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The most valuable class I have ever attended was at first a mistake. My enrollment in "Reading 101: Strategies for Middle School Students," offered at our local intermediate unit, was a clerical error by one of the secretaries registering me in the class. Yet, for some unknown reason, I decided to roll with it and take the class anyway. Heck, it was only a week-long course, and maybe I'd get something out of it.
I'd dabbled with reading my whole life, but I had never been a reader - until that course. The teacher inspired me so much that I read 3 books that week, a classic, a book in my field, and something on the New York Times Bestseller list - a rotation she prescribed to us all. But the most lasting change she brought to my life has been the Reader's Theater concept.
What is a Reader's Theater? It is a teacher-written and directed play that applies directly to your content area of study. How do you write one? My own 12-step prescription is below, as well as a that Reader's Theater (RT) I wrote in that class and have performed for six years with my students:
- Sit down and take a strong look at your curriculum, and identify one concept you wish students were able to grasp onto more. You need to select something that you could imagine acting out in your head, as those imaginations will provide the crux of your RT.
- Read about the concept as thoroughly as you can. Delve into a wealth of sources, and take notes on things you find interesting and enlivening. This will provide the background information to drive the line of your play.
- Drum up a list of characters for your play. The optimal number is in the 10-15 range, getting many of the students involved but not all of them. Not all students will be the outgoing, Type-A students needed to enact a Readers Theater, but there are ways to keep them involved in the audience.
- Try to make one of the characters completely outrageous and fun. While I'm sure Roger Sherman's descendants wouldn't be too thrilled about seeing how I portray their forefather in the RT below, I do a full lesson on his life and contributions before we go into it. Students then point out and criticize my absurd characterization of this great man, but he helps put smiles on faces.
- List the places of setting where the characters will be. Brainstorm ways to set the mood in each of the areas, including backdrops and lighting, if you can.
- Start by writing creating an outline and plot structure. How will you introduce the characters? Where is the turning point of your story? How does the story meet its resolution? All of these making for GREAT talking points for students' comprehension of the event.
- Write your first draft.
- Be sure that you format it with different scenes, bold the characters' names at the beginning, and italicize what your narrator(s) will read for the action.
- I have RT's that are 3 pages in length (this one) and others that are 10+ pages in length. The trick is knowing your audience.
- Review it with a colleague or two. Note to them the point of entertaining and educating. They might even want to use a copy for their own classes.
- Re-read the first draft and add props to the RT. Try including them in a "prop basket," as this will prove to be valuable in future lessons!
- Read and edit the second draft with a student. See how they think / feel about the storyline. It should be fun, but not too fun. It should be educational, but not overtly educational. The trick is in the balance.
- Spice up your RT with a catchy, simple title and a portrait / picture.
- Perform and then discuss afterwards. If you have time during class, perform it again with different characters!
While a Readers Theater seems born to bring history to life, you can try it in just about any class. Here are a few ideas for a variety of fields:
- Reading - you can do this with just about any story. If you read something in class that you (and the students) find monotonous, you owe it to them (and yourself) to write an RT to bring it to life! This especially rings true with non-fiction, which students seem to score worse than fiction.
- Language Arts - make the 8 parts of speech interact with one another; have the writing process steps talk with "Mr. Paper," their writing assignment; take one of the books you're reading and bring the scene to life; have fun with grammatical and spelling errors
- Mathematics - have integers and the dreaded fractions mix around with one another at a dance party; teach a new concept by making the things come to life (like exponents battling through a "chicken war"); find the area of a triangle or the circumference of a circle like the Greeks would have
- Science - I'd love to write an RT on the elements mixing with one another and having baby compounds, and I bet the kids would, too; you could also talk about the kingdoms or Mendelev's genotypes and phenotypes
- Languages - Another exciting topic; just about any play on a scene (like ordering food, going to school, or asking a girl out) in a different language will be that much more remarkable and memorable
- Social studies - There's seriously nothing you can't do. Instead of testing 2 years ago, I had students create their own RT's for our World War I unit, and I received some of the most creative, thought-provoking lessons in my repertoire - one was on the Zimmerman Telegram, one was on trench warfare, another on The Red Baron, and another on the Lusitania - just to name a few.
Now my first and favorite Readers Theater - "Declaration" - enjoy!
A Readers’ Theatre for U.S. Government
Written by Mr. Jake Miller
Cumberland Valley School District
John Adams (MA – Patriot)
Benjamin Franklin (PA – Patriot)
Thomas Jefferson (VA – Patriot)
Richard Henry Lee (VA – Patriot)
John Dickinson (PA – Torie)
George Read (DE – Torie)
Robert Livingston (NY – Patriot))
John Hancock (MA – Patriot)
Thomas McKean (DE – Patriot)
Roger Sherman (CT – Patriot)
Jefferson ommitted this line in his final draft:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither."
Benjamin Franklin and John Adams are sitting down, excited about a piece of paper in their hands. Thomas Jefferson comes walking in to see what the rumble is about.
Ben Franklin: “Yo rookie, check this out.”
Thomas Jefferson: “What am I checkin’ out old head?”
John Adams: “That Lee finally did it. That homey wrote down the obvious”
Franklin shows Jefferson the Lee Resolution. Jefferson pauses for a few moments.
Adams: “Go ‘head, rook, read it aloud.”
Jefferson: “Resolved: That these united Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."
Adams and Franklin high-five and start screaming and yelling.
Jefferson: “What are you fellas so happy about? We’re going to die at the stake!”
Richard Henry Lee walks in. Jefferson turns towards him.
Jefferson: “Dude, do you have stock in Planters?”
Jefferson: “Yeah, because you’re nuts, dog!”
Franklin: “Yo TJ, it’s pretty simple. Don’t you enjoy your freedoms?”
Jefferson: “I do. But I also know I won’t enjoy them much in heaven.”
Lee: “Look, dog. We come from the same state. The same state where Patrick Henry screamed, at the top of his lungs, ‘GIVE ME LIBERTY, OR GIVE ME DEATH!’ And by God, that is what we are here for, and that is what he is down there fighting for.”
Jefferson: “But if this goes into the hands of the king…”
Adams: “If it enters the hands of the king, he shall surely know that we, united, wish to secure nothing but our liberties, our happiness, or our rightful death.”
Franklin: “And rook, we must hang together on this issue, or we will all HANG separately.”
Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and Lee enter the Congressional Chambers where all the other members are seated.
Adams wails: “RESOLVED, THAT WE SHALL BECOME FREE STATES! Let’s get this work done!”
John Dickinson: “Sit down, ya BUM!”
George Read: “Yo Adams, if you were a toilet, you’d be so full of yourself that poopy would be the least of our worries.”
Franklin: “Seriously dudes, let’s calm this down and get some stuff done. We’ve got a king to stand up to.”
Robert Livingston: “Hey Franklin, go fly a kite. Just don’t put a key on the end of it. We’ll have one less geezer here.”
Hancock: “Chill, dogs. We’re here for a reason, a cause. And we’ve got our boys out there fighting for it for the past 18 months. Let’s get some one to lead it.”
Roger Sherman: “Mmmmmm. Chili dogs.”
Lee: “It was my idea, I’ll lead it.”
Thomas McKean: “Lee and lead might sounds the same, but when I want some one to lead me to my grave, I’ll call an undertaker.”
Congress yells, “OHHHHH.”
Adams: “The Revolution has begun in my state, I’ll lead it.”
Read: “Adams you crazy cat, the only group that hates you more than British Parliament is this Congress.”
Congress yells “BURRRRRN.”
Franklin: “Let’s get Hancock to lead it.”
Sherman: “Who’s the baby?”
Jefferson: “No doubt. He’s a smart dude.”
Hancock: “Thanks, TJ.”
Dickinson: “Hancock, there is no I in team, but there are two in idiot.”
Congress yells, “OHH SNAP.”
Read: “And we need some one to lead us to make peace with England.”
Adams: “This is insane. One useless man is called a disgrace; two are called a law firm; and three or more become a Congress.”
Hancock: “And, so far, the opposite of Continental Progress has been Continental Connnnnnnngress.”
Franklin: “Fo-sho. Let’s get a vote for a leader. Those of you for Hancock for president, stand up!”
All of Congress stands, minus Read & Dickinson.
Jefferson, while walking towards Hancock: “Well, I guess it’s up to be the leader now.”
Jefferson pats Hancock on the back, and hands him the gavel.
Sherman: “Where the chili dogs at?”
Hancock: “Please, be seated. Except for you Sherman, do some break dancing.”
Sherman break dances on floor. Congress claps along.
Lee: “This is crazier than Tom Cruise on Oprah. I’m outta here.”
Adams: “PEACE OUT!”
Lee steps out the door momentarily, and comes back and sits down.
Lee: “Let’s get things done.”
Dickinson: “Yes, agreed, but we don’t need a stinking revolt.”
Read: “We don’t need to do anything at all.”
Adams: “Read, you’re crazier than Sherman.”
Sherman screams out loud, and long.
Franklin: “Dogs, while no country has ever successfully won independence, we have no other choice.”
Dickinson: “Well, then you’ll never have my vote.”
Read: “Same. Ya bums.”
Hancock: “Let’s be rational about this. We shall form a committee to get things done, and do the best for America.”
McKean: “Who shall lead this committee?”
Hancock: “Do I have volunteers?”
Sherman makes cricket noises
Hancock: Okay, then it will be you (points to Franklin), you (Adams), you (Livingston), you (Sherman), and… and… well the last was supposed to be Washington.
Livingston: Sorta, kinda, not possible to do… Ya know, when he’s fighting the war.
Hancock: Well, then it will be you, rook (points to Jefferson).
Franklin, Adams, Livingston, Sherman, and Jefferson are standing together, alone.
Adams: Okay, who is going to get this started? I have some letters to write my wife… (Walks out)
Livingston: I’m tired. Time for a nap. (Yawns and walks out)
Sherman yawns, and falls down to the floor for a nap.
Franklin: And it’s time for me to find a tavern. (Walks out)
Jefferson: Guess that leaves… me.
Jefferson starts scribbling on paper.
Jefferson Starts reading aloud, with a mighty voice:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Congress & others applaud.