Wednesday, March 21, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Alison Fraser

🎼 🎶 Yes, it’s love! No doubt about it... 🎵
Two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser visits with Pre-K and Second Grade

Two events occurred in recent days that, on the surface, seem unrelated but serve to deepen my understanding of development and purpose. The first was an extraordinary Broadway Books First Class guest artist visit by two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser. The other was the passing of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking argued that there is no God because time itself did not exist before the creation of the universe. This is due to the effects of the laws of nature upon the void created by an enormous black hole, which eventually exploded to set the universe on its infinite path of expansion. This leads to the question, "Without a creator (God), does life have meaning?" And to examine that question we can relate the vast complexities of the universe to our own incredible brains.

There are secrets in both that remain a mystery awaiting investigation but one thing seems certain - we've evolved. Humans have become metacognitive, i. e. self-aware and self-reflective. Those traits propel us forward and allow us to create our own meaning, our own purpose.

This trajectory of growth and forward momentum hit me as I engaged in a bit of reflection about Broadway Books First Class. The program continues to evolve and, more often than not, the changes are absolutely obvious. It feels like those old V8 commercials where the actors hit their heads and declare, "I could have had a V8!"  

A radiant Alison Fraser surrounded by artifacts from her illustrious career

Two such "staring me in the face" revelations came via Alison Fraser's visit. Alison was one of the very first performers to come onboard and from the start her involvement has been invaluable.

I've seen her perform in over a dozen shows (many more than once) including Romance/Romance, The Secret Garden, Gunmetal Blues, Gypsy, First Daughter Suite, The Divine Sister, A Charity Case, Love Therapy, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, Squeamish, A New York Romance at 54 Below, a staged reading of Red Scare on Sunset, and singing with the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra on New Year's Eve 2012.

The first "Aha Moment" sprung from my intent to remain conscious of inviting guest artists and selecting books that mirror the cultural and linguistic realities of my students. I thoughtfully work to ensure my students see themselves reflected in the books the guest artists read - and in the guest artists themselves - and realized that this objective could be strengthened and supported in a very simple, concrete way.

Alison Fraser beside her younger self

So, I asked Alison to share a picture of herself as a child with the students. That created an immediate connection and provided fruitful territory for discussion. Why hadn't I thought of that before? In seeing Alison as a child the mystery and awe of who she is strips away and the children see her as one of them. It is a fantastic way to start each visit and I hope it continues.

The second realization was something that has been part of every guest visit from the very beginning, only I hadn't fully realized how powerful it was until observing the students with Alison. That is not to say the guest artists missed the significance. The divine Charles Busch wrote in reference to the Q&A following the read aloud, "The more interesting part was the discussion afterwards".

An Inside the Actors Studio elementary school edition

The Pre-K and Second Grade children started asking Alison questions the minute she sat down. Their questions and Alison's answers gave me visions of an Inside the Actors Studio type interview program conducted by theatrically wise elementary school children. Each Broadway Books First Class visit is recorded and it would be brilliant to share a clip of the interaction so others could catch a glimpse into how fantastic it was.

We learned behind-the-scenes stories about Alison's audition for The Secret Garden (she even sang us her audition song!), we got the scoop on why she was in particular shows and how she felt about them, and even delved into a discussion about her latest triumph in the one-woman tour de force Squeamish.

Alison Fraser singing BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN

All of this book-ending a reading and subsequent discussion of STRICTLY NO ELEPHANTS by Lisa Mantchev and Taeeun Yoo. It is a beautiful book about inclusion with illustrations I adore.

And to return to the question, "Does life have meaning?" I'll go with Stephen on this one. On a Tuesday morning, in a classroom in New York City a group of young children met with a generous, talented actress and proved to me that it does. How brilliant that I was there to witness it.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Devlin Elliott

"Peek-A-Boo, I see you!"

If you've ever played this game with an infant you know that the joy it creates is a gift that keeps on giving. There are smiles, giggles and squeals that are seemingly endless and endearingly contagious. And although this activity has more to do with the development of object permanence for the child than outward validation, there is something to be said for the mere joy of seeing and being seen.

The power of "I see you" should never be underestimated.

We are living in dangerous times with the continued escalation of gun violence permeating every corner of our society. Supplying teachers with firearms is a hot topic at the moment and debate is swirling around mental illness, crime prevention and gun control.

Questions arise about early detection and "why wasn't something done about so-and-so before this tragedy took place?" I certainly do not have answers to those kinds of questions and I do not want to engage in a political debate in this forum but I have been thinking about my place in all of this. As an educator, how can I do my part to ensure that children are nurtured, valued and seen?

That question has always concerned me and has become my mission. I wrote about those influences back in 2007 and how, as a child, I vowed to become an adult who respected, cared for and paid attention to children. In today's contentious climate where theories float around suggesting that gun-toting murderers might have taken another path if they were just loved, respected and SEEN as children, it gets me thinking.  Is there something to it? I think there is. So, I continue to do my part and I am keenly aware of others who do the same.

This is one of the reasons I was so thrilled to welcome Devlin Elliott back for the third time as a Broadway Books First Class guest artist. Devlin Elliott really sees children. It's evident in his interactions, which always come across as though the only thing on his schedule is sitting with a group of children (when, in fact, he is quite the busy fella).

In this case, it was a group of Pre-K and First Grade students. Devlin let them know during their introductions that he was an adult who was there to listen, to acknowledge and value them.

Devlin Elliott meets the Pre-K and First Grade students

His visit was the first time these first graders attended a Broadway Books First Class event this year. I prepared them beforehand by reading books and discussing the various roles/jobs associated with the stage. I wanted them to understand this particularly because although Devlin was an actor at one time, he is now a playwright and a Tony-nominated producer.

I also prepared them by rehearsing their introductions. The day before Devlin's visit each child took turns standing up and introducing themselves in American Sign Language (ASL) while I voiced. Rehearsals went off without a hitch but things tended to speed up considerably once Devlin entered the picture. Introductions were flying, with one child popping up before the previous child had a chance to sit.

This wouldn't be such an issue except the first graders were so focused on their role they weren't listening to Devlin's greeting back to them! We slowed things down a bit and let the children know he wanted to say hello back. So, rather than making the introductions something UNimportant (and therefore rushed), they became something important. They became a way to connect. A show of respect that set the tone for the rest of the visit.

Devlin Elliott reads NAUGHTY MABEL with ASL interpreter Amy Meckler

And once again I am struck by how each of us has the power to make choices. We may not have much power over circumstances but we do have power over how we choose to perceive them. We can consciously decide how we want to move through the world.

As Devlin read both of the books in the Naughty Mabel series I thought, "Naughty Mabel may be a handful but she is certainly seen - hard to miss even - and she is certainly loved".  A person (or dog) can graduate successfully from the school of hard knocks if they are both seen and loved.

There is a reason Naughty Mabel was voted the #1 favorite book by my first grade class for the 2015-2016 school year and #6 for the 2016-2017 school year.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
Students take home autographed copies of both NAUGHTY MABEL and NAUGHTY MABEL SEES IT ALL courtesy of Simon & Schuster, Justin Chanda, Devlin Elliott and DonorsChoose

The visit proceeded the same as his previous visits, with the Q&A, a show of gratitude (we gave Devlin a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt), a group photo and a book signing. Devlin saw to it that each child received BOTH BOOKS, which is beyond the beyond fantastic.

There is a beautiful lyric from the show Once on this Island that seems a fitting way to wrap up this post because it speaks to how we interact with one another, the influence those interactions have on who we become and the power of our own word/actions in shaping our perspective...

Monday, February 19, 2018

Stepping Into Fairy Tales

Stepping into The Three Little Pigs

Serving time in Pre-K is a sentence I've come to embrace because the students (and my coworkers) are very endearing.

And although I am not teaching the literacy skills I find most interesting - due to the age of the children - there are brilliant features ripe for exploration.

These include poems and nursery rhymes (for developing phonological awareness) and fairy tales (for building an understanding of narrative story structure and story elements).

Stepping into The Gingerbread Man

We've been teaching and learning about classic fairy tales and providing opportunities for our little ones to embody the characters through diverse media.

Our partnership with The Children's Museum of the Arts has resulted in the creation of a stop animation film using clay figures set against well-known fairy tales settings all made by 4-year-old hands.

Stepping into Little Red Riding Hood

We have story tables and SmartGames to push student thinking. There are cool costumes for the dress up center and figures for the block area.  We've made 3D houses, dictated and documented hilarious student retellings and have played, laughed and run around the room with these characters.

Stepping into Goldilocks and the Three Bears

They are all fun (and educational) activities but I am a little bit in love with their water-color drawings - mixed with photography - showing the children stepping into the shoes of the fairy tale characters.

Stepping into Goldilocks and the Three Bears

There is also a cool drawing of Hansel & Gretel with more on the way.  I can't wait to see what they do with Jack and the Beanstalk (one of my favorites!).


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