As I began my journey I was ready for a positive change in my teaching career. I had taught at many different elementary schools, and seen a variety of different approaches to instruction. I believe that I had taken the best from all these experiences and woven them into who I was as an educator and leader. But I found I wanted more … more for the students and more for me. Conferences no longer offered anything new and I found that if I wanted to grow, I needed to be the instigator of change within myself and in my classroom.

I started by looking at my classroom and students and wondered what I could do to make their experience with me relevant and challenging. I thought about researching multiple intelligences, the role of choice, our math program, differentiation, and reading. It needed to be something that I was passionate about and that would positively affect those in my classroom for years to come. Outside influences were pointing me in one direction, but my heart was leading me in another. I didn’t need to look far; the students and eight characters from the play “Smile Mike” were my answer.

It was after doing a puppet show with these characters that I knew where I was going. The excitement, motivation, cooperation, comprehension, and fluency that occurred through performing this play for an audience was magical and led me to my final question. How can I use Reader’s Theater to increase motivation, fluency, and comprehension in reading?

I still had concerns though. In Reader’s Theater there were no props, sets, costumes, or memorizing. They use their voice to convey meaning. Would this be enough? Would students want more? I had never been one to include a lot of drama in my classroom. It always seemed like too much work. What I was excited about was the potential of having heterogeneous groupings and the idea of performing for an audience outside of our classroom. I hoped that using Reader’s Theater would inspire all my students to want to read, with both fluency and expression. I hoped comprehension and motivation to read would increase. Despite my concerns, I forged ahead and made Reader’s Theater a regular part of my curriculum.

At the beginning of the school year, I felt I was more than ready to include Reader’s Theater. I had prepared all my surveys and interviews. I set up a meeting with the parents to discuss my research. All my ducks were in a row… or so I thought. The year began, and within a week I already felt behind. I had my plan, but was I really going to be able to follow it? I’d forgotten how much guidance first graders needed at the beginning of the year. My first challenge was eliciting honest answers on my survey. If I did it as a whole group, I felt that they’d answer the way their neighbor did, so the first thing I changed, among many, was to individually ask each student the questions. 

My next obstacle was getting started with the scripts. I had lots of ideas in my head, but no scripts actually ready for them. In hindsight, having multiple scripts prepared prior to the first day would have been helpful even though I didn’t know their reading interests and levels. There was enough going on those first few weeks, without adding the task of searching for scripts. I decided to trust that everything would work out, and jumped right in writing the first script to go along with a story we had read together the first week.

Originally, I had decided to have a focus group of 4-6 students who I would watch throughout the year. But I quickly discovered that focusing on just those students wouldn’t be enough. I wanted to watch the growth, and hear the feedback from all my students.  One way that this was accomplished was through our reflective journals.  I started out having them respond to one question following each performance.  Finding this wasn’t enough to understand their choices and feelings, I decided to make exit cards.  At first, students didn't like these, until they understood they could still add their own ideas and pictures about their current script. These exit cards were constantly changing as I received feedback. I realized that I needed to be flexible and listen to the reflections of my class. When they realized that I used their comments to drive our Reader’s Theater, their reflective journals became even more powerful. The fact that they had a voice in some of the decisions I made, motivated them to share true feelings. In the future I plan to use exit cards in many areas of the curriculum. I found that when students know they have a voice, and that what they think matters, they will have more ownership and motivation. This was a powerful lesson for me… listening and acting on input from students.

Another way I gathered data from the class was through whole and small group discussions. Often we would talk about the performance as a group or discuss Reader’s Theater in small groups: what they liked about it, what we could do that would make it even better. I found that the information I gathered during these impromptu conversations was very important. It allowed them to listen to each other’s views and build on them. I used video and audio taping to record their responses. While I looked back at these often, it would have been better if I transcribed them within two days, rather then waiting as long as I did. This led to unnecessary stress. Taping these reflections was a great tool, and I can see how I could use it in the future with my students. It would be very useful to get feedback about projects, record retells, and even have the students tape themselves reading. I’d even like to have them tape themselves reading books aloud, for use in our listening center. We could share these readings with the kindergarten and JK. This would motivate the students because they would have an audience, therefore rereading would seem effortless.

When I started this journey the students performed Reader’s Theater every week. In retrospect, I think I was a bit optimistic. Finding scripts based on their input, making sure there were just enough parts, and finding the time to practice weekly became difficult. I spent weekends looking for and writing the perfect script. In the future, I hope to make it a two-week rotation, thus giving the students more time to practice. I would also have them, during the first week, practice all characters in the script before they chose their parts. This way they’d have a better understanding of the story and what each part entailed. It would also give me a better understanding of their comprehension, for the ability to accurately express the personality of each character would show a true understanding of the story.

I have learned many things this year about myself. Most importantly, I know that I can make a change that will positively impact the students I teach and that I need to keep looking for innovative ways to reach my students. I’ve learned how important it is to listen to feedback and act on it so students know I care. Motivation for learning through ownership is powerful, and I found it was what drove the desire to learn.