This blog post is part of Build Your Stack,® a new initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. It was written by member Julie Jee.
“On my own, pretending he’s besides me. . . .” —“On My Own” from Les Miserables
“I’m not throwing away my shot!” —“My Shot” from Hamilton
“You hide your head under your wings
Just like a little bird
Oh, don’t you know you’re beautiful
Too beautiful for words.” —“Too Beautiful For Words” from The Color Purple
Theater has an immersive quality similar to the experience one feels while reading an amazing book. You mourn with Eponine as she recounts how unrequited love led her to painful realizations. You cheer on a “young, scrappy and hungry” Alexander Hamilton as he shares why he’s motivated to fight for what he believes in. You embrace Celie’s awakening as a woman who is loved and cherished.
Encouraging multimodal literacies allows students to explore text, drama and music, deepening student understanding of characters and their experiences.
Sharing an iconic song or a memorable performance with your classes can be the catalyst for student interest in a particular title. It’s gratifying to see my students’ eyes light up when I play a song from the show version of a book they’re reading or when I tell them that a show they love actually originated from a book . . . and I happen to have a copy in my classroom library.
Here are a few suggested pairings to help build your stack:
Matilda by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake
I love this Roald Dahl classic that follows the journey of a brilliant young girl neglected by her parents, sent to a school with a memorably horrible headmistress and nurtured by her teacher. Tim Minchin’s opening number for the musical, “Miracle,” captures the hopes and dreams many parents have for their children and sharply contrasts them against the utter selfishness that Matilda’s parents exhibit as soon as she’s born. The song sets up the premise of the book brilliantly and gives students the opportunity to develop empathy for Matilda. (Recommended for all ages)
Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul
Amid the emotional ups and downs the title character experiences throughout the musical, “You Are Not Alone” sends the message that the underlying explanation for his actions and decisions is based on his need for connection. Evan’s story resonates deeply with my students, proven by the fact that all three copies of Dear Evan Hansen are currently checked out of my classroom library. (Recommended for 9th–12th grade)
Be More Chill by Ned Vizzini
Many teenagers can relate to the main characters in Ned Vizzini’s 2004 novel as they talk about friendships, relationships, popularity, and isolation. Several of my students have told me that they love how Michael hides from his peers as he tries to figure out what’s going on with his best friend whose behavior has changed, in the song, “Michael in the Bathroom.” It’s hilarious and heartbreaking, perfect for piquing student interest in this honest and often blunt read. (Recommended for 10th–12th grade)
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The entire soundtrack of “The Color Purple” is outstanding, with actor Cynthia Erivo powerfully capturing Celie’s journey to personal and professional fulfillment. One standout song, “Too Beautiful For Words,” delves into the deepening relationship between Celie and Shug Avery. Each song does an incredible job capturing the tragic as well as triumphant events in the book; sharing selections will foster interest and enhance students’ conversations about their reading. (Recommended for 10th–12th grade)
Songs can be used to spark character analysis through tableaux vivants and creative writing (e.g., adaptingWicked by Gregory Maguire into a script form or writing a dramatic monologue for Bruce in Fun Home), and can generate student interest in seeing a live performance (e.g., watching an adaptation of All American Boys by Off the Page Education). I would love to hear about how the connection between theater and literature enriched learning in your classroom, so please share on Twitter using #BuildYourStack.
Julie Jee has been a high school English teacher at Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, New York, since 2001. She is a 2018–2020 Heinemann Fellow as well as a member of the Hudson Valley Writing Project. You can find her on Twitter at @mrsjjee.