Articulation · Grammar · Inclusion · Language Comprehension · Lesson Plans · Pragmatics and Social Skills · The Human Connection · Vocabulary

The World Turned Upside Down: Activities You Can Do At Home

Hi readers. I’m writing this post without a clear theme. I know we’re all feeling so much, and we want what we consider to be normal back. We’re going through a lot of change quickly, and honestly, I’m feeling stuck and confused.  As Andrea Koehler of Broadway Makers Alliance and Coloring Broadway has been tagging her posts, #CreativityIsTheCure. I knew I needed help for ideas with this post, and I’m so glad I have friends like Andrea and Alisa Hurwitz to give me some ideas.

I know that home schooling right now is hard on everyone and is testing everyone’s patience. As an educator, I miss my staff and students so much and hope they are all well. So instead of work, I am going to share some activities that are more relaxed and easy to do. Anyone can join in on any of these activities, and I hope you enjoy them.

  • Taboo
    Write down a bunch of nouns on slips of paper and put them into a cup.  Set a timer for 60 seconds. One player chooses a slip of paper and has to describe it without saying the name of the object. The person or team who gets the most right during the allotted time, wins.  If you’re working on expressive language, describing is great practice, as the listener has to clearly understand your message. If you’re working on language comprehension, this activity focuses on your ability to consume all of that auditory information and turn it into a response. For pragmatic language, this helps inform turn-taking skills. For articulation, use your best speech sound and use nouns that have your speech sounds in them. Divide yourselves into teams, or just play against each other.
  • Listening to your favorite song
    This activity is similar to the Your Song project I started. Listen to your favorite song. Tell others why you like it and how it makes you feel. Make sure you’re patient and listen to everyone else’s favorite songs too. This encourages explaining, describing, speaking clearly, and conversational turn taking. The best part is having a dance party while you listen, moving around and dancing will make you feel better than sitting on your couch. Bonus creativity points if you make up your own choreography to go with your song.
  • Story time
    Reading is a great way to work on practicing speech sounds and asking and answering questions. Grab your favorite book, and take turns being the reader. The reader chooses where and when to stop and ask questions. After the story is done, The reader gets to ask a listener to summarize the main idea in their won words. This works on summarizing, paraphrasing, asking and answering questions, and turn taking. This can also be done with movies or online videos.
  • Articulation I Spy
    Go around your house and play I Spy with your family only using words that have your speech sound in them. Clues my students like to give are “The sound is at the beginning/middle/end of the word. Whoever guesses the right answer, wins. You get lots of practice with your sound this way. This also gets you up and moving around your house, which is always a plus.

I hope you’re all using the time we have at home to connect with your families and yourselves. Be kind and patient with each other. This is new to all of us. I hope these activities are useful to you. Do you have activities of your own you can share? I’d love to hear all about them in comments.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Articulation · Fluency · Grammar · Language Comprehension · Lesson Plans · Pragmatics and Social Skills · The Human Connection · Vocabulary

The Season For Dreaming: Making Speech Activities More Abstract

One of my favorite lyrics in all of musical theatre comes from the show, Spring Awakening. “This is the season for dreaming” taken from the song The Guilty Ones, has always felt fitting in January. It reminds me of getting creative and dreaming of beginning again. It has been stuck in my head for a few weeks, and I’ve figured out why it’s been sticking in my brain–it’s telling me to get more creative. I created a few fun lessons out of this lyric while it has been comfortably settled in my brain.

  • Describe Your Dream

    This is a fun descriptive language activity. I have my students describe their dream from the night before, or one they remember. I give them a bank of adjectives and let them tell the group what happened in their dream. Here’s the catch: you can only use each adjective once. It tests the students’ use of vocabulary, knowledge of synonyms, sentence length, and grammatical structure. My students love engaging in this activity because they get to share about themselves and be creative and silly at the same time. This is also a great fluency activity to practice generalization skills for smooth speech.

  • Draw A Dream

    This is a narrative task, best done in groups for expressive and receptive language targets. I do this activity in pairs whenever possible. I assign one student a noun, and they have to create a narrative around it, beginning with the sentence starter “Last night, I dreamt about _________.” The dream can be as logical or abstract as they’d like. The other student listening to the narrative is tasked with drawing the dream in a flow chart I’ve provided them. They’re listening for main idea and key details. After the narrative is complete, they share their drawing while retelling the narrative. The students switch roles after sharing. This can also be modified to target a student’s articulation goal by making sure the noun contains their articulation target. This ensures multiple repetitions for the target sound while I take data on speech sound production.

  • My Dream Day

    This is a great community builder, and gives insight into my students’ interests and communities. I ask my students to walk me through their dream day from the second they wake up in the morning to the second they go to bed at night. These can be as logical as if they’ve already happened or as wild as their imaginations can roam. My only rule is that they must keep the day in order, making this a great progress check for verb tense, grammatical structure, sentence expansion, and sequential vocabulary. After the student shares, the task becomes about pragmatic language. The students who listened must ask three or more different questions about the dream day, or comment on something specific. This makes the experience more communal and the kids get to see what interests and dreams they share.

I am still playing around with this lyric to see what else I can derive from it, and have passed it on to my students as well. After all, I’m always challenging them to get creative, and what better way than designing their own speech lesson? This week, I challenge my readers to choose a favorite lyric of theirs and see how they can apply it to a daily activity to make it more fun. I look forward to hearing all about it in comments.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Articulation · Grammar · Inclusion · Language Comprehension · Pragmatics and Social Skills · The Human Connection · Vocabulary

Let’s Make A Resolution: A New Year’s Speech Activity!

Happy New Year, readers! This week, the Earth took another trip around the sun, and everyone seems to be making resolutions. While I decided on what I wanted as my own New Year’s resolutions, I was trying to find a fun way to bring this into my speech room.

I was looking for activities and came across this one from Addie Williams. Teachers Pay Teachers is always full of great resources, but none as universally enjoyed as this one by Addie. With her permission, I am sharing how I completed her activity, as well as how to make it work for multiple speech-language targets.

First, let me show you the page I completed as the example (please excuse my spelling errors).

Addie

While my artistic skills are a work in progress, it really helped my students to see the final product before they took on completing the worksheet themselves. It was easily differentiated for each group. Instead of writing goals down, which would be great for older students, I decided to have my students get creative and really use the full extent of their imaginations.

Target: Receptive Language 

I turned this into a following directions activity. I sequenced the events like this:

  1. Read the question.
  2.  Share your response.
  3. Choose a crayon.
  4. Draw.
  5. Answer a question about a peer’s response.
  6. Provide a follow up comment or question.

This was repeated for each item. As students got a grasp on the routine the questions and comments about peer’s choices became more detailed.

Target: Expressive Language

This was similar to how I conducted it for receptive language with a few modifications. All responses had to be shared in complete, grammatically correct sentences. They could only use one crayon at a time so they had to ask peers for materials as needed. In addition to answering peers’ questions, they had to ask them as well as ask and answer questions of mine. They also included sentences with their drawings and/or had to read the prompt and fill in their response.

Target: Articulation

For this, I asked my students to try and choose items for their resolutions that included their speech sounds. After sharing their answer initially and drawing them, they were asked to practice the words in their resolutions containing their speech sounds while I kept track of correct productions and errors.

Target: Pragmatic Language

As my students completed each item, I had them engage in conversation about each other’s goals. What made them choose a goal, why was it important to them, how did they want to work towards it, etc. I also had them ask each other if they could share advice on how to complete the goals the others were setting. This fostered some great conversations between my students.

I absolutely adored this activity and my students loved this method of practicing their skills while thinking about the next year. in hearing their discussions, I learned a lot about my students. I learned that some wanted to imagine ways to change their grades, some to help the planet, some to design video games. I learned about my students favorite book series’, hobbies, and what they found interesting in school. In return, they learned about my interests and goals moving forward, providing me with suggestions on how to accomplish my resolutions. My challenge to my readers this week is to examine your own resolutions complexly, if you have them. What did you learn about yourself in this process? Bonus points if you took the extra step to engage with someone else about their goals. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say in comments.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Articulation · Grammar · Inclusion · Language Comprehension · Pragmatics and Social Skills · The Human Connection · Vocabulary

My Gift Is My Song: Finding Anthems in Speech

Music makes up so much of our lives. Songs are tied to memories, people, and places, and can transport us to any of those in an instant. Growing up in a big performing arts home, I’ve had song for every feeling, thought, big event and small moment. I was probably always living in my own mental music video, but it wasn’t until my junior year in college that I decided on an anthem.

It was my GRE tutor’s idea; to choose a song that would ease my anxiety and boost my confidence. That was a really big ask of a piece of music. I’d had songs I’ve related to over the years but I don’t remember having one serve such a purpose. I went through every song I knew. I had to find something that would really resonate with me. At the end of the day, I chose Katy Perry’s Firework. It simultaneously acknowledged my current overwhelmed state and reassured me that I was capable of big accomplishments. I had forgotten about my attachment to this song until being reunited with it at Moulin Rouge on Broadway, and it has been back in regular rotation since.

It goes without saying that this time of year is hard on all educators. Sometimes we forget that it can also be tough on our students. For this reason, I’ve started the Your Song project with my students, tackling all of speech and language goals at the same time. They get to use music to relax while working on speech and language at this buy point in the school year. I do this with my students in all grades, adjusting it to the age I’m working with. Yes, a Kindergartner can tell you why they like a song as easily as a high schooler, just not in the same words. I’m going to break it down for you here.

  1. Ask your students what kind of music they like.

    Is it pop? Broadway? Hip hop? Country? Is it fast or slow? How does it make them feel? By going over this, you’re validating your students’ opinions and tastes while they’re describing, explaining, and providing supporting details. At this point, we listen to different types of music and describe as we listen.

  2. Talk about the words.

    What kind of lyrics do they enjoy? Angsty? Spirited? Goofy? Are there words in their genre of choice? Why? Again they’re explaining and making text to self connections. Bonus points for learning about their peers in this exercise and encouraging conversations (and thus conversational skills).

  3. Choose the song.

    This is the most difficult part for the student. Settling on one song when they enjoy so many different varieties of music can be tough. I’ve found it helps if you let them know this isn’t permanent, and that it’s for this activity or for fun. The only stipulation I put on this project is that the song has to be appropriate for school. Other than that, it’s all up to my students.

  4. Have a listening party.

    This last bit I do the speech session before winter break. My students get to share their music. This involves recall (the memory connected with the song) expressing opinion and supporting reasons (why the song was chosen) engaging in conversation around each other’s music and preferences.

I love getting to learn about my students through music, and I always make sure to share my music, too. It shows them that you’re just as much of a person as they are. You could do this project any time of year, but I like to do it as a reflective project during the holidays. It lasts over a few sessions, and is universally liked by all ages. Readers, I’d love to know which songs resonate with you–please share in the comments. My challenge this week is to really get into someone else’s perspective by listening to music they love. I can’t wait to hear what you learn about your loved ones this way.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Inclusion · Language Comprehension · Lesson Plans · Pragmatics and Social Skills · The Human Connection · Vocabulary

Grand Knowing You: World Kindness Day 2019

If you’ve been following along for a while now, you know that kindness and inclusion are important in everything I do with my speech students. Wednesday was World Kindness Day, so naturally, my speech students have been celebrating throughout the week. This post will focus on the kindness lessons I employed with my speech groups this week.Let me share with you what I’ve learned from my students, and the activities we used.
  • Kindness conversations
My social skills groups participated in kindness conversations. We used questions such as “Why is it important to be kind?” and “What does social media teach us about talking to others?” as conversation starters. I let my students lead the discussion. I learned that it’s important to be polite because it shows your conversational partner that you appreciate them and signals that you really listened to what they had to say. I learned many ways we can be kind without involving money. We also talked about how to be kind across settings and with friends, family, teachers, and others with whom we interact.
  • Kindness vocabulary
After discussing what it means to be kind, we discussed synonyms and antonyms for the words. From there, we provided examples of how those vocabulary words may present. This also lead to a great discussion of what misunderstanding someone’s act of kindness could look like,and how to repair that communication breakdown. I am more and more impressed by my students’ compassion and empathy after every session.
  • Kindness Compliments
My students and I discussed compliments, both superficial and deep. We practiced giving each other superficial and meaningful compliments, and then spread them into the students’ respective classroom. It was amazing to watch kindness radiate out of my students, to their peers, and across classrooms and recess sessions alike.
These are only three of the activities I employed in my speech lessons this week. How did you celebrate World Kindness Day? What should I do to celebrate in my speech room? My challenge to you, dear reader, is to find a creative way to show kindness to others even when it is challenging. I can’t wait to hear how you showed others that anyone and everyone can be kind.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP
Grammar · Improv · Inclusion · Language Comprehension · Lesson Plans · Pragmatics and Social Skills · Vocabulary

Time to Play: How I Use Tatro

Hey there, readers! I cannot tell you how excited I am about this post. It’s been in the making for some time now. I’ve spoken to Will Barrios of Tatro previously on this blog (you can read more here), and I couldn’t wait to get his playset into my speech sessions. The featured image is one of my students’ creations from a recent session. This might be one of the most versatile speech therapy tools I have in my arsenal, and I am so excited to share how I use it with you. In addition, I’ll be sharing what my students thought of the activities and the playset. Spoiler alert: it was a hit and my students did not want to do anything else in speech.

Activity one: Playset building means team building!
Tatro is a playset with a pretty straightforward design. I can say that as someone who has seen the product finished. This playset was new to all of my students, so I decided to try it with a fourth grade group working on pragmatic skills. I laid out all the pieces on the table with a visual of the final product. I asked them how they thought it should be built, and had them work as a team to build the playset. They had to give each other directions–bonus following directions task!–and problem solve their way out of disagreements. The students got to work together until arriving at the correct assembly of the playset. As one can imagine, this took quite a bit of time, so the remainder of the speech session was spent with free play and exploration of the playset.

Activity two: Prepositions Practice!
For those who aren’t familiar, the playset is mostly magnetic. My students were fascinated with this because ” Nothing rolls onto the floor! It’s so easy to play with!” There are a variety of themes to choose from with this playset. At the moment, I own the Matinee Time, Fairytale Village and Castles, and Spellbound Forest Magnet Packs. My students chose to use the latter two packs together to first design a scene, with many magnetic pieces left over. Using the target concepts “on,” “next to,” “above,” “below,” “over,” and “under,” I gave my students directions for how to continue to decorate their scene. This allowed them to demonstrate their knowledge of these concepts through play. Later on in the session, they got to give their peers directions and feedback.

Tatro2

Photo: tatrotoy.com

Activity Three: Playing through Problem and Solution!
Using the Matinee Time magnets and the two characters and movers, I tried a different pragmatic language task. I paired my students up, interchanging partners each turn, and read them a scenario in which they would have to solve a problem. For example, I would say “Pretend it’s recess. You want to play tag, but your friend wants to play kickball. Ready, set, solve!” The students would then create their own mini play and act out possible solutions to the problems I generated. There are plenty of such problem solving activities available on TeachersPayTeachers.com. After this, my students and I talked through how this could be used in their classrooms without the toy. Next steps will be to work on generalizing this into situations they’re already encountering throughout their day.

Activity Four: Recreate and Retell!
Many of my students are working on summarizing and retelling, and this is a great tool for that! I read my students a story–choose whatever is appropriate for your student, and had them use the playset and all of its accessories to retell the story. After this, the students get to create their own story, demonstrating their knowledge of beginning, middle and end. They also have to tell me the main idea of both the story they retell and the story they create through play.

This is only what I’ve used Tatro for so far, and the possibilities are endless. I’m hoping to bring some new magnet packs to speech soon. My students were obsessed with the fact that the toy is magnetic. “We can’t lose toys this way!” “I didn’t know magnets could be so much fun!” “Where can I get one of these for home?” The answer to that last question is Tatrotoy.com. I know I’ll be heading there soon to look at some other magnet packs for my students. Will, my students and I can’t thank you enough for creating this new speech room staple! My challenge to my readers is to create the thing you’re thinking about. Draw, paint, write, choreograph, build—it’s up to you! Make something new and see how many ways you can enjoy it!

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!

—Stef the StageSLP

Articulation · Grammar · Language Comprehension · Pragmatics and Social Skills · Summer Speech · Vocabulary

And If We Gain Our Independence: Fourth of July Speech and Language Activities

Hey all! I hope all of my readers are enjoying the beginnings of their summer. I just got back from vacation and will shortly begin doing summer speech. This post will be on the shorter side, but I thought I’d share some Fourth of July themed speech activities involving little to no prep, and can be some solid family fun, not just summer practice.

  • Descriptive day journal

    This is a fun activity that engages all of the senses, encourages language expansion, and some writing practice. In a notebook or on a piece of paper, write about your experiences through sensory experience. For example, “I saw bright, sparkly blue fireworks. I heard loud music and booming fireworks. I felt the soft grass under my blanket. I tasted sweet red, white, and blue popsicles. I smelled hot dogs cooking on the grill.” This is an activity that can be adjusted to fit your day and allow for more details and encourage family discussion and sharing, turn taking, and active listening skills.

  • Menu sequencing

    Planning for a special meal on this holiday? Ask your child what could be included on the menu. After you’ve done that, have the child explain why that food should be included, and how to prepare it. This allows for asking and answering questions to be practiced, sequencing of food prep, and for the child to take on a leadership role in helping plan the meal. Going to a party instead? Ask for predictions of what will be on the menu, and why your child thinks that way.

  • Research the day

    Why not dig deeper and do some investigating on the founding of the United States? I like to do this with my younger students, and it’s a good break inside on a hot day. Using books or the computer, I have the student answer who, what, when, where, why, and how questions for the day by using kid-friendly research sites. After that, I let them research whatever they’re interested in learning about regarding the holiday. This works on asking and answering questions, language comprehension, expanding utterance length and turn taking skills.

  • Patriotic I Spy

    What can you spot that’s red white and blue? Can you spot something patriotic using your speech sound? This is an easy game to play anywhere to target articulation, expressive language and pragmatic language. You can use the holiday as your theme, or play the game as originally intended.

What are your go-to Fourth of July activities? Are there any in this list you’ll be trying? Let me know in comments–sharing your ideas expands everyone’s activity toolbox. This week, I challenge you to spend time with others, unplugged from technology. That’s how I intend to spend my holiday, and I hope you have a great week!

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Grammar · Language Comprehension · Pragmatics and Social Skills · Summer Speech · The Human Connection · Vocabulary

Summertime And The Livin’ Is Easy

As you amazing readers are viewing this post, I am enjoying my summer break. It was my first year juggling multiple schools, learning new age groups and programs, and learning to respect and be educated by new students and colleagues. It certainly wasn’t an easy year, but definitely one that was worthwhile.
My students are beyond ready and excited for summer, whether they have no plans or a packed summer schedule. Some are attending camps, both recreational and academic, others are enjoying time with their families. While I don’t send home structured homework or practice for my students over the summer, I always recommend a few things to my students and my families. I’ll be sharing those with you today.
  • Keep Reading!
There is a clear connection between language and literacy, language comprehension, vocabulary, grammatical knowledge, etc. I encourage my students to complete whatever summer reading they may be required to do in addition to reading for pleasure. I still learn all sorts of new vocabulary and turns of phrase from the books I read year-round. I encourage them to ask questions about what they’re reading to enrich their understanding and encourage advocacy on their part.
  • Speak Up!
Talk to your family and friends. Engage in conversation on subjects you find interesting and subjects that are new to you. Educate others on what you know, and ask questions about what’s new to you. Learn and understand new perspectives, and share your own. Involve your families, friends, and folks in your lives across generations. The more you ask of people outside of your immediate perspective, the broader your worldview will become. Participating in these conversations increases length of utterance, encourages clarity in asking questions and increasing language comprehension, involves vocabulary building, and social skills interactions.
  • Go Play! 
Make your own games. Get creative. Learn your friends and family member’s favorite games. Pretend play is a great way to practice expressive language, turn-taking, social skills, perspective taking, language comprehension, and individual creativity.I loved making up my own dramatic play as a kid and have used such strategies in my own therapeutic sessions when appropriate. This also encourages the human connection and allows for so much interpersonal growth.
Those are some of my summer recommendations. I’m sure I’ll be expanding on these as the summer goes on. Let me know which you plan to try and what your summer plans are in comments.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP
Grammar · Language Comprehension · Lesson Plans · Pragmatics and Social Skills · Vocabulary

I Wish I Could Rewrite This Story: Intersections in Spoken and Written Language

If it isn’t obvious by now, I am fascinated with storytelling. Many of my upcoming guests and I will be discussing this particular topic. Once upon a time, I thought I’d write–most likely become an author. At the tender age of seventeen I believed I wouldn’t be creative enough, despite teachers encouraging me in the opposite direction. Little did I know I’d enter into a profession that requires more writing than I can handle some days!

That is not the reason I write this post. I chose to write this post to discuss the translation of spoken language into written language. This is a complicated subject for many of my students, since most people write the way they speak. Their formal writing pieces may be less formal because they’re children, with vocabularies to match. This is not at all a negative, it’s wonderful. Have you ever read a child’s writing? It is straight to the point and you feel exactly what that child was thinking in that moment. Their writing is magical. Through speech therapy, it’s my job to stretch it. Below, I’ve bulleted what my students and I work on to enhance their writing without ever picking up a pencil–thank you, Occupational Therapists!

  • Vocabulary
    It really amazes me how influential vocabulary can be. it takes “good” to “excellent” and “mad” to “furious.” Through teaching with shades of meaning, and emoji images, I’ve taught vocabulary beyond the basics. My students know I have an expectation for their individual vocabulary skills. Usually, I’ll say, “We all know that word, can you give us a new ____th grade word for us to learn?” This gives them the opportunity to expand, practice, and show off their vocabulary. It makes the student feel like a vocabulary rock star.
  • Grammar and syntax
    This is how I teach perspective and pronouns. Are you telling me something that happened to you or your friends? When did it happen? Did you cook breakfast or did your dad? How do you think he liked waking up early to do so? The students know this is where pronouns come into play as well. We explore verb tense and the use of complete, compound, and complex sentences. There is an entire world to explore here that could be another post entirely.
  • Main idea/key details
    I usually get into this when we talk about our weekends in our first session of the week. Each student tells me about one event that occurred during their weekend. I ask them what the most important part of the story was. If they tell me instead their favorite part of the story, I ask if that’s what the whole story was about. Frequently, I’m met with “Oh! No, the story was about how I won my soccer game by scoring the final goal. The goal was just my favorite part.” The trickiest part is differentiation between the two “I”s: Important and Interesting. Important refers to the main idea and Interesting to the details. Once they get this concept, it’s wondrous what the students can unlock in their minds and the stories that come pouring out!
  • Sequencing/Thought Organization
    Every story has a beginning, middle and end. It’s very difficult to teach this skill. I should know, my own stories as a child used to be all over the place with muddled transitions, so this is my favorite area to work on. This is where the students decide how they want their characters to feel and act. We do this with the “Somebody Wanted But So Finally” model of sequencing. There are so many wonderful graphic organizers for this model, and I can always find one accessible to my students. We also get to delve into their intentions, how they want the piece to make its reader feel, how the characters feel, and how we ride that emotion from one wave to the next, and why their emotions change. This is a great opportunity to work in a social skills lesson.
  • Retelling
    I love hearing my students share their final drafts–or any drafts–with me. I get to hear how they want their story presented, including its tone and the structure they’ve assigned it. This lets me peek into my students’ brains and see where their creativity leads them, which is always a magical moment for me. It also gives me a moment to evaluate their strengths and areas of difficulty in the above mentioned areas, which is great for goal-building later on.

I love it when areas of what I love overlap,like in this instance. I hope you enjoy the posts coming your way from some truly amazing and kind guests. My challenge to you this week is to target your biggest challenge currently–in writing, in work, in life–and find a strategy that works for you to help you with it. Mine will be keeping my house clean, just keeping it real.

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the StageSLP

Broadway · Interview · Language Comprehension · Performances · The Human Connection · Wise Words

Pick Up A Pen, Start Writing: A Conversation with Nik Walker

Writing is not always easy. Personally, it’s something I’ve always enjoyed and have always done. I saw it as a means of expression, of creativity, of escaping my bubble and traveling elsewhere. One of my high school teachers once told me I should be an author, since I loved to read and write so much—who knew I’d be writing this blog some years later? She and I are still in contact, we now work in the same district, and constantly swap book recommendations. Now that it’s my turn to help my own students write, I can see how much is involved from an objective standpoint. I recently mentioned a playwriting assignment my students had to complete, and was surprised at the expectation level that had been set for them, especially for my students with language comprehension needs, difficulty with perspective taking, and my literal thinkers. Nothing I said to them made sense—organizers, outlines, I did it all. And then it occurred to me, I need to talk to someone who knows the world of writing and perspective-taking.

Enter Nik Walker, who has not only done some writing of his own, but who made a video that helped my students understand what storytelling through this medium could sound like. He is currently playing Aaron Burr in the Philip Tour of Hamilton: An American Musical. That’s right, I got to learn even more about my all-time favorite character from a musical (sorry, Elphaba), and the three other tracks he covered while in the Broadway cast of the show. Ready to read for yourself? Let’s go!
************************************************************************************

Stef: You came to mind because of this writing assignment my students are doing. They’re writing a play, and the expectation set for them would be challenging for anyone, let alone third and fourth grade kids. I sat in on the lesson and heard the expectation myself, and I didn’t think I’d get a passing grade on an assignment like this, as someone who enjoys writing and theatre. I know you have some experience with writing plays, and what I used to help my students was your Free Speech video about your Blockbuster store.

Nik: Oh wow. I’m so glad you were able to use that. That’s really wonderful.

S: My student said, “I don’t think he was talking about a store. I think he was talking about people’s behavior. Like, is your behavior kind enough to go into his store?” And I hit the table I was so excited, because this student who has been working on perspective taking and nonliteral language for years just understood your imaginary world. So please know, you’ve reached some kids in my little speech therapy room.

N: No way. That’s so cool to hear.

S: So, after hearing that, I told the students that was how we were going to write. We scaled it back and made it work for their level. That is when it occurred to me to talk to someone who lives in this space, because IU can’t help my students with something that I don’t know or understand. They want to know what you do when “You can see it in your head but you can’t figure out how to put what you see on paper.”

N: I think anytime you’re writing you’re sharing a part of yourself and that’s kind of the beauty and the curse of it. You’re sharing something so raw, why would you make it accessible. What I always think about is ‘What am I trying to communicate? How do I want the person to take what I’m saying?’ Now, you can’t control how an audience understands your message, but you can know your end-game. If you want people to feel or think a certain way, that will give you a direction or goal to work in. It’s a process for kids and adults alike.

S: I love this as an assignment but not as a grade.

N: Yeah, I can understand that. They’re just trying to figure out what it is. Grading it explains that there are rules to this, and there are so many more possibilities than there are rules, and I hope they know that.

S: A lot of my older students are very familiar with Hamilton; the younger ones are because of me and my obsession with the show. My one Hamilton-obsessed student wants to know how you always seem to be the target for practical jokes from James Monroe Iglehart and Michael Luwoye. She really feels for you.

N: First of all, all of that is done in love. I am the eternal younger brother, and what ends up happening is that, with both Michael and James, we bonded over being playful people. It’s not like that with everyone, but most people know that our friendship is getting closer when I tease them. I do not ever tease to hurt, I would never do that. I grew up with witty barbs thanks to Indiana Jones and Judd Nelson from The Breakfast Club. But these people know that I love them, pranks, scares, what have you—it’s all done in love.

S: After  covering Aaron Burr, George Washington Hercules Mulligan/James Madison, and Man 6 in the ensemble,  you’re playing Burr full-time on tour. How does your prep change from four roles to one?

N: You put in the same amount of work for each track you cover. The unsung heroes of theatre are the swings and understudies. The whole point is that they go on and you don’t know the difference. It’s not an impersonation, but the whole reason you have them is because they’re just as good if not better than the people they’re covering. I’ve gotten to work with a lot of my heroes and mentors this way, how to make this show happen eight shows a week. This is the first time in my Broadway career the only role I only have to worry about what I’m doing. For me, it’s knowing I am enough and knowing that the show will still work. I am not Leslie, I can’t be him, but I can be me, and I just want to do the show to the best of my ability.

S: When I saw the show, Jon Rua was on for Hamilton and Austin Smith was on for Washington.

N: You saw Austin? He’s amazing!

S: He is. And I loved seeing their performances. I went into seeing the show cold, and had no expectation for what I was seeing. I was concerned that I’d hate that show. I loved it, but I know I love the performance I saw more than the cast album I hear. I think it’s more fun to see something without an expectation, and I loved getting to see something different than what the world thinks they know of this show.

N: Definitely. And you saw a great group of performers. It isn’t the recording, but that’s what makes live theatre interesting. Only the people in that room that night get to see that production of that show.

S: How did you get into theatre? I can’t believe it took me this long to get to this question.

N: As a kid, my mom wanted me to focus. She thought theatre would focus me. I had too much energy, and she had me audition for a kid’s production of Winnie the Pooh at Wheelock Family Theater. I fell in love with the community of it, it was pretty automatic from what I remember. I loved the idea of people coming together to create something. I went deeper because of my love of stories, especially Mark Twain. His storytelling was just so organic, and I spent my elementary school years seeking out storytelling. I listened to albums by The Who because all of their albums tell stories.

From there, I got into film. I watch film incessantly. It’s just spectacular, especially Tarantino, Scorsese and Spielberg, and their stories defined who I became as an adult. I think the acting part of it just came out of studying that; in college it was Shakespeare and words and how to do something with words, which really drew me to theatre, but the backbone is still that love of community. Acting is like a sport to me. There’s nothing like engaging with and reacting to your scene partner. It’s like tennis, and there’s nothing better than that. There’s nothing I love more, and I am so fortunate that I get to do what I love.

S: The song Wait For It changed everything. I had a favorite show and song before I saw it; and this changed that. How do you do that eight shows a week?

N: Leslie has said “Everything you need to know is in the text,” and that’s the gift of this musical. Musicals aren’t often about the words, they’re about the music. This show isn’t like that, because words, text and dialogue are at the forefront. For Wait For It, I ride the wave of the word. I really like the idea that this is a man who is trying to believe in the mantra. It’s not like Burr hasn’t had success in his life, but Hamilton shows up and everything he does raises the bar. His thought process has to be, “With all my knowledge, how did I not come up with that?” We all know that person who always manages to beat you to your goal.

S: There’s always one!

N: Yes, there’s always one. I think that song is him convincing himself he’s playing the game correctly. Stick with what you already know, because it’s worked for him so far over time. The energy of that song is incredible.

S: That’s the song that made me relate so closely to the character and to the show. I felt like I knew those experiences, because the role is so human, and I had never related to anything more.

N: I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the show. It has these human truths. People come into this show thinking they’ll hate Burr, and they end up sympathizing with him. It’s so human. What could be more human than making the biggest mistake of your life, never being able to take it back, and it ruining both characters’ lives

S: Between protecting your voice and your body, how do you play this role eight shows a week?

N: Doing Burr on Broadway is hard. Doing Burr on tour is nuts. Every place is different—the weather, where I’m staying, what I find comfortable. The biggest thing is not to second guess your comfort. If you’re feeling tired, you go rest. If your voice is tired, there’s technical stuff—straw and water technique, steaming, taking care of your voice. You prioritize your comfort to keep your instrument at its best. It’s a sport, you train and take care of yourself. My body and my voice are my job.

S: I’m a former dancer, I totally get that.

N: This show is so hard on your legs, and I wasn’t fully aware of that when I joined the company. You’re always standing in the period costumes and period shoes. It’s tough. I started doing dynamic stretches to take care of myself and check in with where my body is that day. It’s actually really relaxing. Also, you can’t be afraid. Four the tour, I’ve talked to a lot of the actresses who’ve played Elphaba, to see how to do this eight shows a week. They’ve told me getting used to it will take time, but once you’ve settled, go out and do things wherever you are, and trust that you do know how to do your job.

S: Yeah, if you’re scared, that’s when you get hurt. At least in my own experiences.

N: Yeah, you can’t come from fear. Be confident that you know what you’re doing. Find the version of the show that gets the story told without maxing out after two shows.

S: That makes so much sense to me. As a part of a really collaborative show, what’s collaboration like for you? You collaborate with everyone you work with when you’re a part of any show.

N: Listening is the number one skill. People are waiting for their chance to speak rather than truly listening and taking in what the other person is saying. That’s all collaboration is—people talking from different places and styles and bouncing ideas around and seeing what sticks. You can’t learn the other person’s way of thinking if you’re always in the spotlight. Some of my favorite parts of the show are when Burr is somewhere listening.

S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to get out of their comfort zone. What would you challenge them to do?

N: That’s a great question. Honestly, this is gonna sound kind of crazy, but read a book a week. I say that because books are the gateway to understanding cultures and stories that are vastly different from yours. I think that reading is the ultimate test if empathy. Find a book that you wouldn’t normally read, and just read it to see what someone else is thinking about and feeling. I think what that’s gonna do is help others to understand we’re all looking for the same things in life. And it will start to show you what you’re capable of, which is the best part of getting out of your comfort zone, and flipping what you thought you knew on its head.
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In case it’s not completely obvious from our conversation, I thoroughly enjoyed getting to talk with Nik Walker. Full disclosure: this conversation took place the week leading up to Christmas, and he was so generous with his time during this interview, that it felt like I was talking to someone I’d known for years. To those of you who are going to get to see Nik’s performance on tour, you all a re not ready and are going to experience something unique and so smart. I haven’t had the opportunity to see him yet, but I know this because that’s what was running through my head. If you haven’t seen the video mentioned in the beginning of this post, do yourself a favor and check it out. If you have to look up what a video store is like my students did, that’s fine. You can follow Nik Walker at @nikkywalks on Twitter and Instagram. Personally, I can’t wait to hear about what everyone decides to read for his challenge. Don’t forget to comment with the books you choose!

Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef The StageSLP