Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Julianne Moore

First Graders embracing what makes them unique with Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore is a wildly successful actress, well known and well respected - she won an Academy Award! - for tackling the complicated inner lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in a way that allows audiences to understand and empathize with them.

She also writes children's books.

Her work as an author for the elementary school set is distinguished by the same standard of quality she brings to performing.

The Freckleface Strawberry book series showcases her uncanny knack for capturing the everyday experiences and exuberant drama inherent in the life of a seven-year-old.

So, it was an incredible honor to welcome her into my first grade classroom to read those stories and discuss the writing process with my fledgling authors. Julianne joyfully interacted with the children in American Sign Language (ASL) - yes, she signs! - and happily encouraged their participation throughout the visit.

Freckleface Strawberry is a "story about a little girl who is different...just like everybody else".

It was inspired by Julianne's childhood experiences when her red hair and freckles caused some angst and earned her the nickname Freckleface Strawberry. However, as adults, we realize that our troublesome childhood problems don't seem to bother us so much anymore. The eponymous picture book is a story of coming to accept - and eventually celebrate - the things about ourselves that are unique.

Freckleface Strawberry sends the message that rather than losing sleep worrying about conforming or fitting in or wanting desperately to adhere to the perception of "normal" that children instead embrace you-ness. Of course, that is easier said than done and that's why it is up to those of us who know better to provide example upon example of the tenets of acceptance, love, tolerance and forgiveness of others...and ourselves.

A student introduces himself to Julianne Moore in American Sign Language

That message made me wonder about how it plays out in the everyday lives of my students. As Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs) how do they feel about having deaf parents in a hearing-centric society? Do they see the benefits of being bilingual? Is any of this even an issue?

To understand my current students better I enlisted the help of three former kindergarten/first grade students; Kinda, Michael and Lana. My little babies - I taught Michael for four years beginning when he was just 3-years-old in preschool - are now all grown up and attending college. I wrote each of them asking how they felt growing up as a CODA. Their responses were insightful and they all reflected that their reactions were situational (i.e., based on the community around them).
Being a CODA as a child, created very different perspectives for me at the time. When it was school related, I was always embracing the fact that my classmates and I knew American Sign Language because we were able to make the silliest jokes from across the room if we weren't able to speak at the time. However outside of school, I mostly had the attitude every kid had whenever parents wanted us to do something for them.  In my case - and as well as other CODAs I'm sure - whenever my parents needed an interpreter, I was always the one to do it. It was always "Ugh why? I don't want to do it" or "Can't you postpone it?" At the time these appointments they needed me to help translate seemed so long and tiring. I nearly always complained. My feelings being a child of a deaf adult(s) really depended on the situation. 
When I was younger, I never wished my parents weren't deaf, I was amongst other CODAs and so I didn't feel different, we all have had the same experiences with our parents. As I was transitioning from middle school to high school and I was in a whole new different environment and they would have parent teacher conferences or anything that involved the parents I was shy and always excluded my mother...sometimes teachers would ask, how come your parent doesn't come to your (dance) performances?
And like Freckleface Strawberry there is a "happily ever after" when our differences are woven into the fabric of who we are and the person we become...
Growing up, I learnt that being a CODA is something I'd never change. Having deaf parents has been a learning experience.  It gave me a sense of identity in this world. I love the community I am a part of and I love what the culture has brought into my life.
I love being a CODA and I'm so grateful to be blessed with deaf parents.
So we teach. We teach in the classroom. We teach by example in our daily lives. We teach through writing. We teach by being role models. And we teach by sharing our own experiences with a willingness to be vulnerable, honest and open.

Julianne Moore reading Freckleface Strawberry beside ASL interpreter Lynnette Taylor

The Freckleface Strawberry books as crafted by Julianne Moore are chock full of those moments wherein potential roadblocks for children coping with being "different" are met head on. For example, in Backpacks! the character Windy Pants Patrick is seen eating breakfast with his two moms in direct juxtaposition with Freckleface Strawberry and her (more traditional) family. On the next page the children set off to school with a big kiss from their respective parents. The focus is, rightly, on family and love and for many children with two moms or two dads it allows them to see themselves in the pages of the books they read. The effects of that are immeasurable. Brava Julianne!

Each child is different...just like everybody else.

In our first grade literacy curriculum we spend time immersed in series books. We study and write books with the same characters (e.g. Curious George) who engage in different adventures across several titles. The Freckleface Strawberry books, with their relatable characters and storylines, are a perfect fit and every first grade teacher should have them in his or her arsenal of high-quality children's books to pull out again and again, year after year to help meet the objectives surrounding the teaching and learning of series books.

It also helps when you have a guest author like Julianne Moore answering questions about the writing process. The children asked, "Do you like your books and do you ever make mistakes?"

Questions and answers with Julianne Moore

She explained that she likes stories about real people and that inclination has influenced both her choice of roles and her writing. And yes, she told them, "I make a lot of mistakes. Oh, yes! Especially when I am first writing...I read it and think, 'That's bad. I don't like it. I need to do it again.' And so I write it again and again and again until I am happy with it. You have to practice."


In an instant the faces of the little ones showed amazement and relief. It's difficult sometimes for first graders to untangle the mess that is the creative process involved with writing stories. They shared that they sometimes have trouble thinking of ideas and - God love her - Julianne expressed the importance of concentrating and focusing on your work. "But, it still should be fun because the stories can be about anything. They can be about you, about things you like to do, things you imagine. Anything you want...anything you want."

That right there is some great advice.

Julianne Moore donated signed copies of Loose Tooth! for ever child in First Grade

As an added surprise Julianne gave out copies of her chapter book Freckleface Strawberry Loose Tooth!, which she brought in for all the children. The chapter books in the Freckleface Strawberry series are perfect for beginning readers who can tackle them on their own by applying their newfound reading strategies. As the children read I kept hearing, "Just like us!" because the characters engage in activities that are similar to their own experiences. Relatable = motivation to read = better readers.

After more than an hour together we all hugged Julianne goodbye but she had one last surprise up her sleeve.

Shortly after her visit I received copies of all of the Freckleface Strawberry books signed, "To Gary and his class. Love, Julianne Moore"  How amazing is that?

As a child I was a bit of a nerdy bookworm (just ask my brothers who teased me with the expression, "Reading is fun for mentals") but, like Freckleface Strawberry, I have come to embrace that aspect of myself and celebrate that I am different...just like everybody else.

Thursday, June 1, 2017


Sketching young Heracles with the pelt of the Nemean Lion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Something quietly blossomed this afternoon and it was beautiful - my first graders became a family.

I've noticed this week that the seeds of cooperation, respect, kindness and "oneness" started bearing fruit. One by one and then seemingly all at once this amazing group of children started to move away from their little egocentric tendencies and operate as a unit.

It was evident during reading workshop yesterday when they were scattered around the room quietly reading. A palpable sense of determination and collective joy hung in the air.

Each child applauded the achievements of his or her classmates whose reading assessments indicated they had moved up a level. There were discussions about books. Incredible insights into the author's message being shared on strips of paper and placed into books. Children recommending titles to one another. A sense of purpose prevailed.

These interactions appear to be the cumulation of our time together, which includes lessons in being mindful and taking mind breaks 3 times a day to center our thoughts.

But today we took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see sculptures of the Greek heroes we've been studying and the kids impressed the shit out of me.

Sketching Andromeda and the Sea Monster

I think they impressed everyone around us too.

As we gathered around a statue of Andromeda I asked them several questions such as, "Why is she looking up?" and "How is this artist's depiction different from the one you had visualized?  How is it the same?" Their answers prompted onlookers to ask disbelievingly, "How old are these students? What grade is this?" They carried themselves like college students on a museum trip.

Then they sat down to sketch and became fully immersed in the activity. So much so that I was ready to move on long before they were.

On the sidelines two artists sat sketching. Their drawings were not only of the artwork but included my little masterpieces as well. They kindly agreed to share their work with the students and offered tips on how to utilize the paper to maximize the drawing space.

Two kind artists share their sketches
Later, they sat on the ground with a group of children who had questions or who were becoming frustrated with their artistic skills. Role models are everywhere if you keep your eyes open. New York City is a wonderful teacher.

Next, we moved slightly to the left to study Perseus with the head of Medusa. If a bare-breasted Andromeda was cause for giggles and fascination, a naked Perseus seemed even more so.

But that quieted as they set to sketch. We had discussed nudity in art prior to the visit so establishing an openness and artistic viewpoint on the human body beforehand helped minimize - somewhat - the gasps, stares and pointing.

Sketching Perseus with the head of Medusa

However, they captured it all in their sketches.

A child's sketch of an older Heracles cloaked in the skin of the Nemean Lion

We ended the trip with a visit to the rooftop for some very interesting art and an exquisite view of the Manhattan skyline.

Adri├ín Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance
What a day! The little ones are growing up and I feel like my mom when she says, "I wish I could keep you kids little forever". It always seems like just when things start running smoothly and a class becomes everything a teacher could wish for, they move on.

Still, I have them until June 28 so I'll be practicing mindful appreciation until I have to say farewell.


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