Monday, April 17, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Mary Testa

First grade faced The Darkest Dark and took a rocket to the moon with
Tony nominee Mary Testa

The dreams of childhood quietly nestle within the protective care of possibility. With youth comes the optimistic projection that the future is "a blank page or canvas" awaiting our direction.

What is your dream?

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

These are questions adults ask little ones while encouraging them to open their hearts and imaginations to what lies ahead.

Dreams - and the quest to achieve them - were the theme of our Broadway Books First Class visit from two-time Tony Award nominee Mary Testa. Mary represents the successful manifestation of the Broadway dream beginning with her debut on The Great White Way in 1982 in the musical Barnum. That was followed by Tony Award nominated roles in On the Town and 42nd Street, in addition to parts in beloved musicals Wicked, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Chicago.

However, the first time I remember seeing her perform was as the fiery muse - and daughter of Zeus - Melpomene in Xanadu! She was intense and funny and I was drawn to her boundless energy and a little frightened by its manic unpredictability. Then, years later, I watched her quiet, heartbreaking portrayal of Barbara Bush in First Daughter Suite at the Public Theater.

Those performances demonstrated that she was equally adept with both animated hijinks and sustained compassion, so when she stepped into my classroom to meet the children I knew they were in good hands.

Students introduce themselves to Mary Testa in American Sign Language

It turns out Mary knows some American Sign Language (ASL) and even has a name sign given to her by Tony Award winner Phyllis Frelich (Children of a Lesser God)!

After introductions, Mary led the children into The Darkest Dark written by Astronaut Chris Hadfield and illustrated by The Fan Brothers. The book recounts Chris' childhood in the 60s where his desire to explore the universe had a hitch - he was afraid of the dark. This changed one night in 1969 when he gathered around the TV with a crowd of adults and children to witness intrepid astronauts landing on the moon. That night Chris realized that you are never really alone in the darkness (in a good way).

"Your dreams are always with you, just waiting. Big dreams, about the kind of person you want to be. Wonderful dreams about the life you will live. Dreams that actually come true."

Mary Testa reading The Darkest Dark alongside ASL interpreter Rachel Grudberg

Facing challenges and overcoming fears is a step on the path to achieving our dreams. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey is never easy but it is always worthwhile. And we are all certainly the hero of our own story - or dream - aren't we?

During the question and answer period Mary's determination, joy and empathy were on full display. When asked to share one of her favorite theatrical memories she related the story of meeting a boy after a performance of 42nd Street. He had come to see the show as a brief respite from the pain and exhaustion surrounding the illness of his father and thanked Mary for giving him those precious hours of happiness.

He returned a few months later with his mother after his dad had passed to thank Mary and the cast for giving them some happiness during a difficult time. As she spoke, Mary began to cry and the children commented on it, asking why? In that moment she helped them understand the power of theater and the heart of an artist.

...And made my dreams for Broadway Books First Class come true, which is to set the stage for my students to become smart, caring adults who appreciate literature and the Arts. I want my students to emulate Mary Testa. She is a beautiful role model.

Mary Testa autographing books while a student fingerspells his name

Mary shared more stories and thoughtfully answered more questions about her favorite performance (in Queen of the Mist, which was written for her by Michael John LaChiusa) and most embarrassing moment on stage (going up on her lines in 42nd Street when her sister was in the audience).

Her stories stayed with the children, as did her lesson on the importance of collaboration in the theater and in school. Her words and lessons come up every so often in various ways but most recently in our poetry unit.

It has been a few weeks since her visit yet one little girl wrote a poem in Mary's honor.

Mary Testa
She does special shows in important roles
without her Broadway couldn't be
She is quite Mary/for her name that is
We put her to the test/She passes gratefully
Her name will be known
Mary Testa
Broadway Star

Mary's visit showed a group of first graders that dreams can come true and that when they do it is best to live in them with grace and gratitude. We all send a big hug of thanks to Mary Testa and look forward to seeing where her dreams lead next.

Thank you to Columbia University Teachers College for the grant allowing me to purchase books for each student

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Let the seal do the work"

A personal renaissance has emerged lately, which has reignited my passion for language and linguistic development.

Once upon a time, I discovered American Sign Language (ASL) and it clicked for me. ASL changed my life and, at first, I pursued it through weekly classes, using work books and videotapes to immerse myself in this visual language until it literally crept into my dreams.

In those early days I'd practice fingerspelling everything I heard while watching TV to build dexterity and muscle memory. I'd seek out opportunities to sign even though I'd become flushed with embarrassment at my lack of skill in both receptive and expressive language.

I studied the linguistics of ASL, the structures of grammar that native users know intuitively but second language learners must be taught. And slowly, in the company of some incredible - and patient - role models I actually started to think in ASL (rather than first formulating a thought in English and then translating it).

All of this was to achieve my goal...
  • to be a good teacher 
  • to work with children who are Deaf and hard of hearing
  • to convey my message though ASL with clarity.

I never wanted to be an interpreter. I still don't. But, there are circumstances when I need to step in and interpret during the day. As it happens, this semester I have the great, good fortune of mentoring a student teacher with over 30 years experience as a sign language interpreter (including Broadway).

So, when opportunities come up that require me to interpret we've decided it would be nice to flip the script and let her take notes and supply feedback.

It has been transformative, thrilling and inspiring.

She is taking me to another level by fine-tuning my presentation and making me aware of things I never would have thought about on my own.



She has taught me a lot - e.g., imaginative uses of classifiers, new vocabulary, how to utilize wait time, etc. -  but my favorite note was, "Nice letting the 'seal do the work'".  Basically, this refers to allowing the child to see what is happening for themselves rather than trying to interpret it. She related a story about a trip to the Central Park Zoo where the children were watching a seal lounging in the sun and pointing out that rather than interpreting his movements it was smarter to simply let the children watch the seal. "Let the seal do the work" is applicable to a great many situations.

I love our discussions about what I am doing well and what I can improve.  One thing is clear to me, no matter how many degrees I get I will always enjoy being a student.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Another Broadway Books First Class Visit From Hollie Wright

Hollie E. Wright surrounded by the first grade Firebirds
There are times when saying, "Yes" opens us up to amazing grace and gratitude.

For me, that happened quite literally when I accepted an invitation from Nicole Duncan-Smith to accompany her to Amazing Grace on Broadway. It was a month before Broadway Books First Class premiered with Tony Award winner Gregory Jbara and we spent the day planning its debut.

Amazing Grace is a powerful show that delivers a one-two punch near the end. It left me an emotional mess - so much so that a woman seated several seats away offered me a Kleenex (or three) before the cast took their curtain calls.

Afterwards, I quietly pulled my sorry self together and slowly made my way out of the theater. It was then, on a hot night in early September outside the Nederlander Theatre, that I first met Hollie Wright. Nicole introduced us and the demands of actually speaking broke the walls of my constrained emotions.

I managed a friendly hello but quickly LOST IT while telling her how much I loved her show. Her response? She pulled me in for a hug while her nurturing voice whispered kindly, "Oh, honey".

That night Hollie held and comforted my aching spirit.

That night Hollie became the heart of Broadway Books First Class.

Her visits stand as a testament to my initial impression - she is a beautiful soul.

In my mind, Broadway Books First Class will forever remain synonymous with Hollie's kindness, her inclusiveness and her joy. I hope she remains a perpetual visitor who returns year after year.

The children introduce themselves, in ASL, to Hollie

This year she read Firebird by Misty Copeland. In the book, Misty Copeland tells the story of a young girl - an every girl - whose confidence is fragile and who is questioning her own ability to reach the heights that Misty has reached. Misty encourages this young girl's faith in herself and shows her exactly how, through hard work and dedication, she too can become Firebird".

Sitting on the floor surrounded by children (some wearing tutus or well-worn Capezios), Hollie made the story personal by sharing stories of her journey as a professional dancer on Broadway and as a teacher at The Alvin Ailey School of Dance.

Hollie Wright reading Misty Copeland's Firebird alongside ASL interpreter Kathleen Taylor

This led into the question and answer portion of the visit wherein the children lifted their last question up in one loud voice with hands raised in sign, "Can you teach us to dance?"

Dance class in First Grade with Broadway performer Hollie Wright 

Without missing a beat Hollie directed their young bodies into rows and began teaching them ballet. A shift had occurred. Suddenly, the oft-times frenetic energy of a first grade classroom reflected the disciplined, mirror-lined walls of a dance studio as Hollie led them through a series of ballet exercises. Each student raising a curved arm, stepping into fourth position and executing a straight-backed pliƩ with quiet concentration. It was rather impressive.

A Thank You card to Hollie depicting our Firebird inspired dance class

Hollie also pulled back the curtain to show the children how a dancer keeps limber and in shape with  textured balls. She passed them around before demonstrating how she uses them to stretch or soothe aching muscles. She related it to building reading muscles and the taking time to develop new skills, which is a good lesson for impatient 6-year-olds.

Demonstrating how a dancer keeps in shape

Hollie then signed copies of Firebird for each child before departing to teach her class at The Ailey School.  Then, the children set about writing thank you cards.




Saying yes on that hot September night in 2015 altered the course of my fledgling program because I met the incredible Hollie Wright. Hollie brought the program to the attention of the talented Amazing Grace family and with one email she piqued the interest of Kim Weild, Oneika Phillips and Elizabeth Ward Land.

Kim Weild then brought on Alexandria Wales, Stockard Channing, Devlin Elliott, Nathan Lane, David Caudle, Anastasia Traina, Scott Cohen and, by extension, Jeremiah Maestas. She also spearheaded the Winter Workshop at PS347, the book How the I Becomes the We and its subsequent performance on The High Line.

It is interesting to witness how the ripples of a simple, "Yes" can create unforeseen momentum.

Thank you Hollie!

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