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. 

Classroom Connection: Writing with students

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"I'm just going to leave my Google Doc right up here on the board," I said, pointing to the projected list of interview questions my high school students had generated for our Humans of New York-style writing and speaking project. "I'll write an answer to the question you pick and you can watch while you're working on your own."

My students seemed interested. They'd each drawn one of their classmates' questions out of an envelope at random, and I'd asked the last student to pick two and choose one for me to answer. Everyone got right to work, writing on a laptop or by hand (I like to give that choice), but at different points, all of them focused on my Google Doc, watching my words stumble across the page, unfolding in real time.

They saw me hit the "delete" key, fix typos, add more detail to sentences, and pause when I felt stuck before continuing to write. They heard me read my words aloud and revise as I went ( "oh, I'd go back and add more information here"; "I'd probably change this word"). They identified what I'd done well and we used those comments to build a rubric they could use for their own writing.

Instead of telling them that knowing how to start a piece of writing can be tough but brainstorming helps, that sharing personal work isn't easy but can be rewarding, that revision is necessary-- I showed them. Sure, I felt a little nervous; it's the beginning of the year, and we're all still getting to know each other. But I really believe that when teachers write in front of students, it doesn't just help students learn more about the writing process; it builds community in the classroom.