Teacher Tuesday

Thanks to the internet, I have some very dear friends that I’ve never met. Katy Van Aken is one of them. Newly retired from teaching at Swayzee Elementary School in Swayzee, Indiana (in either a self-contained 5th grade or 4th/5th split), Katy reached out to me after reading The Fences Between Us. To borrow a line from Casablanca, that was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. For twenty-two years, Katy worked magic in her classroom, encouraging her students to be champions every single day. When she told me about her year-end class project, I was blown away. And I knew you would want to know about it, too. There’s so much good information to share, that this Teacher Tuesday will be continued next week. So tune in then, too!

First, let’s take a peek into Katy’s past!
  •  Favorite school lunch as a kid: PBJ
  • Best friend in grade school: Always the youngest, tallest, and skinniest in my grade school class, I was shy. My little sister Peggy was my best friend and still is.
  • Times you were the new kid in school:  My classmates and I were the kids in 2 NEW schools, each built closer to home.
  • Teacher who inspired you to stretch:  My 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Lois Fritch, expected great things and never stopped smiling at me. 
  • The one thing you always wished you could do in grade school but never achieved:  Hit a baseball during recess!  If a baseball had glued itself mid-air in the perfect spot, I still would have swung and missed, over and over… My sport was ballet.
Tell us a bit about books in your classroom:  
Book talking = the heartbeat of our classroom culture. Along with talking about books, my students loved signing, commenting, and rating our classroom books inside their front covers to create reading histories and lasting recommendations; posting favorite words and quotes from books we read together or alone; and celebrating additions to our classroom library.
Do you have a favorite read aloud?  
Among my favorites are Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins and Island by Gordon Korman.  When Gregor says, “Ares the flier, I bond to you,” we’re on our feet, repeating the pledge together!   We’re knots of suspense in Island Book 3: Rescuewhen Luke’s working to remove the bullet from Will’s leg, “I don’t know what I’m doing in there! I might as well be using a pickax!” 
Katy, let’s dive in to the main reason I wanted to highlight you today: the year-end class plays. Tell us how it all came about.

Our plays were a natural extension of readers’ theater.  Kids begged to perform. Who could say no to their enthusiasm, talent, and prior experiences? I knew my students would teach me all we needed to succeed. The annual class play was born. 
During my first years, the plays were teacher-driven. My goals were simple: Plays must be tied tightly to curriculum. All students have nearly equal numbers of lines.  
We performed favorite r
ead alouds I used in science instruction: The LoraxOne Day in the Tropical Rain Forest The Magic School Bus on the Ocean FloorThe Magic School Bus Meets the Rot SquadRanger Rick’s ‘The Defeat of the Dump Monster/Night of the Living Trash,’  and The Magic School Bus Inside a Bee Hive.
While I achieved my goals, I realized our plays had become teacher directed “crowd control.”  I also realized I’d fallen in love with one of life’s greatest adventures — children’s literature! I shifted gears to teacher as facilitator.  Kid-driven ‘Favorite Parts of Favorite Books’ emerged as a 50 minute performance comprised of 5 mini-plays performed 3 times in our classroom on the day before the last day of school.  All students are super-stars!!!
What are some key elements of planning for this activity on your end, as the teacher? 
  • Make a calendar listing all steps through show time. Introduce the play to students. 
  • Designate a place for students to record their book suggestions. Share often! Include scenes from your read aloud. Imagine together!  
  • Scavenge sheets of cardboard and boxes for scenery and props. 
  • Beg donations of clear and duct tape! 
  • Write a note home with dates and times so parents can get off work to help and watch. 
  • Arrange for parents to help with scenery and rehearsals. Arrange for chairs for the audience to be set up wherever you perform. We moved desks to the hallway and performed in our classroom.  
  • Create a daily task list for students to keep the project on time.  
Key planning components for the students?   
From the first week of school until the last week of March, my students read, shared, and imagined the possibilities, creating a list of books to be considered for our play. The list often grew to 75+. 
Swayzee Elementary 2012 Play Program
Welcome Rap: All students
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: the death of Sirius Black
43 Old Cemetery Road – Over My Dead Body: rescuing Seymour from the orphanage, Mr. Grumply from the nut house, and the attempted exhumation of Olive C. Spence
Hattie Big Sky: Hattie’s decision to leave home against Aunt Ivy’s wishes, meeting the Muellers in Wolf Point, and Hattie’s first peak at the claim shack
Commercial for Magic
The Name of This Book is Secret: the escape of Cass and Max-Earnest from Ms. Mauvais’s office, and their rescue of Benjamin as the evil Dr. L. attempts to use the brain sucking out machine
Island: scavenging for medicine at the deserted WWII infirmary, JJ’s call home for ransom $, removing the bullet from Will’s leg
Talk about the preparation for the plays.   
There are as many ways to do this as there are classrooms and teachers. My students made 99% of the decisions and accomplished most of the work; however, this is notthe time to give up diet soda or M&Ms! Here are the highlights of what worked for us.
1. Decisions! From the class list, kids chose specific parts of 4 books, focusing on dramatic moments, action, and humor. Island was the 5th play, my anchor for the past five years because of our time frame, the 3-4 weeks after the final round of achievement tests. We had a script, scenery, a fake blood recipe, and a way to make it squirt during surgery. This play group helped other groups during work time.

2. Casting. Kids chose their parts. If more than one student wanted the same part, we pulled name sticks.  Students viewed this as fair, and fair is everything in 5th grade!  To make casting work out, we sometimes added characters or changed events. Kids could choose to act in more than 1 play if needed.  All students move scenery.
3. Scripts.  Each play group wrote their script with my help if needed. Plays were limited to 7 minutes and 4 connected scenes. Kids began learning lines. We wrote the rap using our original as a spring board.
4. Sets: We looked at our available stage parts and pictures of previous plays. Our center stage “big boards” were 2 sets of 2  4’x8’ sheets of cardboard glued to wood frames and hinged with rope. Similar sets made up our side stages. The insides and backs of our coat cabinets (on wheels) complet
ed the stage. Everything can be moved easily.
5. Scenery: I explained the scenery system. We taped scenery to both sides of the sets, turned to change scenes.  Kids used bulletin board paper to create remaining scenes.  These were fastened in story order to the top wood frames, each rolled to the top separately and secured with string and slip knots. To change the scene, just pull the strings. Reset between performances.
6. Staging: Scenery, props, costumes, special effects, and music! We planned with lists and sketches, scene by scene like story boarding.  Some scenery required research.  When my girls needed help with Hattie Big Sky, Kirby sent them a picture of the claim shack she referred to during her writing.  WOW!!! The girls googled Wolf Point historical pictures to see the train depot, and a parent enlarged them in his graphic arts studio.  We also downloaded WWI music to my iPod.  In Island, character JJ Lane used a cell phone to make a real call to his ‘dad’ (in the hallway) for ransom $$$.  The orphanage and nut house in 43 Old Cemetery Road were 100% kid-imagination, while the graveyard scene was based on the book cover.
7. Scenery fest!  We decided where to act each scene, center or side stage. I prepped by cutting/taping paper for the “big boards” and roll downs and cutting cardboard for stand-alones like the tombstones. Several parents helped each group. One of my amazing problem solvers figured out how to stabilize the arch needed in Harry Potter.  Before we finished, everybody brilliantly helped everybody with everythingJ!
8. Rehearsal! We alternated practice time and scenery work.  Before staging the coming, going, and acting, play groups practiced their lines alone, in their groups and group to group. I helped stage each mini-play and recorded it in diagrams to help us remember.  The kids’ ideas and ad-libs made the show!!!
9.  More Rehearsal! A week before show time, we rehearsed moving scenery and props only. (It takes 4 students to move 1 set of “big boards.”) We used Velcro on the floor to mark scenery positions.  I added notes to my diagrams to keep with my scripts during the show.We rehearsed it all together adding in music and special effects.  I’m too excited to sleep!!!
10.  Move it!  We performed in our classroom, so before dress rehearsal, we moved desks and everything else that wasn’t being used for the play into the hallway.  We did our regular work with clipboards on the floor.
11. Dress rehearsal! The day before the show, we performed for the kindergartners using water instead of blood in Island.
12.  Show Time!  Room parents provided snacks and juice for in between performances.  Kids will plead starvation!  My math aide helped me reroll and slip-knot scenery. Students and parents took lots of pictures and video.  My “emergency kit” of extra string, tape, and scissors was handy for any scenery and costume emergencies.  I had to cut several strings when knots refused to slip, replacing the strings when we reset scenery.
13. Celebrate success! The kids loved watching the play video on the last day of school.  We wrote thank you notes to parents, aides, and our custodian.
13. Save it!  I stored all roll down scenery.   It could be often be reused or renovated saving time and resources.
14.  Reflection. I emptied my head/wrote down what worked and what I planned to change the following year. I also created a power point of the play pictures. 
Katy, you make it sound like so much fun! And I know from the video you sent me and the photos, that it was a highlight of your fifth graders’ lives! Next week, let’s talk about the impacts on them, and why you’d recommend year-end plays to other teachers.