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.

Scenes
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 

Scripts
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).

Strategies
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 

Study
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. 

Recent Read: The Ostrich and Other Lost Things

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When Beth Hautala posted on Twitter that she wanted to share ARCs of her new novel, The Ostrich and Other Lost Things, I jumped at the chance. Waiting for Unicorns, Beth's debut, remains one of my very favorite MG reads, so I expected her second book to be wonderful as well-- and it certainly is!

Eleven-year-old Olivia Grant has a special knack for finding lost things, but she just can't find her brother Jacob's toy ostrich, and worse yet, ever since he lost it, his autism has seemed to worsen. Olivia loves her brother deeply, but struggles very authentically with the ways in which Jacob affects her ability to develop independently and with the attention her parents give Jacob in order to keep him functioning well. As Olivia nurtures her love for theater by auditioning for a role in Peter Pan, she must balance devotion to her brother with an understandable desire to spread her wings. Meanwhile, the excitement of a local traveling zoo and a growing friendship with the wise and supportive Charlie keep Olivia steeped in the mystery of where Jacob's beloved toy might have gone.

I love Beth's lyrical writing and sensitive characterization, and admire that she develops equally sympathetic portraits of characters who are often at odds. We love everyone in The Ostrich and Other Lost Things, and we admire these characters' love for one another even as we witness the natural conflicts that arise from their competing desires. The book's hopeful message in the face of difficulty emphasizes the enduring power of family and true friendships.

For teachers: There are so many real-world connections in this book, and in an age when we're all looking for ways to encourage our students' empathy, The Ostrich and Other Lost Things offers an opportunity for real conversations about interacting in loving, supportive ways with people who might not be considered neurotypical. Allowing students to research autism and to investigate how Jacob's behavior and role in his family might echo what they've learned could help students better understand the spectrum. That said, more general questions about how to cope with sibling rivalry and cultivate special talents will also appeal to students. They'll certainly relate to Olivia's conflicting desire to make her parents happy while also pursuing her own, and sometimes conflicting, goals. Writing about times in their lives when they've wanted to do something but felt another person, or people, stood in their way will help place students in Olivia's shoes.

The Ostrich and Other Lost Things releases on February 20, 2018 and is available for pre-order on IndieBound and Amazon. You can also follow Beth on Twitter and check out her website!

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Q & A with Beth

1. Right off the bat, this book has a very intriguing title and cover; I just love the juxtaposition of an ostrich with "lost things," as ostriches strike me as so enormously noticeable that it's hard to imagine they could ever be lost. How did you come up with the idea of incorporating the whole concept of a traveling zoo into your book?

The idea for The Ostrich and Other Lost Things was born out of my own inexplicable ability to find things—and not rest until things are found. I'm not nearly so talented as Olivia, and my skills come from always and ever chasing down my kids' things (as is true for most moms), but there is a certain satisfaction that comes only with finding something lost. I took that line of thought down the rabbit hole and started asking questions and making lists. What if there were a girl who could find almost any lost thing—except for one thing? Or what if that thing (a toy ostrich) actually represented a person—her brother? What if he was more found than she believed or realized?

How do I take that idea and wrap it up in tangible concepts? I keep a running list of things that interest me or pique my curiosity and I started a page for this story. On it: zoos, Peter Pan, lost and found, disabilities, autism, tattoos, family bonds. I took my list and started looking for characters between the lines, and there I found Olivia, Jacob, Charlie, and all the rest.

2. Olivia and her brother are both such sympathetic characters, but in very different ways. As readers, we're torn because we see both of their predicaments-- Jacob's autism, and Olivia's desire to break free of the constraints that autism imposes-- but we also see their love for one another. What was it like for you to develop two characters who were very close, yet also at odds with one another?

Challenging. Emotional. Tricky? All of the above!

I think the very best relationships are riddled with dichotomy. We are drawn to the things we see in others that echo the things we know about ourselves—maybe even the secret things, or the things we fear. And conversely, we are repelled by those same things. Olivia fears what she thinks she knows about her brother, but she has this consuming desire to make life okay for him too—to protect him and shield him even though that's not her job. Jacob does the same for her, spending the entirety of the story trying to help his sister understand that he is more okay than she realizes. 

And I think maybe we do that for one another all the time. Friendships, marriages, sibling relationships, lovers. We are looking for ourselves in the faces of the people we care about, afraid of what we'll find and knowing it's worth the look anyway. Acceptance—love-despite-it-all—is a soul-level craving. I wanted to give kids a framework for what that looks like, and I hope I drew a little picture of it (a healthy one and realistic one) in Olivia and her family. 

3. Charlie serves as a voice of wisdom in the book, and has had his own difficulties that inform the advice he gives Olivia. What is your favorite thing that Olivia learns from Charlie?

Charlie was this wonderful surprise. He jumped off the page at me in full color and never left. He is everything I hope for in a friend and I'm so glad he came along for Olivia. My favorite thing that Charlie teaches Olivia is that she matters. Not for what she can do for others, but for who she is—right now walking around in the world. She is gold. Reflective. Bright. And she doesn't have to wear a mask or pretend to be anything other than she is. It's a lesson I wish I could go back and teach my younger self. But because I can't time travel (yet!) I'll try and tell those truths to my readers. Though, they're a smart crowd and probably know more about this stuff than I do. 

4. As a parent, I was particularly moved by the scenes involving Olivia's parents struggling to meet both their children's needs. What are you hoping parents and children can come away from your book having learned or grappled with in regards to parent-child communication and relationships?

As a parent myself, yet still walking around with very strong memories of my own childhood, I felt like I was trying to straddle an impossible line writing this story. One foot in the past, one in the present. 

I hope, more than anything, that parents and children can come away from Jacob and Olivia's story with a clear sense of The Love Anyway, that unconditional acceptance that should smolder and burn in families. That love that says, "You are enough, just as you are right now! And because I love you so much, I also dream beautiful things for you! But even if none of them ever materialize–or at least never materialize in the way I imagine, my love for you will never leave. It's Always and Anyway and Because Of and In Spite Of." 

Thank you, Beth, for sharing your words and Olivia's beautiful story with us!

 

Recent Read: The Crossover

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Kwame Alexander's The Crossover won both the Newbery Award and  the Coretta Scott King Award, but that's not why I know my students will be devouring the book during our independent reading unit this year. From the very first page, this book just moves. Told in lively verse from the perspective of 12-year-old basketball star Josh Bell, its playful rhyme and staccato beat seem to mimic a ball bouncing down a crowded court. And it's not just about sports; through Bell's struggles with family and friends, plus a heart-wrenching twist towards the end, the poetry just soars.

For teachers: The Crossover offers wonderful opportunities to explore rhythmic language, and its popular premise-- basketball-- will help draw even reluctant readers of poetry. It's also a shoo-in for cross-curricular partnering: working with a physical education teacher to allow students to literally practice on court the skills Alexander describes with such vivid detail, or with a music teacher to experiment with how instruments could enhance Bell's "mad beats." Students could try writing in Alexander's style by describing a physical activity they enjoy using onomatopoeia, rhyme, a distinct rhythm and a physical pattern of words on the page that match their movement. While this book is technically written for middle grade readers, I'll be recommending it to my tenth graders in a heartbeat.