Tuesday, November 3, 2020

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Siena Rafter

Siena Rafter's sweet face hidden amongst our kindergarteners

American Sign Language!

I just love it. The hand movements that convey meaning through space, the facial expressions that hold important grammatical information, the sentence structure - different from English - that sits comfortably now within my body, the way it allows one to say so much with just one sign, and the mesmerizing sense of awe I feel when I see someone who's mastered it.

This love and respect for a language I continue to gain competence with is one reason I was so thrilled to welcome Siena Rafter into my classroom. Siena shares my passion for ASL. She is not a native signer, but has taken to ASL with a fierce dedication to live within it. She is a strong advocate for equal access in communication and supports the Deaf community. Given all of this, I was excited to welcome her into my classroom to serve as a role model for my students. 

Siena's ties to Broadway and the performing arts are closely connected with ASL. She was Assistant Director to Tony Award Winner Kenny Leon for the Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God in 2018. She was also part of the ASL team for Glenda Jackson's 2019 Broadway revival of King Lear. 

I cheered her stage performance in a dazzling production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2018, which incorporated ASL into the staging. And I performed alongside her in 2016 on the historic High Line in a show inspired by my Broadway Books First Class program entitled How the I Becomes the We. In fact, that is where we met and I knew she was someone special from our first hello. I'll never forget my introduction to this confident young woman with a megawatt smile, who was eating a sweet pepper like most of us eat an apple. 

Siena's visit with my kindergarten students took place on an October morning in 2019. During the visit she shared her love of language and literacy. And she spoke about the joy she's found in bridging ASL with the performing arts. Students were full of questions. Siena's answers led the children to see the possibilities that lie in belief and that a dream only remains a dream if you don't work towards realizing it. Dreams can become truth through planning and perseverance. 

I shared a photograph of Siena as a young child, the same age as my students. The photo demystifies the guest artist. It helps students connect the dots between themselves and the person before them. It reminds me of the quote by American civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, "You can't be what you can't see." Role models are so important and I was thrilled to share Siena's light with my young charges.  

She read a wonderful chapter book designed especially for young readers, Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin. I selected this title because illustrator Brian Selznick (Wonderstruck, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Marvels) has ties to the Deaf community and knows and appreciates sign language. And author David Serlin works at The University of California, San Diego with Deaf author, researcher, and powerhouse, Carol Padden. This visit, in all its layers, was a celebration of ASL and Deaf pride.

alongside ASL interpreter Rachel Grudberg

Baby Monkey, Private Eye is an engaging series of mysteries wrapped around irresistibly cute illustrations. It is a cleverly written pattern book consisting of only about 52 words. Pattern books foster confidence and joy associated with reading, which makes children want to read them again and again. During the read aloud, Siena encouraged students to participate and join in on the oft-repeated phrases...

Baby Monkey looks for clues.
Baby Monkey writes notes.
Baby Monkey eats a snack.
Baby Monkey puts on his pants. 
Now Baby Monkey is ready! 
Baby Monkey solves the case! 

After the reading, each student also got to take home their own personalized hardcover copy of the book. In anticipation of this event,  I even had the added bonus of receiving a promotional poster for the book signed by Brian Selznick and David Serlin.  

Siena asks a student her name (in ASL)

Keep your eyes open for more from Siena in the years to come. And do yourself a favor, check out Baby Monkey, Private Eye for your beginning readers. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Shards of Joy

My happiness was shattered on March 26, 2020. That was the day my Mom passed unexpectedly. The days since have been filled with sorrow, tears, and grieving. Memories of her swirl in my mind as I sleep, and when they do it causes me to wake up smiling. 

My happiness is buried somewhere in there, in the remembering. I'm broken, but not too broken to appreciate who she was, how she nurtured and supported me, and her unconditional love, which is, above all, the thing that will help mend me. 


I'm finding it is the things I love that comfort me and give me hope. In comfort, there is a way back to peace and a sense of wholeness. School has started, kinda. The craziness of my personal struggles, mixed with the craziness of our societal struggles dealing with a global pandemic, cannot take away the joy I feel when I see the picture above. A child reading Curious George! It seems simple, but there's so much power in the image. I am so grateful to her mom for sharing it with me. She knows. She knows I need the boost. And it helps.

I'm looking forward to starting another school year because, despite the craziness, I know that children, teaching, ASL, books, Curious George, smiles, laughter, and youthful energy will bring me back to me again. It's a happiness my Mom would want for me. That I know with great certainty to be true.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Back to School(ish)

Anxiety mounts as the countdown brings us closer to the start of another school year. This one, my 25th, is like no other. It is filled with questions ranging from the school calendar (there isn't one), to safety protocols, student rosters, learning models, curriculum, and the coordination of all these elements. There are so many unknowns. 

Thankfully, this past week we had some answers. It seems a strike, which has been weighing heavily on my mind, has been averted. The NYC DOE, mayor's office, and the UFT came to an agreement that would provide some safety measures for students and staff. I still report in-person at my school on September 8, 2020, but students (originally scheduled to start on September 10) won't begin classes now until September 21. That will give schools time to get their act together, I hope. 

My school selected the A, B, C, D plan encompassing blended and fully remote learning. This means, as far as I understand, that I have some students on my first grade roster that I will never see. Children whose parents opted for fully remote learning (Group D) will work with a fully remote teacher (not me and not yet assigned). I'm not sure how that plays out for my Deaf and hard of hearing students. I suppose a sign language interpreter will work alongside the teacher to facilitate communication. It's not ideal (especially when I can provide instruction in the child's first language of ASL), but these are extraordinary times. 

The rest of the class - my blended learning students - are split into A, B, and C groups. I see just one group a day in our socially distant, mask-wearing, classroom. Let's see how long first graders can follow those rules. That means I see them only once or twice a week. The other days they work with a "blended remote teacher." Confused? It'll be a lot to coordinate. 

There are so many challenges, yet, I feel more than ready to tackle them. Remote learning, which I did with my class from March - June, was difficult and (mostly) unfulfilling. I kept reminding myself that we were all doing our best in a horrible situation, it is temporary, etc. 

I want to go back to my classroom. I want to build a community of learners (no matter how small each day), and I want to feel the joy that teaching brings me. Alas, I don't want to die for it and I have my fingers crossed that all will go well, but it's a risk. A risk I have no power to avoid or refuse.

Details continue to be worked out. I'm very anxious. I am skeptical. But, I am also determined to be the person my students need me to be right now. Given all the pain I've encountered this year, I believe getting back to what I love will also help heal my sorrow a bit. At least, I hope so. 

Back to school 2020. This is one like no other. Wish us luck. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Elizabeth Ward Land

Photo by Mike Thomas
Elizabeth Ward Land sets off sparks of joy in kindergarten

What is your destiny?

While I believe in the power of free will in determining our path in this world, there is something to be said for the undeniable influence of natural abilities, personal interests, and early childhood experiences.

It seems that Elizabeth Ward Land was destined for a life laboriously and luxuriously steeped in music. Music was a language spoken in her home. Her mother and grandmother taught piano and little Liz spent many hours practicing and perfecting her musical faculty under her mom's expert tutelage. I have an idealized vision of her as a young girl happily bopping down the hallway of her Denver home with quarter notes dancing around her head.

Photo by Mike Thomas
Sharing childhood photos of Elizabeth Ward Land with my kindergarten students

Her musicianship expanded when she was in 4th grade. It was then that she took up the only instrument still available in the music department of her elementary school, the oboe. Later, she learned to play the guitar, the ukulele (she says, "A little for novelty"), and even percussion. The latter was for a 2014 Barrington Stage production of Southern Comfort, which transferred to The Public Theater in 2016.

It seems inevitable, given her musical gifts, training, and commitment, that she'd become the outstanding artist she is today. She's performed in six Broadway shows, numerous national tours, and many sold out concerts. Her latest offering is a tribute show she created called Still Within the Sound of My Voice: The Songs of Linda Ronstadt for which she delivered an award winning performance.

It also seems inevitable, given my love of theater, that our paths would eventually intersect. It may have happened as early as her debut on the Great White Way in City of Angels when she was 28 years old. I lived just around the corner from the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson Theatre) and headed over there one evening to catch a performance. I'm not sure she was in it the night I attended - where is that Playbill? - but, it's possible.

However, I know I saw her years later in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was hopelessly enamored and a bit obsessed with this thrilling musical centered around the French Revolution. It played for over 2 years on Broadway in 3 different versions. Elizabeth Ward Land was in every one and I was there in the audience laughing, crying, and clapping for every iteration. I went alone, with friends, and often second-acted it (with permission from the ushers). I remember her on stage belting it out next to Madame Guillotine and acting it up next to a dashing Douglas Sills.

I never suspected that one day I'd share a stage with her to provide the ASL interpretation of her heartwarming version of "My Grown-Up Christmas List." Or that she'd visit my classroom to read a book and sing a song to my students - not just once, but twice!

Photo by Mike Thomas
by David Litchfield alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne

The first time she visited she read an endearing book called The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield.  I thought it paralleled her own early journey in a way. It is the story of a musically gifted bear who leaves home in order to share his music with the world. He gains great success, but learns the cities he visits are vast and lonely places without his old friends. He finds, in the end, that there is nothing better than sharing music with those you love.

The first time I read this book I thought back to my early days in New York as a young actor. I remember being torn between pursuing a dream and missing my family, my home. I know this is a rite of passage for dreamers who follow their bliss. Yet, when the journey begins, it is charged with the irresistible pull of possibility.

Elizabeth Ward Land also understands this and reminisces in her tribute to Linda Ronstadt...

"I remember when I first moved to New York, marveling at how many people there were everywhere I turned, so crowded, yet so anonymous. I would walk around getting to know the city. I'd look up at the apartments. The windows lit up. I'd wonder about the lives that were happening behind those windows. Who were all these people? What did they do? Which of them would I get to know? Who would I work with? Who would I love?"

For her second classroom visit I asked Liz to read the sequel, The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle. In this children's book, Bear is back on stage making music with his friends. However, the lesson about the importance of friendship comes from a fiddle playing dog.

I loved my front row seat watching Liz tell this story alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne. The children's eyes darting back and forth between David Litchfield's luminous illustrations and the artistry of Stephanie's interpretation as Liz read. Words and hands creating images to whisk these kindergarteners away into a new place of wonder. Magical, indeed!

Photo by Mike Thomas
Getting to know Elizabeth Ward Land with a Q&A session

And the magic continued during our Q&A session with Liz accepting the children's request for a song. She sang a bit of "A Change in Me" from her CD First Harvest. That voice! It swirls and soars and reaches right into your heart. It vibrates at a frequency that is honest, open, and undeniably moving. It's powerful, yet finds the quiet places within you and settles in to provide comfort you didn't even realize you needed. It's an energizing meditation.

So, we return to the question of destiny. When you receive a gift like hers, one that is nurtured and honed, is it possible or irresponsible not to share it with others? Does one in that situation kinda sorta have a moral obligation? Whatever the answer, I'm honored Elizabeth Ward Land continues to say, "Yes" to sharing her time and talent with my students.

Photo by Mike Thomas
A child fingerspells his name during the book signing

The visit concluded with the distribution of books. Every child enjoyed some one-on-one time with Liz as she autographed copies for them to take home. I have been able to give away almost 1,000 books through my Broadway Books First Class program. For some students, these are the only books in their home libraries and they proudly display them on their bookshelves. And there you have my destiny. Although I sometimes wish I were a great musical talent, I cannot deny my calling. Like Liz's voice, I find comfort in teaching. It's where my heart feels most at home.

We all have our gifts and they are calling us to our destinies. What are yours? Where are you headed? As Joseph Campbell wrote in Pathways to Bliss, "What I've told my students is this: Follow your bliss."

Friday, June 26, 2020


Happy 80th Birthday Flowers

I wrapped up Year 24 of teaching with a Zoom conference with my kindergarten students and their parents.

I'm told that the shared COVID health crisis experience strengthened the bond between all of us and it is a time we will all look back on with a unified pride. Hmmmm.....I'm not sure I needed a pandemic to take this class into my heart.

I actually feel cheated out of my time with them. There aren't many things that bring me more inner peace and happiness than spending time in the classroom teaching young children. That was taken from me 3 months ago.

We (me, my team teacher, Sarah, the students, and parents) made the most of remote learning. Some students thrived, others floundered, yet we figured it out together.


It's my mom's birthday. She would have turned 80 today. She came to me again in a dream last night. I awoke at 3:30 in the morning, smiling from the pure joy of talking with her. It felt good to talk to her. She seemed happy. She said she's sorry she cannot visit more often, but she said she has to wait until the "edvetesments" are completed before she can gain more independence. I never heard of that word. I wrote it down and googled it. It's a mystery. It was kind of her to visit me on her birthday.


I begin something new. My students and their parents allowed me to remain focused on things other than grief these past 3 months. I realize more than ever that my passion, my bliss is teaching.  In the midst of unbearable sorrow, the smiles of my students, their stories, their enthusiasm, and their empathy sustained me. But, I also know I need some quiet time. Time to sit alone and get lost in thought. To grieve.


I sat on my front lawn and watched the clouds go by.


I saw a hummingbird for the first time this year.


A bright red cardinal sat on the fence in my backyard when I was talking on the phone to my sister. She tells me they are a sign that our departed loved ones are near. It's sweet. I know my mom is close by.


A beautiful bouquet of flowers arrived from my friend, Maria, with a card which read, "Dear Gary, Thinking of you and sending you love. She is with you always. Happy Birthday in heaven Beverly!"


It kinda sucked and it was kinda amazing.


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