Borderlands: Reading as Theater

In the introduction to Worlds of Childhood: The Art and Craft of Writing for Children (1990), William Zinsser wrote, “This gift — to get good language into the ear of children at a very early age — is what children’s literature has in its power to bestow…to write well it is necessary to grow up hearing how other people have written well: to get into one’s metabolism the grandeur, the playfulness, and the narrative strength of the English language.” But from my observation, fewer and fewer children are being read to these days. One possible cause: the students I see every day in my seventh- and eighth-grade classes are children of the digital age, and electronic diversions have replaced books for many of them. Though I still have several students who dearly love books and read up a storm, it seems a greater percentage each year do not read (let alone are read to) when they get home; they simply cannot summon the attention required to read in the face of distractions that bombard them outside of school. As a teacher, it’s easy to get discouraged.

In 2011, author Richard Peck addressed “people of the book” at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium and asked, “Can our books still tell their stories in the age of the ‘digitally reduced attention span?’” Readers’ theater — where students do hear the written word read aloud — has given me hope that they can, this year transforming my classroom into a reading and writing community.

Readers’ theater involves turning scenes from books into informal play scripts, taking the best dialogue-rich passages and having students read the characters’ lines aloud. No costumes, no props, no special seating arrangements are required. We simply read. I do the simplest possible version of readers’ theater. I don’t usually write up scripts; I just choose the scenes and jot in the book the different roles that will be read. I perform the narrator’s part so students can hear a large portion of the story read fluently, though if I have a student who is excellent at reading aloud, so much the better. Sometimes I ask for volunteers, but I often try to match characters with the students I think will read them well. I do want all students, at one point in the story or another, to be involved, so I plan carefully and divvy up parts, giving shorter parts to less comfortable readers. Readers’ theater plays to many students’ strengths: they want to do well in school; they like to be involved; they like to be “onstage”; and they like to have a voice in their own learning.

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer is a good example of how I have made readers’ theater the heart of my teaching this year. The novel contains so many great scenes for readers’ theater, essential scenes you don’t want to leave to the vagaries of assigned reading that students may or may not do and, thus, potentially miss out on a great literary experience. Matteo Alacrán is a clone, created in a laboratory for a mysterious purpose, gradually revealed during the story. It’s an intense dystopian tale set in a futuristic drug empire called Opium — with villains, heroes, a former terrorist, and zombies — and the selections I choose for readers’ theater dramatize the conflicts in this future world. My seventh graders have become excellent at getting into character and reading with fluency and inflection, and they really got into the climactic scene where Matt decides to go on a dangerous mission to right the wrongs of the evil El Patrón.

The book has been a journey with my classes, one that also included passages I read aloud and sections I assigned for students to read on their own. (I never try to do a whole novel as readers’ theater. I read additional scenes aloud, assign sections to keep the novel moving, and have students read some parts silently in class. I’m not against skipping pages or chapters in favor of treating the book as script as effectively as possible.) And, as I always do, for The House of the Scorpion I tied in all manner of things suggested by the story: old Dracula and Frankenstein movies, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, Mozart’s “Turkish March,” the Adagio from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5, and “The Humming Chorus” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (my students hummed along as a creepy scene in the novel unfolded).

Readers’ theater goes hand in hand with the writing part of the curriculum. When I begin a scene, I pose a question that we will discuss and, more than likely, write about. (I use frequent, brief writing assignments as a learning tool, a way to have students think their way into the ideas of the books we read together.) Discussions and writing prompts from The House of the Scorpion included the following: describe how Matteo Alacrán was created. Explain who the eejits are. What does it mean when a character says near the end of the story, “First of all, Matt, you aren’t a clone”? Writing prompts and discussions can set up creative writing projects, too, such as poems modeled on the verse in Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust or Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Students do most writing assignments in class, where I can help them structure the writing, help with grammar issues, and talk through ideas they don’t quite understand.

It has been a year of memorable readers’ theater scenes: Charlotte Doyle standing up to evil Captain Jaggery in Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle; the unjust beating of Bucky and later the shooting of Stick by the police in Kekla Magoon’s The Rock and the River; the conflicts between Lafayette, Charlie, and Ty’ree as they struggle to cope with their anger and grief in Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys. I will never forget my dramatic eighth-grader Henry playing many roles: Curley’s flirty wife in Of Mice and Men, Burris Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, the She Elephant in The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, and Roland Freisler, the “hanging judge” in We Will Not Be Silent, Russell Freedman’s nonfiction account of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany.

As I write this, it’s time to plan my books for next year. I’m lucky to teach in a school where teachers get to choose their own class novels and decide for themselves how to teach them. I’m dropping some books from my curriculum in favor of those that will be standouts for readers’ theater. I’ve found that novels in verse work well, so I’m excited to welcome Karen Hesse’s Witness back into my curriculum and add Margarita Engle’s Tropical Secrets and Jason Reynolds’s Long Way Down — all among my favorite books.

This year, a major frustration — students’ reading habits — led me to find a better way to teach. I still nudge students to read more. And perhaps good experiences with books through readers’ theater will inspire them to do just that.

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Dean Schneider
Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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