Classroom Connection: Readers' Theater

One of the most dramatic scenes in  The Great Gatsby,  and a terrific Readers' Theater piece!

One of the most dramatic scenes in The Great Gatsby, and a terrific Readers' Theater piece!

One challenge that naturally comes with helping my mid-level high school students navigate long or potentially difficult texts is knowing how exactly to best engage them with the actual reading process. The students I serve benefit from reading as much of the text in class as possible, but especially considering their varying fluency levels, I avoid the controversial "round robin" or "popcorn" reading strategy. Sometimes they read in pairs, other times silently; sometimes I read aloud to them, or we listen to an audiobook, stopping along the way to discuss. But one different strategy the students enjoy-- one that seems to bring even shy readers out of their shells-- is Readers' Theater. I often see this presented as an elementary strategy, but my high school students really enjoy it and it serves only to further engage them with the text.

As a writer, I know I'm always trying to create scenes that drive plot forward, that are rich with emotion or action. I try to find those critical scenes in our texts, scenes that rely heavily on dialogue and that I know will get students talking and excited. Two of my favorites are the Plaza Hotel scene from The Great Gatsby and the trial scene from To Kill A Mockingbird. The more salacious details or betrayals-- whether it's Daisy Buchanan's swift backpedaling from her commitment to Gatsby or Tom Robinson's description of what really happened when he went to help Mayella Ewell-- the better. Hearing 

I print out the full text of these chapters as scripts, as many as needed for each character who speaks, and then I highlight copies according to the part so each role is completely clear. Either I or a student volunteer will read the narration (anything that comes between the dialogue).

I talk with the students about vocal inflection, and we practice reading with appropriate volume and expression. Sometimes I'll coach students through a few sample lines, or, if I'm really organized, give them the scripts ahead of time to rehearse. Most everybody rises to the challenge and helps create a supportive reading atmosphere. Something about coming to the front of the room and working with a script helps everyone shift into "performance mode." That said, we don't worry about blocking or gestures, though students often end up throwing in some of their own 

With students at the front of the classroom, I find they often start discussion related to what they're reading without prompting. Even if they don't, it's not hard for me to jump in with a key question-- "why is Mayella treating Atticus with such contempt here?" and typically students from both the audience and performance respond. I'm always impressed with their insights. 

If you're hesitating about whether to use Readers' Theater in your high school classroom, don't! It's well worth the payoff in fluency, discussion, and engagement.