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Home Education Magazine

May-June 2000 - Columns

Let's Put On a Show! - Rebecca Rupp

"Playing pretend" was a large part of our homeschool program when our boys were of elementary-school age - though certainly not in any formal parent-mediated sense. Dramatic play was all theirs, occurring naturally, as interest struck. (You've all seen it. Imagination happens.) Read Norse mythology and they all become Vikings, with the couch as dragon-headed longship; read Indian legends and in no time they're all stalking through the shrubbery armed with homemade bows and arrows. During their King Arthur period, our boys' bedroom was a medieval kingdom, complete with three rival castles, one of which (Ethan's) was armed with a malevolent and fully operational catapult. They wore cardboard helmets to the breakfast table, worried about the stabling of their imaginary warhorses, and addressed each other as "my lord." Eventually, however, everyday imaginative play developed a new and public twist. It acquired plots, props, and a need for an audience. It became a show.

Our kids' personal in-house performances took many forms. The boys put on plays invented by themselves - in one, I remember, they played a trio of highly articulate snakes and all the action involved squirming about on their bellies. They re-enacted favorite myths, legends, and fairytales. They did comic monologues. They devised puppet shows. Some of this was sparked by family reading - the snakes surfaced just as we finished Rikki-Tikki-Tavi - and was the sort of activity touted in reading resource manuals as an enriching supplement to enhance a book experience, which it was. It also fostered creativity, furthered writing and speaking skills, and interfaced with other subjects of the academic curriculum such as art, music, history, and science. The kids didn't think of it this way, but I recorded it as such in my homeschool journals, just in case we ever needed to defend our activities in the face of educational authorities.

My contribution to all this dramatic art was minimal. I helped make costumes. (Mine was the brilliant idea to use tin-foil-covered ice-cream cones for the horns on a Viking helmet, thus causing Thor to look like a Martian rabbit.) I moved furniture to clear the stage. I sat with the other half of the audience and applauded and shouted for encores.

For those making their first forays into the field of homeschool drama - and who want something more substantive than tin-foil-covered ice-cream cones - one notably helpful resource is the Smith and Kraus catalog. Smith and Kraus Publishers is a company devoted to books for the stagestruck of all ages, from kindergartners to adults. Selections include dramatic technique and acting resource books, monologues and scenes for middle- and high-schooled aged actors, and many collections of plays, among them simple plays for elementary-level students variously based on American folklore, fairy tales, mythology, and multicultural themes. For a complete list, contact Smith and Kraus Publishers, Inc., 6 Lower Mill Road, North Stratford, NH 03590; (800) 895-4331;

Equally helpful is Teacher Ideas Press, which specializes in creative cross-curricular resource books for educators of all stamps. Among their publications are many books in the "Reader's Theatre" series. Reader's Theatre is loosely defined as "minimal theatre in support of literature and reading." What this generally boils down to in practice is easy-to-perform dramatizations of favorite children's books (everything from Aesop's fables to Little Women and The Secret Garden). Sample titles from TIP include Reader's Theatre for Beginning Readers, Social Studies Reader's Theatre for Children, Frantic Frogs and Other Frankly Fractured Folktales for Reader's Theatre, and even Great Moments in Science: Experiments in Reader's Theatre, which includes 12 scripts for upper-elementary kids centering around landmark discoveries in the history of science. The books contain complete scripts, instructions for staging, and suggestions and techniques for writing your own scripts. For a complete list, contact Teacher Ideas Press, Box 6633, Englewood, CO 80155; (800) 237-6124;

Online Sources for Reader's Theatre

Reader's Theatre

Background information on reader's theatre, sample scripts, and helpful hints for writing scripts of your own.

Storytelling, Drama, Creative Dramatics, Puppetry and Reader's Theatre for Children and Young Adults

A wide range of resources for all forms of dramatic arts, including downloadable scripts for "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" and "The Little Red Hen."

You might also check out Liz Boy's Princess, Cowboy, Pirate, Elf (Hyperion, 1995), a collection of very short two-person plays for kids aged 4-8; or Judith Martin's Out of the Bag: The Paperbag Players Book of Plays (Disney Press, 1997), a selection of short plays for kids aged 8-12, with accompanying instructions for making props and costumes (largely out of brown paper bags). Got a Sherlock Holmes fan? Tom Conklin's Mystery Plays (Scholastic, 1997) includes scripts for kids aged 9-12 based on the fiction of such famous mystery writers as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. Anybody studying American history? Joseph Bruchac's Pushing Up the Sky: Seven Native American Plays for Children (Dial Books, 2000) dramatizes legends from a range of Indian cultures (from Abenaki to Zuni); Lisa Schafer's Famous Americans (Scholastic, 1995) dramatizes the lives and accomplishments of 22 famous historical figures, among them Ben Franklin, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, and the Wright brothers. Pleasant Company, publishers of the American Girl series, offers a series of Theater Kits, each based on the adventures of Their featured characters. The kits include four copies of a short script and a Director's Guide with staging suggestions and instructions. Each of the American girls hails from a different period in history: Felicity lives in colonial Williamsburg; Addy, an escaped slave, lives with her mother in pre-Civil War Philadelphia; Molly is growing up during World War II. Titles in the series, all by Valerie Tripp, include Felicity's Theater Kit, Addy's Theater Kit, and Samantha's Theater Kit.

For those who want a few warm-up exercises before plunging into formal performance, try On Stage: Theater Games and Activities for Kids by Lisa Bany-Winters (Chicago Review Press, 1997). This is a nicely presented collection of projects, activities, and exercises for would-be actors aged 7-12: kids make puppets and design puppet shows, build sets, experiment with stage make-up, and tackle short monologues, scenes, and plays. Drama School by Mick Manning (Larousse Kingfisher Chambers, 1999), touted as a "drama class in a book" for elementary students, provides detailed instructions for everything from writing a script to making puppets, filming a movie, and putting on a stage performance. Showtime! 75 Ways to Put on a Show by Reg Bolton (Dorling Kindersley, 1998) includes helpful instructions for a range of productions from musicals to clown acts, illustrated DK-style with great color photographs. For a fiction connection, try Onstage & Backstage: At the Night Owl Theater by Ann Hayes (Harcourt Brace, 1997), a delightful picture-book introduction to the process of putting on a play as the Night Owl Theatre (all animals) rehearses and produces "Cinderella." Other possibilities for early-elementary readers include Judith Caseley's Mickey's Class Play (Greenwillow, 1998), which stars Mickey, the designated duck in his class play, who leaves his non-waterproof costume out in the rain at the worst possible time; and Jan and Stan Berenstain's The Berenstain Bears Get Stage Fright (Random House, 1986), which helps young actors deal with opening night jitters. For readers aged 9-12, try Noel Streatfeild's Theater Shoes (Bullseye Books, 1994), the story of three talented children (Sorrel, Mark, and Holly) attending London's Children's Academy of Dance and Stage Training during the 1940's; or Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (HarperTrophy, 1988), the hilarious and touching tale of the five awful Herdman kids and their takeover of the annual church Christmas play.

For more drama online, see:

Children's Creative Theater Guide

The site includes a hyperlinked history of theater from primitive times to the 20th century, a glossary of theater terms, a collection of dramatic games, suggestions for cross-curricular activities, a skit to print and perform yourself, and an online performing arts center.

Theatre Sites on the Web

Links to everything from kabuki theater and puppets to the complete works of Shakespeare.

The Costume Page

A very large and comprehensive site including detailed histories of costume and many suggestions for making costumes (from the simple to the complicated). Includes instructions for making a Renaissance hat, tying a turban, and draping a Roman tunic, as well as helpful information on wigs, masks, and make-up.

For even more resources, see The Complete Home Learning Source Book (Rebecca Rupp; Three Rivers Press, 1998).

Go for it - Break a leg.


The next best thing to a real-live play in your living room. Globalstage publishes "family theatre adventures" on video - that is, quality theatre productions, filmed as they were performed on stage. The plays are hosted by Professor Elizabeth McNamer (who has a lovely British accent) and 13-year-old Preston Blakeley, who asks good questions. Watching it, you get the feeling that you're being taken on an outing by a favorite aunt - a very knowledgeable aunt, with influence. One popular Globalstage video - centered around a production of "Playing From the Heart" - opens in Trafalgar Square, where Preston watches the pigeons, learns a bit about Lord Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, and is introduced to the theme of the upcoming play. They then proceed to the theatre to watch the play, a lovely performance based on the life story of Evelyn Glennie, deaf since the age of eight, who against all odds grew up to become The greatest percussionists in the world. After the play, Preston is taken on a backstage tour and meets the real Evelyn Glennie, who talks about her response to the play and her life's work. The video comes with an insert suggesting discussion questions and themes for further study: a survey of percussion instruments, a study of various means of communication including sign language finger-spelling, a comparison of Evelyn's story to that of other well-known persons who have overcome physical obstacles, such as Helen Keller and Franklin Roosevelt.

Other Globalstage videos include "The Island of Dr. Moreau," "Far from the Madding Crowd," "Cyrano de Bergerac," "Pinocchio," "Frankenstein," and "The Three Musketeers." As in "Playing from the Heart," each involves not only a wonderful dramatic performance, but a discussion of the issues the play addresses, historical background information, and visits with actors, playwrights, and composers.

Globalstage videos are available either individually or by subscription. Individual tapes cost $27 apiece; a subscription (6 plays, one arriving about every three months), $135. To order, contact Globalstage, 465 California, Ste. 525, San Francisco, CA 94104; (888) 324-5623;


Imaginazium produces creative and colorful kits for exercising kids' imaginations. The "Imagination Adventure Kit," for example, includes an illustrated activity book of games, projects, riddles, and finish-the-picture pages, an audiotape of music and stories, and a pack of "Tub Tints" (fizzy tablets that - dropped in the bathtub - turn the water red, yellow, and blue). The kit provides a range of imagination boosters: kids can pretend to be a rainbow, make friends with a plant, design a magical door, and more. The "Yoga Kit for Kids" - my favorite - includes an instruction-and-activity book, a tape of classical and instrumental "Music for Yoga," and a pack of illustrated cards with color photographs of kids in 24 yoga poses, among them the Bug, the Bird, the Lion, and the Squirrel. Along with the imagination, these develop strength, flexibility, balance, and concentration. A fun approach to homeschool fitness.

Imaginazium kits cost about $19.95 apiece. Available from Imaginazium, 15322 Antioch St., PMB 524, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272; (800) 800-7008;

Talking About Writing

Grammar: a necessary evil unless one wants prospective employers, publishers, college admissions offices, and impatient loved ones to throw one's written works to the floor and stamp upon them. A recent resource for inculcating it is Shirley Campbell's "Talk About Writing," a sequential program of sentence structure, grammar, word usage, and punctuation for kids in grades 8-12, organized in a series of five spiral-bound workbooks. Campbell, in straightforward no-frills fashion, covers all the basics. The Grade 8 book features the run-on sentence, the sentence fragment, and the use of the apostrophe; Grade 9, parallel structure, the misplaced modifier, and the proper use of pronouns; Grade 10, dangling participles, agreement, and clauses; Grade 11, indefinite antecedents, verb tenses, and a review of punctuation; and Grade 12, the art of effective writing. Each topic is covered in detail, with pre- and post-tests, examples and explanations, and many practice exercises. There's also an accompanying answer key for those parents who have forgotten such essentials as the definition of gerund or the nature of the nominative case of a pronoun.

I continue to be of the opinion that grammar and usage are best assimilated through reading; and that most of the sticky little questions that come up in the course of writing can be efficiently answered by referring to a style manual. A short, elegant, and consistently interesting example is William Strunk, Jr., and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, in print for half a century and still going strong. On the other hand, as a family, we're still a little shaky about the proper uses of that and which, which goes to show where this sort of insubordination gets you.

"Talking About Writing" exercise books cost $16 each; the inclusive Answer Key, $49. Order from Trafford Publishing, Suite 2, 3050 Nanaimo St., Victoria, B.C. V8T 4Z1, Canada; 888-232-4444;

Brand New Readers

The Brand New Readers, released this spring by Candlewick Press, are intended for just that: brand new readers reaching for their very first books. Each book in the series is a mere eight lines (and eight pages) long, with colorful and helpful illustrations that aid new readers in the struggle to decipher what each of those eight lines says. The books, even with a strictly limited vocabulary, have a gentle sense of humor. Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!, for example, describes the adventures of Monkey - who sees a red balloon, a green balloon, and so on, until finally he sees a pin. (The result: Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!)

The Readers are packaged in four-book sets, each set centering around a different character, among them Monkey, Tabby Cat, Winnie (a rambunctious dog), and - my favorite - the versatile Worm. Titles of the first sets in the series include Monkey Trouble and Monkey Business by David Martin, Winnie All Day Long and Winnie Plays Ball by Leda Schubert, and Here Comes Tabby Cat and Hey, Tabby Cat! by Phyllis Root. - From bookstores for new readers aged 3 to 6.

The Civil War for Kids

The Civil War for Kids by Janis Herbert (Chicago Review Press, 1999) is an informational activity book for kids aged 9 and up, heavily illustrated with period prints, maps, and photographs. The book opens with a detailed timeline of the war and its antecedents, from the abolition of the importation of slaves (1808) to the assassination of Lincoln (1865). Fourteen chapters trace the course of the war in chronological sequence, from "To War! The Union is Dissolved" to "Taps," which details the surrender at Appomatox Courthouse and its aftermath. This is an excellent (and reader-friendly) presentation of history, filled with interesting anecdotes, human-interest stories, and intriguing information. Try this example: During the long seige of Vicksburg, Union Admiral David Porter disguised a coal barge to look like a gunboat, complete with fake cannons made of logs, and sent it floating down the Mississippi River. A Confederate boat, spotting it, fled. Eventually the barge ran aground on a sandbar and the chagrined Rebels discovered the hoax. The fake gunboat, once they got close enough to inspect it, turned out to be flying the skull and crossbones and carrying a large sign reading "Deluded people, cave in!"

Each chapter includes an assortment of projects, activities, and games for young Civil War buffs. Kids can make a North Star "safe" quilt, of the sort displayed as a signal to fugitive slaves by conductors on the Underground Railroad, or can mix up a batch of berry ink, bake hardtack, or create a Matthew-Brady-style photojournalism project. From bookstores.

Borderline USA

A snappy game of U.S. geography. The game consists of a pack of high-quality bright-colored cards, printed on one side with a single state map and on the other with a map of the United States showing the location of the featured state and all its bordering neighbors. Flip over the Oregon card, for example, and you see Oregon in place in the northwestern U.S., neatly bordered by Washington, Idaho, Nevada, California, and the blue Pacific Ocean. The game is all about state locations and borders. To begin the game, players are dealt a hand of state cards, map side down. The challenge is to get rid of all of them by playing them on states that they border. Say the starting card for the game is Indiana. You've got the option to play the Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, or Illinois card - or the Great Lakes card or (if you're lucky enough to have one) a Wild Card. Fun, fast, and tricky. (Does Maryland border West Virginia? Does Missouri border Nebraska? Where's Minnesota?)

The game also includes cards for Canada and Mexico, the Great Lakes, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean (for those players dauntingly faced with the Hawaii card), and the Gulf of Mexico.

About $10; to order, contact Hidden Hills Productions, 21243 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 101. Woodland Hills, CA 91364; (973) 761-6260;

2000, Becky Rupp

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