Thursday, January 2, 2020

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
Guest artists John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon visit with kindergarten students to read their book INGREDIENTS FOR A WITCH


Screeches bounded forth from 20 kindergarteners - and several adults - at the prodding of John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon as they read aloud from their Halloween themed children's book INGREDIENTS FOR A WITCH.

There is a misconception that deaf/hard of hearing children are silent, quiet individuals. Anyone passing by our classroom as the sound of cackling, witchy laughter rattled the windows could attest to the fact that this is not the case. The mood was loud, joyous, and festive as we traveled into Halloween Hills with John and Jason's enchanting characters: Witch Betty, Boney Jones, and Pumpkin. There is nothing quite like the palpable energy surrounding a good story - especially one with skeletons, witches, talking cats, and magic spells.

The lure of storytelling cannot be denied. It has roots in tales told throughout the ages around a communal hearth and has morphed through time to reflect societal advances. Stories continue to capture the imagination with digital technology, virtual reality, and other interactive enticements. However, nothing beats a master storyteller playing to a specific audience, skillfully drawing them in and guiding them through the ups and downs of the hero's journey. And we had not one, but two such storytellers visit us in early October.

John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon read INGREDIENTS FOR A WITH alongside ASL interpreter Lewis Merkin (notice Lewis is signing SKELETON)

It was the perfect way to kick off Year Five of Broadway Books First Class. The program, originally conceived as a celebration of literacy and the Arts for students in first grade, has grown to encompass children in preK through fifth grade. This year, I'm teaching kindergarten. The children are brilliant, funny, and engaged, but they are also moody, distractible, and, well...very young.

As always when I begin a new school year with a fresh group of students, especially ones this little, I worry and wonder about how they will respond to Broadway guest artists, read alouds, and in-depth discussions around themes relating to such topics as diversity, acceptance, and collaboration. Will they embrace the visits? Will they be engaged? Will they feel a sense of pride and importance because these artists chose to spend a morning with them? Will the lessons permeate their everyday lives? Will they love the books they get to take home after each visit and read them again and again? Will they become more motivated, skillful readers as a result? In short, will my hopes and dreams for the program take root within them and grow exponentially into something meaningful?

And, thankfully, each year the answer has been yes. Perhaps it's because of the angst that fuels careful preparation or perhaps it's because I've been fortunate enough to have an angel looking over my program. And in true theatrical fashion, this angel on the catwalk is a celebrated Broadway performer with three Tony Award nominations - Mary Testa!

Mary Testa stepped in three years ago amid my growing concerns about returning to teach preschool and what it would mean for the program. She introduced me to Tony Award nominee Jonathan Freeman, who is best known to children for playing Jafar in Disney's Aladdin. Jonathan was a guest artist tailor made for my younger students and his participation ushered in a splendidly exciting year for all of us.

John Treacy Egan as Chef Louis in Disney's The Little Mermaid on Broadway

Mary came through again this year by introducing me to John Treacy Egan, whose role as Chef Louis in Disney's The Little Mermaid served to pique the interest of my kindergarteners. In preparing for his visit I shared an amusing video of John in character, preparing his culinary delights while chopping and deboning our friends from under the sea. The action is humorous in its buffoonery and elicited gasps and giggles from the children. In short, they were hooked - perfect!

There were even more delighted when he brought in a prototype for the prop fish used in the show. Students got to dismantle, reassemble, and play with it as they passed it around the room. John even sang us an energetic a cappella chorus of "Les Poissons" (with a fantastic ASL interpretation by Tavoria Kellam).

Later, as John "the scribe" answered questions about his Broadway career and his children's book Ingredients for a Witch - it is inspired by his musical for children called The Real Wicked Witches of Halloween Hills - Jason 'the scribbler" drew us a picture of Pumpkin, the cat, to hang in our classroom. However, the gifts didn't stop there.

Jason Simon creates artwork for our classroom as a student watches

They brought along bookmarks featuring their enchanting characters with sayings like, "READING can be MAGICAL!", "HEY! Who wants to READ?" and "BACK OFF! I'M READING HERE!" There were also coloring pages, which we saved and colored on Halloween, and books! Every child took home a book signed by both John and Jason.

Artwork by Jason Simon
I'm told there is a second book planned in the series and we are all looking forward to John and Jason's return next year. By then, the children will be a little bit older and will take away new things from the experience. But, just like this year, we will all celebrate reading and getting lost in a good story.

Thank you John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon for a wonderful morning!

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Dear Theodosia

My kindergarten students have entered into an exciting partnership with Brooklyn Collaborative on creating a student ASL recording of Dear Theodosia from the musical HAMILTON. We've been rehearsing a section of the song - seen beautifully interpreted by Brandon Kazen-Maddox in the above recording - containing these lyrics;

You will come of age with our young nation
We'll bleed and fight for you, we'll make it right for you
if we lay a strong enough foundation
We'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you
And you'll blow us all away
Someday, someday
Yeah, you'll blow us all away
Someday, someday

It is incredible to witness how quickly my young students pick it up and infuse it with feeling and emotion. I look forward to sharing the finished product when it is ready.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


Every page is an opportunity to get to know our students

Little hands slide across white paper, black lines creating images that provide insight into the child's thoughts. What is going on in their lives that is yearning to be expressed in these drawings? How is this sustained concentration serving the child's need to communicate?

My kindergarten students are active, emotional, and exceedingly dramatic with short attention spans that are easily influenced by pangs of hunger, bouts of sleepiness, and intermittent moodiness. These adorable tykes are just five-years-old after all (some are still only four). But, there are two things that capture their attention - listening to stories read aloud in spoken English and American Sign Language, and independent writing.

This class loves to write!

I walk around the classroom with my team teacher, Sarah, and am fascinated by their drawings. I'm interested, of course, from a literacy perspective and in facilitating their development along the writing continuum. Yet, I'm equally fascinated by the inner workings of their stories. Every page is an opportunity to learn more about each one of them. What is happening in their lives? How are they processing the many things that are out of their control? Can they tell me about the pictures? Do they have the language skills to do this or must I carefully navigate and scaffold my questions to bridge that divide?

Here are a few examples...

"That's me moving into my new house."

This is a joyful example of what is either real or imagined for a young boy who has had to deal with some unfortunate challenges. His vibrant smile and animated tone as he explained how his whole family was moving into a new house brought hope. I saw in this unfinished drawing that his mind is grappling with things far more immediate than letters and numbers. Teachers are called on to do more than simply impart information. We are caretakers, advocates, and champions. We are here for him.

"Mommy has a baby inside"

This girl's drawings depict the very imminent arrival of a new sibling. The smiles and hearts let me know it is a happy occasion for her family. The "baby inside" (not sure why there are two in this drawing) is an adorable representation. I remember creating similar drawings when I was 7-years-old and my mom was pregnant with my sister, Jennifer.

A flower monster

I sat next to this child and asked about his drawing. He told me, "It's a flower monster." How deliciously complicated, I thought. Juxtaposing the gentleness of flowers with the scariness of a monster seemed brilliant. He is certainly not the first person to invent such a thing, but the vibrancy in the expression cannot be denied. And he made it into a book! That'd be a cool children's book - the fragrant, misunderstood monster dropping petals and drooping every so often.

There are many, many more to share and more are created every day. And I am honored to have the opportunity to sit next to these children and say, "Tell me about your drawing".


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