Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Charles Busch

First Graders with the incomparable Charles Busch
At first glance it may seem as though inviting drag legend Charles Busch - who penned Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! - to spend an afternoon with my first grade students was an odd choice.  But, thank goodness for second glances and looking beyond the surface to the man behind the flawless makeup.  In that lucid realm, it becomes immediately apparent that Charles Busch is an inspired addition to Broadway Books First Class.

Besides, what is more quintessentially New York than showcasing a performer who created a path in the rough-and-tumble world of theater by surrounding himself with kindred spirits while relying on his talent and determination.  Cooperation and perseverance are qualities educators nurture in school-aged children.

My team teacher Oni and I couldn't wait to introduce the children to Charles and his work.  So, one morning a week before his visit we projected a photograph of him onto our SmartBoard.  We first discussed Charles as a writer and made connections to the writing we do every day.  We discussed scripts and did a little role playing with two characters I created. The boys and girls slipped between the characters without regard for gender. Boys happily played the girl part and vice versa.

Actor, playwright and
drag legend Charles Busch
Next, we told the children that Charles often performs in his own shows playing the woman's role.  To provide the visual we unveiled a very glamours shot of Charles in costume and prepared for their reaction.

Here was a moment when you realize, once again, that prejudice against those outside of our everyday purview must be carefully taught.  After an initial reaction of awesome wonder their shock melted away.  The first comment when asked what they thought about his alter ego was to point out that he had a digraph in his first AND last name.

Over the next several days the kids came up with some questions for Mr. Busch.

Did you like to act and write when you were little?
What kinds of books do you like to read?
How are your acting and writing connected?
How often do you dress like a girl and how do you do it?

He answered all of these with a striking honesty that showed a vulnerability and a willingness to step outside of his comfort zone to open up to a group of children.  During his time with us he shared that he  had a "rather lonely childhood and always felt different from the other kids".  (I wonder how many of the students in our class also feel different, lonely, or outside the boundaries of what is typical.)  Charles said he found his voice in theater surrounded by others who had similar experiences growing up.

It's a good thing for all of us that he did!  His reading of The Spider and the Fly was a joy to behold. I couldn't help but feel I had a front row seat to a standing room only performance right there in my own classroom.

Todd Parr, one of my favorite children's book authors, often ends his books by writing, "The world is a better place because of you".  As I said goodbye to Charles that afternoon those words danced around my mind.  The world is indeed a better place because of Mr. Charles Busch.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Hollie Wright

Joyous Broadway dancer Hollie Wright (seated) with our first grade students.
Notice the girls on the right signing the letters "H" and "W" for her name.
Curtain Up!  Light the Lights!  And...

Five, Six, Seven, Eight...

Children and movement - they seem to go hand-in-hand.  Little bodies squirm, wiggle and fidget.  How wonderful it is to direct that energy into a form of creative expression.

Our second Broadway Books First Class visitor gave us the incentive to do just that!

We set the stage for Hollie Wright's visit by taking our first grade class to Lincoln Center to see Ballet Hispanico perform dynamic choreography to the music of Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and Xavier Cugat.  The dancers celebrated the captivating aesthetics of Hispanic culture in solo, paired and group numbers utilizing space and time to great advantage.  This performance generated questions for Hollie including, "Do you dance alone or with someone?" and "What kinds of dancing do you do?"

We also read books about dancers - check out the soaring Firebird by Misty Copeland - and began a Latin Dance class ourselves through New York City's Town Hall.

Hollie brought Pointe shoes
The books brought another question to mind, "Why do dancers dance in pointe shoes?"  In general, dancing shoes were an area of curiosity so I asked Hollie if she could bring along some shoes for the kids to explore.

She happily complied by bringing ballet slippers, Pointe shoes, character shoes and tap shoes.  She even gave a command performance by tapping splendidly on our tile floor and later, leading the students in a series of stretches.

But, before all that happened she read.  We chose Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen (interesting side note: Hollie understudied Debbie Allen's daughter Vivian Nixon in Hot Feet on Broadway).

Hollie gathered the children around her on the rug and read the story of Sassy who dreams of becoming a dancer.  Throughout the reading Hollie paused to ask and answer questions, show pictures and comment on the story.

Hollie reading Dancing in the Wings with ASL interpretation by Mary Grace Gallagher

Like Gregory Jbara before her, we noticed Hollie knew how to gauge the reading to keep little bodies with short attention spans engaged.  After the reading I commented on this only to find out she has a degree in education and is experienced in teaching young children.

She has been dancing since Age 2 and has been taught by the best (Maurice Hines!).  She also enjoys a long association with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School. She is in demand but for a while she chose to spend time with us.

I am thankful I met this bighearted performer that hot summer night this August outside the theater of her Broadway show Amazing Grace. Her visit was inspiring.  Who knows?  We may have a future dancer in our midst!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reviving Miss Nancy

Miss Nancy of Romper Room
Ah, education!

Your pendulum swings with such force from one "fresh" ideology to another but the only things that are new again are the superficial wrapping and arbitrary labels.

This past go 'round was particularly ugly.  The last few years have been virtually joyless, abusive and heartbreaking for teachers. Thankfully, that is changing.  At least in my little corner of the world.

Our school is returning to the Teachers College Columbia University Reading and Writing Project for literacy development.  Their curriculum actually teaches children how to read and write in a developmentally appropriate manner.  

It is such a pleasure to receive educational guidance from folks who know how children learn. This is a great departure from curricula developed by test makers posing as educators.  We'll be dealing with the damage they caused for many, many years (I am looking at you Pearson!)

The one drawback is the way the literacy coaches from the Reading and Writing Project teach and interact with students.  They all seem to be emulating the over-the-top style of 1960s Romper Room television hosts welcoming children or peering through the Magic Mirror.

I am not sure why the coaches all seem programmed with a robotic Stepford Wives computer chip of congeniality but I'll take maniacal smiles over disapproving scowls any day.

Don't be surprised if you walk by my room one day and catch me muttering,

Romper, stomper, bomper boo.
Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. 
Magic Mirror, tell me today,
Did all my friends have fun at play?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Featured In...

Author Lenore Skenazy (pictured) wrote a lovely column this week about Broadway Books First Class for the newspaper Chelsea Now.

The article entitled His 'First Class' Idea: Bring Broadway to School is a fancy schmancy, bring-a-smile-to-my-face, piece that covers what transpired in our classroom during Gregory Jbara's visit.

Lenore captures a child's perspective on adult themes - I refer to this as poetic language in children - when a student refers to a graveyard as "the deadness".  Appropriate imagery with All Hallows' Eve just around the corner.

She deftly manages connections (between people, between time, and between situations) throughout the piece.  It is deeply gratifying to have Lenore's perspective and support on this new project.

Please check it out by clicking here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Gregory Jbara

Tony Award Winning actors do not generally pop into first grade classrooms to read to the children.  However, that is changing thanks to my new literacy and arts project entitled Broadway Books First Class.

The tone of generosity and kindness was set this past week with a visit from Broadway veteran Gregory Jbara who took a break from shooting his hit television series Blue Bloods to read the children's book Creepy Carrots.

Anticipation for Greg's visit began two weeks ago as we slowly introduced the project and his work each morning.  We asked our students, "What do you know about live theater?" and inevitably, "How is it different from going to the movies?" Students shared and questioned, they talked with one another to deepen their collective and individual understanding and after several days of discussion and watching Greg in action - via the Internet and DVDs - formulated a few questions of their own.

"Do you dance on TV?"
"How did you get the job to act?"
"How do you make movies?"
"How did you make Tangled?"
"Did you always want to be an actor?"
"What was your favorite role? Why?"

By the time he walked through our door the children were bursting with excitement to meet Gregory Jbara.  In an unassuming and relaxed manner he introduced himself to each student by bending down and shaking each little hand.

After their "Oohhs" and "Ahhs" quieted he settled into a fun reading of the film noir influenced Creepy Carrots.

Gregory Jbara reading Creepy Carrots with sign language interpretation by Mary Grace Gallagher.

It became immediately evident to the educators in the room (my principal Dave and team teacher Oni) that Mr. Jbara knew his way around a reading.  He masterfully took the students on a journey while sprinkling the reading with those teacher staples of think-alouds and purposeful questioning.  His reading instantly became a model for fluency and prosody (another classroom reading goal).

Our students sat engaged and watchful throughout the reading and shared the unexpected, joyful twist of the final pages with our famous visitor.

The questions followed, and as I watched the children process his answers I became immediately impressed by their understanding of a world outside their experience.  For example, after describing the audition process and how directors/producers select just one performer for a role a student asked, "But what happens if you are both great?"

We discussed his thoughts about Billy Elliot the Musical (naturally) but our 6-year-old audience was particularly interested in his voice work for the Disney movie Tangled.  They even learned a new word - ruffian!

As the visit came to a close we presented him with a hardcover copy of Creepy Carrots that we all signed and a note of thanks. But honestly, how can we give enough thanks to this big-hearted man for sharing his time and talent with us?

He even stayed after the reading for almost an hour to talk with columnist/author Lenore Skenazy about his involvement with Broadway Books First Class (he was the first performer to say, "I'm interested") and his wonderful career. It is very telling of his genuine, down-to-earth character that he thanked ME for this opportunity!

Each student received a copy of Creepy Carrots courtesy of our PTA

I cannot imagine a better performer to kick off this project than Gregory Jbara.  The bar has been set high but with Broadway dancer Hollie Wright and Tony nominated playwright Charles Busch visiting next month I have no doubt the momentum will keep building.


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