Friday, October 14, 2016

A Visit From Rosemarie Robotham

Author and Editor Rosemarie Robotham with a group of aspiring writers
Another school year is comfortably underway and my commitment to pursue the tenets of experiential education espoused by American philosopher John Dewey and the vision of Maxine Greene's aesthetic education continue to take root.

In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Helen Keller described learning in a hands-on Deweyan manner.  Outside the walls of a classroom she immersed herself in her lessons and the active interplay between student, teacher and environment was thrilling. She wrote that those experiences had a lasting impact.

My mission these days is for my students to have opportunities to construct ideas not just about the core curriculum but also about art, culture and compassion by doing as Helen did.  I want them to learn by getting out in their surroundings (New York City!) and by inviting that magic into our classroom.

This week we did just that.  We had the great good fortune to welcome author and editor Rosemarie Robotham into our classroom to share her insights on the writing process.

I've been following Rosemarie's blog, 37 Paddington, for years and I am continually impressed by her ability to string words and sentences together to create images at once beautifully complex and devastatingly simple.  Her writing is honest and raw, full of struggle and redemption but always moving forward and lifting her readers up.

She wanted to read the book Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco because it was a favorite and because it skillfully introduced one of the themes of her visit.

We wanted to impart to the children that writing is a process and to steer clear of judging themselves or their work.  In the book, Rosemarie pointed out that Mr. Falker had written on the blackboard "All children have gifts, some open them at different times".  Her masterful reading reinforced the message that everyone is a writer.  Writing is a way for all of us to express ourselves.

Rosemarie is good with words, written and spoken, so she deftly navigated the questions the children asked.  "How long did it take you to write that book?" Her reply, "Six months" was met with hoots and howls.  I wasn't sure if they thought that was an incredibly long time or an incredibly short time (or both) but they were impressed.

Best of all, they were encouraged and inspired. After many hugs she said goodbye and I walked her down to the lobby.  I told her how her writing had pushed me past the boundaries of my experience and helped me see new perspectives.

I told her how we read the poem Momma by Paulette Childress White - found in Mending the World: Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers and edited by Rosemarie - in both American Sign Language and English.  And how this complex poem about a mother talking care of her family but yearning to write made the children think of how Mother Earth takes care of all of us yet silently suffers.

These students are ready to tackle anything we set before them. So, the things we set before them must be exquisite.

Rosemarie was just that.

Shea's drawing of Rosemarie reading to the class

Monday, August 8, 2016

Guest Artists

Guest Artists (left to right): Devlin Elliott, Nathan Lane, Bryce Pinkham, Eden Duncan-Smith, Mary Testa, Stockard Channing, Elizabeth Ward Land, Hollie Wright, Treshelle Edmond, Jeremiah Maestas and Michael Urie
The start of the new school year is still weeks away but Year Two of Broadway Books First Class is already fully "booked"!

My little literacy and arts program welcomes some huge talent again this year with a diverse group of generous guest artists sharing their time and talents in both spoken English and American Sign Language.

I've also selected the books for the readings (pending guest artist approval) so that frees up a great deal of time to focus on instruction rather than searching for titles and agonizing over book orders once the school year kicks off.

In the first year of the program each student in first grade got 7 high-quality, beautifully written and illustrated children's books to take home and enjoy. This was possible because of donations from The Louis Valentino, Jr. Memorial Fund, our Parent Association and an educational award from the "47" Alumni Association of the Deaf. Their support continues this year and I couldn't be more thankful.

It amazes me to witness the embrace the program is receiving from the New York City theater community. Year Three, which doesn't begin until October 2017, already has performers scheduled to participate (I am keeping them secret, for now).

Broadway Books First Class also inspired an extension program with students in Grades 6 - 12 called Broadway Books Upper Class with Kori Rushton of IRT Theater. And other teachers have written to me this summer to discuss starting a program like this in their schools with different members of the community, such as sports figures.

This year I hope to invite the students from 2nd grade to join us for visits from returning guests Hollie Wright and Eden Duncan-Smith. Both Hollie and Eden have established bonds with those students and I know the kids will be excited to see them again.

Perhaps I'll call those visits Broadway Books First (and Second) Class.

Thank you Devlin Elliott, Nathan Lane, Bryce Pinkham, Eden Duncan-Smith, Mary Testa, Stockard Channing, Elizabeth Ward Land, Hollie Wright, Treshelle Edmond, Jeremiah Maestas and Michael Urie for saying, "Yes, count me in".  

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How The I Becomes the We

Cover Art: Olivia McGiff
Kim Weild, artistic director of Our Voices, pulled off an admirable accomplishment in orchestrating the completion of How the I Becomes the We under the constraints of an incredibly tight timeline.

The book is an eclectic collection of artwork, photography and children's writing designed to promote storytelling through writing, drawing and conversation. The components of narrative stories (e.g. setting, character and plot) are addressed individually, guiding children into the creative realm one sentence at a time. This structure is quite helpful for young children because narrative writing is the most challenging form of writing in lower elementary school.

The How the I Becomes the We project originated with Broadway Books First Class. I originally invited Kim to visit following her work as Associate Director on Amazing Grace the Musical. Her visionary leanings led to a three-day generative storytelling workshop developed in collaboration with a group of teaching artists (myself included).

Afterwards, Kim contacted designers and artists to illustrate the children's words and bring new dimension to their ideas.

Oni is depicted on the left signing while I am on the right holding a book

Illustration by Leontine Greenberg
How the I Becomes the We then morphed into a performance piece/children's show under Kim's direction.  It was performed in American Sign Language on The High Line as part of the Culture Shock Festival.

I was honored to take part in this project with such a talented group of performers (even though the long days of teaching and rehearsal left me exhausted and sick).

The Wolf Family on The High Line with Onudeah (Oni) Nicolarakis, Gary Wellbrock, Siena Rafter, John McGinty and Jon Riddleberger

Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel
In the end I am left in awe of the creative, can-do spirit of the indefatigable Kim Weild who continues to push forward in her vision of equal access and opportunity.

I realize how lucky I am that for a brief time we got to walk hand-in-hand on that quest.  

Friday, July 22, 2016

Top Ten 2015 - 2016

A first grade top ten list of favorite books
The Top Ten list is actually a Top Eleven this year!

Our dynamic group of first grade children displayed an admirable love of books, both fiction and nonfiction, giving us educators great reason to celebrate. I am also thrilled that all twelve books read by the Broadway Books First Class visitors appeared on the children's lists, even if just four of them made it to the final count. That is a testament to the power of my fledgling program and motivation to continue this work in the coming years.

Students complied individual lists from the many books we read together during the 2015 - 2016 school year and a master list was constructed using a simple tally system to track the titles. Our final catalog contained favorites from years past, some novel additions and some surprises.

Number One
Naughty Mabel by Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott came out on top as the Number One choice this year.

We had the great privilege of listening to the book read aloud by its coauthor Devlin Elliott. His smooth delivery - full of joy and patience - provided the perfect welcome to usher the children into Mabel's rapscallion ways. Devlin appeared to get as much enjoyment from sharing the book as the delighted children took in watching.

Naughty Mabel has that magical blend of humor and heart present in the best children's books. Fantasia wrote her opinion about the book as such, "I love Naughty Mabel because Mabel is funny and cute! That's why I love Naughty Mabel."

It was wonderful to distribute signed copies of the book to the students during Devlin's visit and watch them giggle while turning the pages. In the end, love saves the day.

Photo Credit: Kim Weild

Number Two
Young Zeus by G. Brian Faras took the Number Two spot. This book actually topped the list in the past and it is great to see that it also resonates with another class.

The charm may rest in the fact that we share this book towards the end of our Greek mythology study. Suddenly, all of the gods and goddesses the students know so well are introduced as children.

Young Zeus along with his brothers and sisters are underdogs who must set the world right against all odds. They struggle with authority. They are siblings who fight with one another. They are playful, headstrong and uncertain.

As seen through this lens each first grade child can relate in a way that was simply not possible before. They see themselves and their struggles mirrored in the characters. Plus, there is an epic battle with a satisfactory conclusion and what child doesn't enjoy that?

Mylo writes, "I like the book Young Zeus because Zeus saves the day. Young Zeus is brave and nice to people and helps people."

Number Three
Let's Go, Pegasus! by Jean Marzollo appears for the fourth year on the Top Ten. What a great book!

I use it to kick off the study into Greek mythology because Medusa is such a thrilling character. In this version, she is playful and taunting while tempting Perseus to take a peek into her evil eyes.

Medusa inspires children into deliciously creative art projects and drawings. The tale of Medusa and Perseus is played out in the school yard and talked about in hushed whispers during choice time. The story ignites the imagination and this retelling by Jean Marzollo sets the stage beautifully for the 6-year-old crowd.

Miguel reading Let's Go, Pegasus!
Miguel writes, "I like Let's Go, Pegasus! because it's a cool book. Perseus tries to cut off Medusa's head and he tries to put Medusa's head in the bag!"

Dark, yes, but somehow endearing.

Number Four

There is definitely a "Whew!" factor surrounding the inclusion of Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark.

I worked for months with Broadway Books First Class visitor Oneika Phillips to find the right book to fit her theme of injury and healing.

It seems that our research and stubborn determination not to settle for anything less than perfection payed off.

Franklin encapsulates the message that, "Being brave means doing what you have to do, no matter how scared you feel".  It wasn't lost on the children as evidenced by Adonis who writes, "I like this book because he is brave".

Number Five
Interestingly, My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett came out as the Number Five pick on last year's list as well.

This is the only true chapter book on the list. It tells the story of Elmer Elevator, a clever young boy who travels to a far away island to rescue a baby dragon from his cruel captors.

We read one chapter every day, which took two weeks to complete. At the start of each new chapter we'd ask the children to recap what took place in the previous chapter so they all had an opportunity to play with summarizing and retelling. These are both areas in need of attention in first grade.

Sadly, we did not have an opportunity to read the other two books in the series but in my optimistic heart I envision boys and girls asking mommies and daddies to provide copies and assistance with the challenging words throughout the dog days of summer.

Aron writes, "I like the part when the alligators got in order then all the animals got together" and Gabby writes, "I love My Father's Dragon because it has a happy ending".

Number Six
The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers is such a gorgeous book I want to frame each and every illustration.

To top it off, it was read to us by Broadway royalty Alison Fraser!

It is a story about creating something extraordinary out of the ordinary. The lasting message pertains to beauty and innovation and how those ripples change lives forever.

Zuni writes, "I like The Night Gardener because I like how it is designed and I like that this tree is an owl. I like the part when the boy saw the tree."

Zuni's art inspired by the cover of The Night Gardener

Number Seven
Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown makes its Top Ten debut this year and along with Naughty Mabel, Franklin Goes to the Hospital and The Night Gardener it was also a featured Broadway Books First Class book selection read by Gregory Jbara.

This book is cleverly illustrated in a film noir fashion with the orange carrots standing out against a black and white landscape.  It tells the hair-raising (or hare-raising) tale of Jasper Rabbit as he grapples with his paranoia. Are the carrots out to get him or is it simply his imagination?

The small details in the outstanding illustrations are both humorous and scary.  It is the perfect book to read to young children at Halloween but it really works at any time.

We created some of our own creepy carrots using construction paper and googly eyes. Adorable!

Samara writes, "I like the book Creepy Carrots because the carrots are funny. They have funny faces. I like when Jasper the rabbit eats a lot of carrots in the carrot field."

Jasper Rabbit and the Creepy Carrots

Number Eight
Todd Parr is a perennial favorite.  Otto has a Birthday Party is a book we read at every birthday celebration. Only when we read it we substitute the birthday boy or girl's name for Otto's.

These classroom traditions help build continuity and community.

Phillip writes, "I like this book because it is funny and it is fun and he is cute".

Number Nine
The last three books are all surprises.  I did not expect to see any of them on the Top Ten (or Top Eleven in this case) but yet, here they are!

The Stupids Take Off by Harry Allard and James Marshall derives its humor from the fact that the family's last name is Stupid. Therefore, they live in the Stupid house, ride a Stupid plane, etc. The name is also extremely fitting as they have an unusual (i.e. stupid) take on things with plenty of low-humor sight gags.

In first grade children love to tell on each other for using inappropriate language (e.g. "Komden just said the "S" word!") The "S" word in their minds is stupid, not the word your adult mind might expect. So, to see it repeated again and again in a book is very taboo and very, very thrilling for a child.

Number Ten
One Stormy Night by the prolific writer Joy Cowley truly came out of nowhere. Ms. Cowley has a million titles out there that aren't really high quality literature. Her books are generally short and serve a purpose, which is to engage emergent and beginning readers in the act of reading.

Still, we used this simple book as a mentor text in one of our writing units to show how an author makes use of features such as bold print, sound words and repetition.

There is an element of suspense that students found entertaining. It reminds me of that scary story that was popular when I was a boy wherein the monster slowly creeps closer and closer to your bedroom (i.e. Johnny, I'm on the first step! Johnny, I'm on the second step! etc.).

It looks as though this gem will remain in our lesson plans next year.

Ricky writes, "I like One Stormy Night because it has animals and rain. I like rain because rain helps plants and flowers".

Number Eleven
Completing the list is another unlikely choice - Dick and Jane and Vampires by Laura Marcesani.

It is a strange little book that inserts vampires into the traditional Dick and Jane stories of the 1930s.

This compilation of collected stories are only about a page or two long each so we would read it in-between lessons or just before the children lined up for lunch.

It is more proof that children are wildly humorous and up for a bit of fright. Mikayla writes, "I love Dick and Jane and Vampires because I like how they run away".

I will never tire of them.

Finally, George O'Connor and his Olympians Series deserves a mention. The graphic novels appeared on every list but because there are so many titles, one specific title did not gain enough votes to put it into the top.

Thank you to all the children's book authors and illustrators who make teaching and learning so much fun. Hats off to you all!


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