Monday, February 8, 2016

Storytellers

Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel Photography
 There are some things so beautiful 
the magic they create is  
                                     unquestionable
The storytelling workshops Other Voices conducted with the first, second and third grade children at our school were unparalleled. For three days artists, teachers, documentarians and performers immersed  the students in the language of creativity, movement and dance.

The excitement surrounding the event was palpable as children became immersed in creating, sharing, writing and telling stories. Stories rooted in American Sign Language.  Stories stemming from real life experiences.  Stories that rattle around unfiltered in the imagination of a six-year-old.  And stories that only kids in New York City could tell.

Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel Photography
Across our classrooms markers, pencils, crayons and paper of all sorts captured their thoughts.

We surrounded ourselves with words,

                words, 
                                                  words!
Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel Photography
Dreams were encouraged and free to roam untethered. Everything was accepted - a beauty parlor on Pluto? Of course! Medusa fighting dragons?  Yes!  A Deaf child getting swept away by the music playing on a subway platform in Queens and getting separated from her classmates?  Tell me more!

Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel Photography
The joy shone through on the faces of the children (captured so beautifully in Nina Wurtzel's photographs) and was reflected in the exhilarated comportment of every adult. Together we created magic. We listened. We cared.

Other Voices had a vision to "ignite students' creative imaginations by giving them the experience of seeing and hearing how powerful their own voices are as their stories are sent out into the world".

The collective stories will serve as the inspiration for a theatre piece to be performed on the High Line in April.  They will also be illustrated by Broadway designers and Deaf artists for a companion book.

A huge thank you to everyone involved for planning and executing the workshops.  It's spectacular to see what can happen when the I becomes the We.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Velveteen Rabbit

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

We attended a gentle staging of The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams at The New Victory Theater on Friday. There was a great deal of excitement and anticipation as we waited for the curtain to rise.

One student asked, "Is Joanna Glushak in the show?"

"No, she isn't" I responded.

Ever hopeful he came back with, "Gregory Jbara?"

One of these days it would be incredible to bring the class to see one of our Broadway Books First Class performers in action.  Alas, that day was not Friday.

The Velveteen Rabbit in this production is a man in a jacket.  The whiskers and ears live in the imagination of the children.  The actor portrayed the Velveteen Rabbit with quiet amazement, blinking slowly to adjust to his surroundings or contemplate concepts rather difficult for a stuffed rabbit to comprehend. The effect was very charming.

At one point the character of the little boy is getting ready for bed and asks for his rabbit.  The floppy rabbit lies beside the boy, shoved to the foot of the bed sometimes or squished beneath the covers at others.  At one point during the night the boy puts his arm around his beloved rabbit and it was disheartening to hear a few children behind me calling out, "Ewww, boys don't sleep with boys!"

Obviously the magic of theater with its willing suspension of disbelief didn't hold sway over them (it was a little boy and his stuffed animal!) but more importantly, it provided sad commentary on some larger issues.  Society may have progressed in accepting diversity and promoting tolerance but these young boys didn't seem to know that.  If I were their teacher I would have brought this conversation back into the classroom.  I wonder if that happened.

I guess the words of the Skin Horse apply in relation to societal change as well...
It doesn't happen all at once.  You become.  It takes a long time.  That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Joshua Castille

First Grade with Joshua Castille from the Deaf West Theatre
production of Spring Awakening on Broadway.

The vision in my mind of Joshua Castille is as an intrepid storyteller defiantly braving the elements to shower children with words and deliver the message that books have power.  Power to heal and sooth, to make us laugh, give us hope, encourage us to dream and carry us away into faraway lands.

His Broadway Books First Class visit had some hiccups (scheduling, children getting sick before and during his reading, classroom interruptions and other snafus) yet Josh soldiered on, seemingly undeterred.

His visit was unique because it was conducted exclusively in American Sign Language.  This added an element of ease because the children were able to converse with him in their first language. It focused their attention - allowing all the distractions swirling around them to fade into the background.

As always, we began with introductions before diving into what is arguably one of the most beautifully written and illustrated children's books around.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce is also an Academy Award winning short film.

I really wanted Josh to read this book and he did not disappoint. Combining humor and pathos he conveyed the subtleties of the material to the children so they understood Morris' journey through life with his cherished books. The result was very touching and we were all moved by his exquisite reading.

Photo Credit: Onudeah Nicolarakis

Questions followed the reading and Josh shared his story with us - from Louisiana farm boy to proudly treading the boards on Broadway.

That evening a parent texted me to tell me her daughter was so excited about Josh's visit.  She told her all about the book, his growing up on a farm and his hearing aids. It meant a lot to this child to see a successful performer who is deaf just like her and suddenly Josh added another credit to his name...role model!

A huge THANK YOU to Josh for sharing this time with us.  It was "unbelievably beautiful".

Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Joanna Glushak

The magnificent Joanna Glushak inspiring children to nurture, cherish and grow ideas!
Each Broadway Books First Class visit is predicated upon the development of a central theme or message.  They've included diversity and acceptance, persistence and self-confidence, cooperation and teamwork, and the presentation of role models.  All this is wrapped inside a warm hug of respect for the children, for literature, and for the theater.

Joanna Glushak and ASL interpreter
Mary Grace Gallagher reading
What Do You Do With an Idea?
Broadway actress (singer, comedienne) Joanna Glushak was interested in discussing the concept of "going for your dreams and not letting anyone hamper your ideas or imagination or desires".

We explored several children's books that indirectly touched upon this theme including Big Al by Andrew Clements, Pretzel by H.A. Rey, and Florabelle by Sasha Quinton.  All of them are wonderful books but none engendered a passionate reaction of "I must read this!" Then we stumbled across What Do You Do With an Idea? by Kobi Yamada and Mae Besom.

Jackpot!

This book is visually stunning and in Joanna's hands the message soared and took flight in the children's imaginations.

To build understanding for the abstract notion of an idea, Oni and I prepared our six-year-old students by giving them all wooden eggs - a concrete connection to the visual embodiment of an idea presented in the illustrations.

Each child painted and decorated his or her egg before Joanna's visit. Then, Joanna expertly guided them to the realization that each egg (or idea) was unique unto itself.  It was theirs alone to nurture and develop. That's what you do with an idea.  You let it follow you and give it thought and time so it can grow.  After all, an idea can change the world!

It seemed a beautiful way to light a spark of creativity and ownership within them.

The faces of the children tell the story - They loved Joanna!
The conversation took a very lively turn when the question and answer period landed on her most recent Broadway success, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder.  As Joanna entertained with descriptions of the various methods by which each unfortunate D'Ysquith welcomes his or her final breath, the children laughed and applauded.  They have a bit of a dark side.

By the time we said goodbye to Joanna - who has 12 Broadway shows to her credit - we all felt like we were hugging a dear friend.  It was hard to part and we ended up chatting in the lobby for a bit discussing the children, the vision of the school and my program.

Once again I walked away amazed by the generosity of the incredible performers who say "Yes!" to my invitation to read.

Thank you Joanna!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Residency


I bemoaned the Nothing With Joy trajectory operating within our educational system for many long years.  The increased emphasis on testing and blatant disregard for providing developmentally appropriate instruction for children left teachers, students and parents feeling exhausted and abused.

Then something began to shift.  It seems folks can only be pushed so far before individual grumblings pull together into a collective, "Hell, No!"  Slowly,  a steady revolt formed to combat the twisted, limited understanding of the Common Core. Positive changes are happening.  Joy is starting to resurface.

One indication of the change is that the teacher's input is, once again, deemed valuable.  Last week I had the unprecedented opportunity to take part in piloting a residency program initiated by our district superintendent.

The beauty of the offer was that it came with no agenda, no exit slips, no paperwork, and no mandated outcome of any sort.  It was presented as a true investigation into best practices and learning from other teachers (not test makers or outside staff developers unfamiliar with the daily demands of teaching).  For a week I left my little ones to spend time with another first grade class.

And I learned so much!

To witness and participate in their routines, management styles, materials, documents, investigations, language, and community gave me insight into my own. The experience also brought reflective questions...
  1. What was I already doing that I could celebrate? 
  2. Where could I make changes for the sake of my students?  
  3. How could my school community improve its supports?  
  4. What could I immediately implement and what needed a slow, thoughtful rollout?  
  5. Why do we do the things we do in the way we do them?  
By the end of the week I had fallen in love with this class and was very grateful to the teachers for letting me join them.

Today Oni and I began integrating some of what I learned into our own teaching practices.  The residency was a gift.  A gift of time, respect and belief.  It showed me that the tide is turning.  Children and learning are finding their way back into the conversation.

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