But they’re also engaging stories for fourth and fifth graders to read and act aloud. (What could be better than your 5th grade Cyclops eating a bunch of 4th grade Greeks?) All three of these plays originally appeared in Scholastic classroom magazines, so they’ve been “vetted” by Scholastic’s professional editors. Add to that the new comprehension activities and they’re a fantastic deal.

I’ve also updated The Secret Soldier, which has previously appeared in both Scope and Storyworks. It’s the true story of Deborah Samson, the first woman to serve in the U.S. Military. Samson disguised herself as a man to enlist in the militia near the end of the American Revolution, was twice seriously wounded, and even performed surgery on herself to avoid being found out. It’s a must-have for any Revolution unit study. Like the other updated plays, it now comes with the additional support material—as do my other plays from the era. Be sure to check out Betsy Ross: Fact or Fiction, Two Plays from the American Revolution, and my newest product, So You Want to Be President. This last one is another “Two for One” pack. It comes with two of my favorite plays from my 2003 Scholastic title, Read Aloud Plays: Symbols of America, which is no longer in print. Both plays cover the history of the presidency and the character traits necessary to serve successfully. Given today’s political climate, they’re important additions to your history and reading curriculum, but they’re also a lot of fun to read and enact.

Finally, MLK Day and Black History Month are already upon us. If you haven’t yet read my earlier post about my Civil Rights and African-American history plays, be sure to scroll down and take a look.

Happy directing!

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Act-Aloud Plays

Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave“Johnny” has a big personality. Though it sometimes gets him in trouble, it translates well to the stage. While playing Polythemus in my play, Cyclops: The Monster in the Cave, he takes a swig of an imaginary potion, vomits, staggers pathetically, and then falls to the ground. It mesmerizes the crowd.  The play’s a hit.

But there’s more behind the play’s success than just Johnny’s big personality. Because I’m both a teacher and a playwright, I write my plays while imagining my students acting them out. As a result, they’re not just read-aloud plays, they’re act-aloud plays.  Like many of you, I’ve run across plays that are clogged with excessive narration (“too much exposition,” as the say on Broadway) or made confusing by multiple settings within the same scene.  Know that I endeavor to create plays that avoid these traits.  While narration is necessary given the format prescribed by my publishers, I try to keep it to a minimum, or I find creative ways to deliver it. For example, the character of James in The Birthmark is simultaneously telling his story to the audience while talking to the other characters in the play. The Snakecharmers in Rikki Tikki Tavi, are designed to be mystical figures (I imagine them with flute in hand). And Adult Tyree from Freedom for the First Time retains all the local color (and southern dialect) of her childhood counterpart, the central figure of the story.   Another reason my plays are created with the stage in mind is because I believe that the repetition of practicing for an actual performance is what builds reading fluency and drives student buy-in. Kids love performing, and they’ll read and re-read their scripts over and over again if it leads up to a performance. Try asking a kid to read a story out of the Houghton-Mifflin text thirty times. See where that gets you.

Using read aloud plays simply as good reading material is just fine, but their greatest value, especially for kids like Johnny, is as act-aloud plays. And speaking of fund plays to act out, I’ve just posted three new ones. All three were published in Scholastic’s Scope magazine last school year.

The Birthmark is based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic short story about imperfection. It pits science against nature and includes a wonderful “mad scientist” scene, complete with an Igor-esque lab assistant.  Cyclops, from Homer’s Odyssey,  will excite all your students who’ve gotten into the Percy Jackson books.  It mixes the original Greek mythology with some kid-friendly humor that will have your students giggling. Mine sure did.  Finally, The Secret Soldier tells the true story of Deborah Samson, who disguised herself as a man and joined Washington’s Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. It’ll be a great addition to your Early American unit. Help your “Johnny” find success with act-aloud plays. Visit readaloudplays.com or my store at TeachersPayTeachers to preview or purchase dozens of compelling plays.

Happy directing!

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State Testing Linked to Premature Baldness

The Birthmark scope cover pageI’m willing to admit to a high degree of frustration when it comes to standardized testing. In fact, during the latter part of the most recent school year, state testing had me secretly yanking fistfuls of grey hair from my head. I had so many kids being pulled out of my fifth grade class to either test or get remedial instruction, rarely (if ever) did I have my full group. It made for some dysfunctional lessons requiring reteaching material to kids who were already being retaught material from previous years. Still, as my Admin is fond of saying, “testing is the reality in which we live.” Embrace it or die (at least that’s how I translate it).

Well, I’m happy to say my students did just fine on state standardized tests, especially in reading where nearly all either met standards or growth targets and average fluency scores soared. Why mention it here? Because I long ago abandoned traditional text books and instead built my reading program around read aloud plays. Along with chapter books and content reading (primarily history content from Storyworks magazine), read aloud plays are the mainstay of my instruction. Not only do they build fluency and provide the framework to teach comprehension skills, they also increase the love of reading. It was no surprise to me that during our annual book give-away the last week of school, one of my reluctant readers eagerly snatched up a copy of A Christmas Carol. He’d had a small part in our movie adaption back in December and was still enthusiastic about it.

While some of my colleagues look at the new Common Core Standards with trepidation, I’m confident my young thespians will continue to thrive. In fact, I’m already mapping out another year of read aloud plays. You can see my tentative plans below, and if you’d care to jump on the reader’s theater bandwagon, you’ll find all of the titles either on my TpT Storefront, in one of my books^, or coming soon via this website*.

I’ll close with one warning: using read aloud plays to improve test scores means more than just handing out scripts and inviting kids to read. To see the nuts and bolts of how it’s done, download my free article, Why Use Drama? 

September–Exploration: The Fountain of Youth, Lewis & Clark and Bird Girl, Fly Me to the Moon

October—Halloween Theme: Penelope Ann Poe’s Amazing Cell Phone, The Tell-Tale Heart^, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow^, The Monkey’s Paw, The Birthmark*

November/December–Christmas Theme: Ebenezer Scrooge, The Gift of the Magi^, Gabriel Grub*, The Necklace^

January–American Revolution: The Secret Soldier*, The Legend of Betsy Ross^, Eagles Over the Battlefield^

February–Slavery & Civil War: Spies & Rebels, Freedom for the First Time, Box Brown’s Freedom Crate

March/April–Civil Rights: Sitting Down for Dr. King, Freedom March, We Shall Overcome, Selma to Montgomery: Let it Shine*, The Girl Who Got Arrested, In the Jailhouse with Dr. King, I Have a Dream: The Childhood of MLK^

May—Just for Fun: Peter Rabbit, A Retrieved Reformation, Cyclops v Odysseus*

All right, I’ll close (for real this time) with the fine print: Read Aloud Plays won’t stop your classroom instruction from being interrupted by standardized testing. Nor will it decrease your risk of premature baldness due to the same. But done right, read aloud plays will have a positive impact on your reading test scores.

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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