Readerís Theater - Developing Literacy Through the Dramatic Arts
by John Heath, Bad Wolf Press
Few educators doubt the value of integrating the theater arts into the classroom, but the idea of "putting on a play" can still send shivers down the spine of many experienced teachers. What we want you to think about when we mention "theater," however, is not a costume epic requiring three months of rehearsals, out-of-town tryouts, synchronized swimming, or the budget of a western European country.
Instead, think of finding a creative way to improve reading, supplement and reinforce curricular material, develop multiple intelligences, and bring learning to life for some of those students who do not respond to more "traditional" approaches. One easy and exciting way to do this without the hassle of costumes, sets, memorization, and the pressure of performance is Readerís Theater.
The primary aim of Readerís Theater in the elementary and middle schools has been to promote reading, but it really accomplishes much more. Readerís Theater means different things to different people, but it basically refers to uncostumed student "actors" reading literary works in dramatic form (scripts) on a stage with few or no props. We encourage teachers to go beyond the minimalist definition - students sitting in chairs or stools with the script in front of them on a desk or music stand - to having students walk through their parts, holding a script in one hand so they can gesture with the other.
For the beginner, we can recommend a great web site that has just about everything you need: www.aaronshep.com. This is the site of well-known childrenís author Aaron Shepard. Click on "Aaronís RT Page" under "Resources." Trust us, weíre not selling anything here: itís all absolutely FREE!
(There seems to be a long-festering controversy, by the way, about the exact spelling of Readerís Theater. Some prefer one reader (readerís), others demand the plural (readersí). A few iconoclasts leave out the apostrophe altogether, but they are not to be encouraged. Even uglier is the intercontinental debate raging over "theater" vs. "theatre." Personally, I wonít speak to people who say theatre. Oh, I can tell who they are.)
This site contains twenty-seven downloadable scripts that "may be freely copied, shared, and performed for any educational, non-commercial purposes." Some of the stories are original although most are retellings of traditional tales from throughout the world. The stories are remarkably varied in content and tone, from the bitter irony of Mark Twainís The War Prayer to the exotic take on acquisitiveness in Wali Dad. Some of the original stories are delightfully amusing, such as the interpretation of TV as a story-sucking machine insidiously sold to the unwary by a traveling huckster. To be honest, I was familiar with only about six or seven of these stories (I donít get out much) which come from India, Africa, the Middle East, Scandinavia, Russia, Vietnam, Iran, China, and the U.S. (including a native American legend).
Each of the tales includes the script, the "original" story, downloadable handouts and posters. Several are translated into Spanish or Chinese. Even more valuable are the guidelines posted for each script, indicating genre (myth, epic, poem, etc.), theme (pursuit of excellence, determination, gender issues, self-esteem, sharing, etc.), reading level (they range from first through ninth and up), and duration of script (from three minutes to fourteen). The number of cast members ("readers") is also listed for each edition, although there is great flexibility in almost every show. For example, hereís the opening of Forty Fortunes: A Tale of Iran (RT Edition #24):
NARRATOR 1: Once, in the royal city of Isfahan, there lived a young man named Ahmed, who had a wife named Jamell. He knew no special craft or trade, but he had a shovel and a pick - and as he often told his wife,
AHMED: (cheerfully) If you can dig a hole, you can always earn enough to stay alive.
NARRATOR 4: That was enough for Ahmed. But it was not enough for Jamell.
NARRATOR 2: One day, as she often did, Jamell went to the public bath to wash herself in the hot pool and chat with the other women. But at the entrance, the woman in charge told her,
WOMAN: You canít come in now. The wife of the Kingís Royal Diviner is taking the whole place for herself.
You can see how the parts are divided between characters and as many narrators as you want or need. You can use the script merely as a learning tool for your students, or have different groups of students perform different scripts for each other, or have the entire class perform a script for other classes or parents. (Note the duration of the scripts, from three to fourteen minutes - this is all quite manageable.)
In addition, the site includes extensive tips on scripting, staging, and reading, as well as several lists of further resources in the form of book collections of plays, poems, and ideas for Readerís Theater, material available online and even discussion groups. You can even email Aaron Shepard himself. (I tried it and he replied within a day. One of the perks of this job is that I get to bother famous people. I usually ask them what they had for lunch, just to break the ice.)
Basically, Readerís Theater is just dramatic story-telling with great educational benefits. Students must learn to read their parts, analyzing the language for meaning, pronunciation, and emphasis. They act with their voices, hands, and minimal movement (they might turn to each other, for example, when speaking, or away from each when they "exit"). There are enough stories with different themes and from such a wide variety of cultures that teachers can use the scripts as part of the required course material. Readerís Theater can be an easy and exciting way to incorporate the benefits of drama into an increasingly cramped curriculum. If these scripts wonít work, they can serve as excellent models for turning potentially mundane material from class into something special. Give it a try!
About Bad Wolf...
Bad Wolf Press was started in 1995 by John Heath and Ron Fink. They've known each other since 6th grade and have been writing songs together since high school, which was a very long time ago.
John is the word guy. He's a classics professor at Santa Clara University, which means he teaches Latin and ancient Greek, along with the literature of the period. He likes to play banjo for his dog, daughter and wife.
Ron Fink is the composer of 19 musical plays for classroom use in grades K-9. All are published by Bad Wolf Press. Ron lives with his wife and two kids near Los Angeles.
Ron does the music. He teaches piano out of his home in Southern California, and he accompanies music programs at his local elementary school. He's also the person likely to answer the phone when you call. Ron has two kids, one wife, and too many instruments.
Visit Bad Wolf Press at http://www.badwolfpress.com!