Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From David Caudle, Anastasia Traina and Scott Cohen

Scott Cohen, Anastasia Traina and David Caudle landed gently in First Grade to
share with us the quiet beauty and powerful message of Bitsy & Raff
I've studied butterflies...

Surrounded by young children I've watched some very hungry caterpillars prepare for their time in the chrysalis and then breathtakingly emerge in bursts of color. I've nurtured and protected these tiny, tenacious creatures from small, overzealous hands eager to touch. And I've anticipated the quick, swiping, dance-like movements of a five-year-old whose body language reveals a reluctance to actually having a butterfly land on him.

It's clear that artist Anastasia Traina also studied the movement, stillness and shifting nuances of these expressive creatures to create her exquisite watercolor illustrations for the children's book Bitsy the Heaviest Butterfly & Raff the Tenderest Reed written by David Caudle.   

The story is a beautiful lesson in overcoming naysayers, challenging misconceptions and celebrating the warm embrace of friendship. So, when David and Anastasia agreed to share this special book with my students as part of Broadway Books First Class, I was overjoyed.

We were also honored to welcome charming - and popular - actor Scott Cohen! Scott read the book to the children while we all got lost in the world David and Anastasia created. The children questioned, laughed, commented and applauded throughout the reading while getting cozy on the rug as if Scott, Anastasia and David were old friends.

Scott Cohen reading Bitsy & Raff with ASL interpreter Mary Grace Gallagher

The reading was followed by questions. The children wanted to know why David wrote this book. His answer was reminiscent of what Charles Busch shared when asked what gave him his creative spark, which I find interesting since both are playwrights. Is there a common thread running through the psyche of those who write scripts?

David said that he was interested in the juxtaposition of something light (a butterfly) carrying around the weight of despair and loneliness thereby becoming something "other than". Bitsy is about the transformative power of finding someone special to laugh with, to feel safe with, someone who gives us strength and allows us to joyfully become our authentic selves. It's what Charles described as finding that tribe or group of people in his life who understood him and inspired him to create.

A magnificent trio - Anastasia Traina, Scott Cohen and David Caudle
Throughout the visit I was struck by how this generous trio listened. They were still and silent when others spoke. They were interested and thoughtful. After they left I started to wonder if I am spending too much time with the wee ones who routinely cut one another off in conversation and display other outward manifestations of a short attention span. It was a striking difference and I think I learned from them too.

The visit ended, as always, with gifts. Usually we all sign a copy of the book for the performer(s) but as this was the first time a visitor had actually written the book that was read, we had to give it some more thought. It was decided that we would use simple materials to make a child's tribute to Bitsy and Raff.

After lots of hugs and goodbyes Anastasia, Scott and David quietly flew off towards other adventures but left behind a charming story and a message we will revisit again and again.

So, the next time you see someone different from you,
Don't make fun as the others in your pond might do.
Make friends instead, and you'll have the last laugh,
Find strength in each other, like Bitsy and Raff.

Culture Shock Festival

Friends of the High Line present Culture Shock, a free arts festival on April 23 from 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM.  This annual Spring opening event is a "joyous, one-of-a-kind celebration" with diverse performances by local artists representing a wide variety of genres.

The program of music, dance, poetry, comedy and storytelling includes a bilingual (English and American Sign Language) performance inspired by the First through Third Grade students at my school (PS347).

The stories were developed during the Winter Workshop with artistic director and creative powerhouse Kim Weild and a group of teaching artists - I was honored to be among them.  The High Line performance at 2:30 PM celebrates children, language, culture, diversity and imagination.

I am thrilled to have an opportunity to perform in this piece - How the I Becomes the We - as a modern day, slightly manic Mr. Rogers guiding a young (and not-so-young) audience into the realm of possibility through creative storytelling.

An exciting, added bonus is that a companion book will also be available for purchase at the event!  It joyously documents the journey from idea to story and encourages children to dream.

Consider this an invitation to join us on the High Line and if you do, please take a moment to say hello.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Return to Teaching Tolerance

I am back as a writer for Teaching Tolerance after a necessary hiatus due to the demands of completing my doctoral studies.  

My lastest post entitled Confronting Creepy Crawlies and Implicit Bias is reposted below.

If you ask elementary school teachers to explain their everyday duties to the uninitiated, you will get a fairly long list of responsibilities residing outside the realm of reading, writing and arithmetic. There exists an unwritten—yet expected—job description that simultaneously demands we assume the role of parent, social worker and medical provider.
One example: Many teachers are accustomed to putting on plastic gloves and maneuvering pencil erasers to check small heads for nits (louse eggs) and head lice. It is an “Eek!”-inducing affair that causes most of us to scratch at imaginary bugs for hours afterward. Yet, we brave the creepy crawlies in the best interest of the child. If we find nits, a letter is sent home informing the parents and providing instructions for how to get rid of them. If active lice are found amongst the hair follicles, the school nurse takes over and the child is sent home for treatment.
The cycle of screening and treatment usually continues for several weeks as the critters enjoy the hospitality of their young hosts and outbreaks remain a daily occurrence. The added concern of bedbugs permeates our diligent search for tiny insects.
It is no surprise, then, that this becomes a topic of discussion amongst teachers. It freaks us out. It makes us uncomfortable. It also provides a showcase for some of our implicit biases when we try to figure out how it all began.
Implicit bias, as described by Zaretta Hammond in “Is Implicit Bias Racist?,” are “the unconscious attitudes and beliefs that shape our behavior toward someone perceived as inferior or as a threatening outsider.” Teachers operate within unquestioned assumptions every day. We all do. In cases of lice and bedbugs, I started to notice how we perceived some students as “more likely” to introduce them into the classroom environment based on things like socio-economic status. In one instance, everyone figured it was the boy whose illiterate parents lived with him in a shelter, but we were surprised to learn that, no, it was the boy with educated parents living in a middle-class home. Digging deeper, I began to notice how these assumptions trickled down into other aspects of the day, from who got hugs to speculations about which parents read with their children.
Hammond offers tips to bring implicit bias to consciousness. These begin with checking our assumptions and looking for patterns of inequality, which have relevance in terms of lice. Our biases can influence our behavior in subtle ways, yet children perceive our unspoken attitudes even if we are not quite clear about them ourselves.
Thankfully, we can test ourselves for hidden biases surrounding stereotypes and prejudices. A little self-knowledge coupled with a smidge of education about the actual repercussions of nits, lice and bedbugs can help assuage potentially hurtful interactions stemming from unintended discrimination.
After doing a check for critters, if I find any, I always initiate a class discussion to gauge reaction and promote understanding. These talks not only help the students but also serve to reinforce an empathic, educated response from any adults in the room.
Next, a read aloud of David Shannon’s book Bugs in My Hair! allows us to approach the topic with humor. Never underestimate the value of an amusing illustration or characters whose over-the-top reactions allow readers to laugh and learn simultaneously.
Finally, we share some facts:
  • Anyone is susceptible.
  • Lice are annoying but ultimately harmless.
  • If an outbreak occurs, keep long hair pulled back, refrain from daily washing (lice do not like dirty hair or hair with product in it).
  • Treatment can be found with over-the-counter delousing shampoos and nit combs.
  • Wash clothing and bedding in hot water, vacuum rugs and place what you cannot wash or vacuum in plastic bags for two weeks to kill lice.
Most of all, lice are not a commentary on cleanliness, education or socio-economic status. They are simply a result of close interactions amongst children and an unfortunate reality in elementary school classrooms. We may not be able to change that, but we can certainly change how we respond.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

American Sign Language and English Storybook Fundraiser

                                                         Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel Photography

An American Sign Language and English illustrated print & e-book is in the works and we need your help.  An INDIEGOGO fundraising campaign is underway with lots of perks for showing your support, including your name in the book as a special thank you (the deadline for this is April 1, 2016).

The stories were created in a collaborative storytelling workshop with first, second and third graders from PS347 The American Sign Language and English Lower School and Our Voices.  For three days teaching artists, performers, documentarians and teachers worked together to ignite students' imaginations, to validate their creativity and to show them, through action, how much their ideas matter.

The free workshop was only the first of three components of the collaboration.  The second is the creation an original piece - inspired by the students' stories - to be performed on the High Line in NYC on April 23rd.  The third is to create both a companion print book and e-book (with ASL embedded in the storytelling), filled with student stories illustrated by professional theater designers and Deaf artists.

Our hope is students will see how a seed of an idea can grow into something magnificent, take on multiple forms and return home richer for the experience of collaboration.

Thank you for reading and for your consideration.  Your support is greatly appreciated.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Alison Fraser!

First Graders surrounding Broadway royalty Alison Fraser
"I'm so happy, happy, happy I could cry"  
I am an unabashed theater fan. I've spent many hours watching performers strut their stuff upon the wicked stage and never more so than with the spectacularly talented Alison Fraser.

It began with her Tony Award nominated performance in the addicting Romance/Romance and was followed quickly by another Tony Award nominated showing in The Secret Garden.

Through the years I came to regard her as a friend - long before we actually met - while sitting out there in the dark watching one brilliant performance after another in Gunmetal Blues, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, The Divine Sister, A Charity Case, Gypsy, Love TherapyFirst Daughter Suite, plus cabaret and concert performances.

So, when Alison accepted my invitation to join Broadway Books First Class I was thrilled.

The search for the perfect children's book began. I discussed possibilities with Kirsten Hall at Catbird Agency and she recommended a newly published title promising to become a classic. The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers (Terry and Eric) recalls the enchanting magic found in The Secret Garden and encapsulates an inspiring theme.  Each of us can create something extraordinary and the beauty we create can, in turn, change people forever.  We are all agents of the unforgettable when we share our gifts.

The class spent the week prior to Alison's visit talking about her work.  This included...
  • Playing her ode to fortitude "Hold On" from The Secret Garden while my team teacher Oni beautifully interpreted it in American Sign Language. 
  • A couple of six-year-olds adorably reenacting the meeting of Pepi and Alfred strolling down the Alserstrasse in Romance/Romance. 
  • A little Polka lesson.
When the time finally arrived Alison gleefully entered the classroom as "I'll Always Remember the Song" played in the background.

Alison Fraser with ASL interpreter Mary Grace Gallagher
Introductions were made and Alison settled into the reading. As a teacher this provided a fantastic opportunity to sit back and watch the children's reactions and comments, reflect upon what they noticed and become wowed once again by their brilliant little minds. As a theater lover it was a front row seat to the best show in town watching Alison take the story to unexpected places with her skillful interpretation.

A sweet drawing of Alison
and Mary Grace reading to the class
We followed the reading with a series of questions.  We learned that Alison wanted to become an actress to tell stories and that she used to sing along with her record albums growing up (the kids weren't particularly familiar with vinyl).  Her favorite roles on Broadway were in the shows Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden.

Next, we gave her a copy of The Night Gardener (signed by all of the children). Then, she graciously accepted a child's request and sang "If I Had a Fine White Horse" from The Secret Garden while handing out pieces of ribbon and wrapping from her gift.

As a last surprise, she distributed copies of the book to each child courtesy of The Louis Valentino Jr. Memorial Fund and autographed each one!  Her written message encouraged the children to keep reading, which is the whole point of Broadway Books First Class.

All in all it was another very successful visit by an incredibly talented, generous and beautiful performer.

Thank you Alison Fraser! You added a great deal of positivity to our little corner of the universe and we are so grateful.


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