Nothing creates a buzz of excitement in my middle school language arts classroom more than playwriting. Giving students the freedom and autonomy to develop scripts unlocks creativity, fosters collaboration, develops confidence, and encourages higher-level thinking.
Recently in my class, some students have developed plays using original characters from their imagination, while others have played roles from our class read-aloud, The Glass Castle. I’ve even had students create fan fiction adaptations by combining characters from their favorite TV shows and movies. Whether used as an entire unit of study or as an ancillary activity, these strategies make the playwriting process engaging and memorable.
On any given day in my class, I might observe one group developing a five-act play using characters from Stranger Things, another writing from the perspective of their favorite book characters trapped on a desert island, and one more developing a medieval scene involving a dragon and talking food characters.
There are many ways to incorporate playwriting in various subject areas. For example, in science, students can take on the roles of different body parts during a human body unit or share their planetary knowledge acting as parts of the solar system. In math, students can create short skits around word problems or research the contributions of famous mathematicians to develop into scenes. In social studies, students can use specific historical figures or time periods to demonstrate their knowledge.
1. Provide a Planning Framework
Once students form small playwriting groups of four or five students, I share idea categories and guide students through questions to help spark ideas such as the following:
Character descriptions/actors: How would you describe each character? What do they look like? How do they behave? What motivates them? How will they grow or change? Will you add a narrator? Who will play each role? Will you cast additional classmates outside of your group?
Setting(s): Describe where and when this will take place. Is it a realistic place or fantasy? What surrounds your characters in this location? How does that impact the moment? How do your characters feel in this space? Will your characters change settings or remain in one spot?
Background information: What does your audience need to know about the backstory before you begin?
Problem/solution: What conflict(s) will characters encounter? How will the characters respond? Will the conflicts be resolved?
Theme/lesson: What will your audience learn from your performance?
Make an impact: What will be unique about your performance that will leave a lasting impression on your audience? How will you make your performance memorable?
The energy in the classroom comes alive as students begin to imagine different scenarios. Lots of impromptu role-playing begins as ideas come to life.
2. Encourage Creativity and Autonomy
Before students draft their scripts, I’ll reveal some costumes I’ve hidden in a class treasure chest. They’re silly—a hot dog, a dragon, cookies and milk—but they often serve as a catalyst for character inspiration. The excitement builds as students begin to try on costumes and envision themselves in different roles. It also gets them pondering additional props that could enhance the productions. I’ve had students use STEAM knowledge to sketch and then construct cardboard automobiles, ramps, and palm trees. Others like to project digital background scenes.
For students who prefer a more subtle limelight, puppet shows work wonders. Some students prefer to film their performances rather than perform live. Giving my students ownership of their creativity results in greater commitment in the process.
3. Guide Students to Write With Intention
To foster additional growth and collaboration, I ask students to enhance their work with meaningful word choices. Throughout the year, my students study vocabulary from our class’s read-aloud as well as their independent reading. In addition, students explore Greek and Latin roots. During scriptwriting, each group member infuses their own vocabulary and root words into the dialogue of the scenes and color-codes them to show their contributions.
This helps maintain equity in work responsibilities, allows students to teach each other new words, enhances the quality of the dialogue, and keeps everyone involved and collaborating throughout the drafting process.
4. Share and Guide
As students are working together to construct their scripts, I’ll have volunteers share portions of their work in progress so their classmates have a window into how others are approaching the process. Students love to show off their work as it unfolds. They get excited by hearing what other groups are creating.
As students continue to draft, I’ll pause for them to ponder questions like these:
- How can adding specific character actions and stage directions enhance the performance? How will you best use the classroom space?
- How will you deliver your lines to make the characters believable, engaging, and memorable?
- In addition to props, have you considered sound effects?
Little cues like these are important because they help additional details blossom. I’ll often hear, “We need to make sure you say this line with enthusiasm!” or “I think you should stomp out of the classroom briefly during this part to make the scene more believable!”
5. Have Students Practice and Perform, and Give Praise
On performance day, I give my students time for a final run-through to quiet any jitters. Then each group takes to the (imaginary) classroom stage and it’s showtime! Following each performance, the actors call on audience members to share praise, suggestions, and unforgettable moments. Written scripts are also celebrated and published on a common class document so that students can leave additional feedback and relive the performances.
Playwriting is a rich, meaningful, challenging, fun shared experience that leaves a lasting impression on students. For a teacher, it’s an unforgettable moment when a student comes back years later to say that the little production they created in your class inspired them to pursue screenwriting, acting, or directing.