Sunday, June 19, 2016

Songs of my Father

Just two young former Marines building memories day by day

Memories of my youth are vivid, cherished and undoubtedly romanticized. Recollections - both my own and those told to me by my parents - have acquired a perfection only possible with the passage of time. The struggles have lost their immediacy and what's left is the idealized vision of a simpler time bursting with its own adored soundtrack.

Debut album released in 1965
It is through music that I visualize my mother's life in the mid 60s. A strong, beautiful, young woman making a go of it in a strange place with three small children.

Dressed casually but always "put together" her dark hair teased and curled with Dippity-do, she'd go about taking care of home and family while Sonny and Cher played on the console stereo along with The Supremes, Elvis Presley and the Golden Oldies.

In the warm days of summer, as the ceiling fan noisily called forth air from the open windows, Mom would keep house while I'd play in the yard with my brothers imagining we were soldiers in battle or Lost in Space or generally making mischief of one kind or another. The day would pass into evening and we'd eventually hear Daddy's truck approaching.

My parents were (and remain) two parts of the same sentence.  A team united in living the dream of a comfortable life lived in love. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing fancy.

Dad liked a neatly trimmed lawn.  A dog to greet him when he came home. A kiss from Mom. A cold beer. And a walk around the backyard. Those are the things I remember Daddy doing to unwind.

Oh, and like Mom, Dad played record albums.

After my parents built onto the house to accommodate their growing family (my little sister was born in 1971) Dad hooked up speakers in the backyard so he could enjoy his music, his beer and his walk all at the same time.

An album cover to remember!
There was jazz, Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass, Elvis, George Jones, Roy Orbison and also his adventures into what is now called Classic Rock with bands like Three Dog Night.

I loved hearing the music play as he barbecued, while we swam in the pool or played frisbee. In the summer the songs would play long after it got dark and the sound comforted me.

These days I encounter long forgotten songs everywhere. The grocery store plays "You Are My Destiny" by Paul Anka and I stop in the soda aisle thinking, "That is one of Dad's songs!" or perhaps it's Wooly Bully by Sam the Sham & The Pharoahs that starts me rocking (literally).

Every so often I will get a snippet of a melody in my head from those days but it is rarely enough to allow me to identify the song. Just this past week I spontaneously started singing one of the most elusive, a song that I have been trying to capture for decades. Only this time I held on to it long enough to conduct a Google search. After several misdirects I happily identified and downloaded "Only Love Can Break a Heart"by Gene Pitney. I've listened to it pretty much nonstop all week.

"I honestly love you"
Dad's most influential, long-lasting musical contribution in my life is that he introduced me to Olivia Newton-John courtesy of Columbia Music House and an 8-track tape. The album was If You Love Me, Let Me Know.

I was on my way out to play when he told me to listen because he thought I might like it. I figured I'd humor him and be out the door but he was on to something. I was hooked! This was years before Olivia played Sandy in the movie Grease so who knew what was in store. I just knew I couldn't get enough ONJ.

So, on this Father's Day I want to thank you Dad for the music that is hiding in the dark recesses of my mind waiting to catapult me back in time, for the music I still love and for the music that shapes my memories.

Note: The title of this post is fittingly borrowed from Linda Ronstadt's 1987 album Canciones De Mi Padre.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Devlin Elliott

Devlin Elliott surrounded by his "Naughty" fans in First Grade

Photo Credit: Kim Weild

Hello, darlings!

If there is anything I've learned in 20 years of teaching, it's that children crave structure and clearly defined limits.  Although, once adults draw that line in the sand you can bet a little toe - or two - will carefully cross it to test the boundaries while watching with eyes askance.

Children want to know if the adults in their lives mean what they say.  The wee ones need to determine for themselves which much is too much or if, as my mother once assured me, "This is the real that's it".  These Red Riding Hoods want to know the consequences of veering from the path.  And, more importantly, will we still love them when the dust settles?

Naughty Mabel by Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott is all about testing the waters and walking the line between naughty and nice.  The free-spirited protagonist, a dramatic and rascally French bulldog named Mabel, is a lot like a bubbly first grader (except first graders generally don't eat underwear!).

The tension that premise presents is used to hilarious effect in this beautiful children's book.

It was our great joy to welcome Mabel's creator, Tony-nominated Broadway/Off-Broadway and West End producer Devlin Elliott, as our latest Broadway Books First Class visitor.

Devlin reading was full of charm, humor and patience while capturing every nuance in the text (he wrote it after all) and highlighting Mabel's antics in the wild, energetic illustrations by Dan Krall.

The laughter of children is a beautiful thing to behold and we all got caught up in this adventure.  Mabel can give my beloved Curious George a run for his money with her capacity for lovable mischief.

After the reading the children asked Devlin, "What's next for Mabel?".  He surprised us with a mock-up draft of the second book in the series,  Naughty Mabel Sees It All.  Although the book will not be published until October we had a top secret reading.

This book was met with even more laughter and excitement than the first one (if that's possible).  There are also fun tidbits for the adults so everyone can enjoy these chestnuts time and again through repeated readings. Devlin told us that there are great things in store for Mabel so keep your eyes peeled (hint: it involves Nickelodeon).

Next, we asked Devlin some questions about his life in the theater.  He was an actor at one time but these days is more involved in producing.  The role of producer, he shared, allows him to bring stories to people.

Photo Credit: Kim Weild

We bought some gourmet dog treats for the real Mabel (she would accept nothing less, I'm sure) to say, "Thank You!" before Devlin graciously signed books for the children with the message, "Stay Naughty" (with a happy face).

Books donated by The Louis Valentino Jr. Memorial Fund

Photo Credit: Kim Weild

One-by-one our students proudly took their autographed books to the rug and started reading.  We didn't ask them to do this.  They just did.  As they turned the pages we saw them laughing and pointing together at Mabel getting a bath or passing gas (C'mon, that's funny!).

In the end, they were comforted to know that, naughty or nice, there will always be someone there to love them...

So go ahead, call me Naughty Mabel. 
My parents do, but that doesn't mean
they love me any less.  And I couldn't
love them any more.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Reaching Ahead into Marvelous Places

There are times I look to Joseph Campbell.

I have a bookshelf full of his writing and sometimes I like to pull out a book and open to a random page to digest his insightful words and ponder the complexities of life.  He was a prolific writer, gifted educator, and an inspiration to so many but even he balanced the minutia of everyday life against the loftier pursuits of purpose, passion and fulfillment.

Campbell was a teacher whose writings can be applied to a great many circumstances so today when I opened up his authorized biography A Fire in the Mind to help direct my thoughts about the departure of our student teacher, Eileen, I found this journal entry especially fitting;
I could see my whole life reaching ahead into marvelous places and into realms of the things I like best.  I could feel that at last the very impossible had taken shape inside me, and I could look things in the face now without feeling that eternal question mark like a veil between my eyes and everything else.  
Eileen's journey towards teaching followed a circuitous path but at last she has found her marvelous place.  She taught with us for 3 months and during that time we witnessed a transformation.  She became more confident.  She tried new things, learned from her failures and built upon her successes.  She made connections with children.  She worked hard and is ready to join the ranks of those of us who show up each and every day to comfort, guide and educate.  

On her last day we asked the children to share a memory.  Their responses were varied but each one brought Eileen a little closer to the edge of tears.  Here is a snippet...
  1. I like when Eileen helps me with math and our tens and ones.
  2. Every time I am sad Eileen cheers me up.
  3. I like when Eileen plays with us when we are doing choice time.
  4. She lets us learn all the poems.
  5. Eileen always gives me hugs.
  6. I like when Eileen helps us.
  7. I like when Eileen helps us with the hundreds chart.
  8. I love when Eileen teaches math.
As a goodbye gift we gave Eileen a canvas bag decorated with the handprints of the children and filled with various and sundry classroom supplies.

The contents of the bag symbolize where she is going but the handprints serve as a reminder of where she has been.

Best of everything to you Eileen as you reach ahead into marvelous places and into the realms of what you like best!

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Lewis Merkin

First graders proudly gathered around our distinguished guest Lewis Merkin

Children of a Lesser God took Broadway by storm in 1980 winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play (Phyllis Frelich) and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (John Rubinstein).  This groundbreaking work - later adapted into a successful movie propelling Marlee Matlin onto the world stage and into the arms of an Academy Award - introduced Deaf Culture and American Sign Language (ASL) to a wide audience.

The play was also directly (or indirectly) responsible for bringing many young professionals to the field of deaf education as either speech and language pathologists or classroom teachers - I am one of those individuals who is one degree of separation away from its direct influence. This play about the romance between a deaf woman and a hearing man who clash over communication modalities helped define the course of my life. It is thought provoking, challenging and a major step in opening a dialogue between divergent linguistic and cultural communities.

Riding the wave of that juggernaut was original Broadway cast member Lewis Merkin in the role of Orin Dennis.  It was our indescribable honor to welcome Lewis to our classroom last month to share his experiences with the show, life in the theater and the journey that made it all possible.

Lewis' life story provided a new perspective for the students because he is the first Broadway Books First Class visitor who grew up deaf with deaf parents.  His relationship with Deaf culture and ASL provided an insight and connection the students were eager to discuss and learn more about.

I selected Dad and Me in the Morning by Patricia Lakin and Robert G. Steele as our read aloud that afternoon because the book focuses on one early adventure in the life of a young deaf boy as he prepares to watch the sunrise over the ocean with his dad.  Small moments are woven into the text and illustrations that respectfully capture some of the experiences of our students (e.g., ASL, flashing alarm clocks, feeling sound vibrations, visual attention to a speaker, tapping a shoulder to get someone's attention). Lewis read the book using ASL (without voice) with the pages projected on the SmartBoard so the children could integrate all of the visual information to comprehend the story.

Lewis Merkin reading Dad and Me in the Morning

It made me smile to watch it slowly dawn on the children that the boy in the story was deaf.  Their comments and questions represented the arc of their understanding from, "He's deaf?!" to "I do that too!"  We always try to find picture books that reflect the diversity of our student population so I was pleased to accomplish that goal.

After the reading, Lewis shared that he became hooked on performing during the show Equus by Peter Shaffer.  He played Alan Strang, a "young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses"and knew slipping into the skin of fascinating characters was his future.  He pursued his dream despite the early misgivings of his concerned parents and beat the odds to become a working Broadway actor.  His is an inspiring story indeed.

It was with sweet affection that the boys and girls gathered around him to present a signed copy of the book with little fingers eager to point out their names before one final goodbye.

We all send a huge THANK YOU to Lewis for visiting and sharing a wonderful afternoon with us. Like a beautiful sunrise, it is a gift we will always cherish.  

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Introducing Medusa (again!)

Artwork by the incredibly talented Sean Baptist
Springtime may be synonymous with showers and flowers but in first grade it is also the time we enter into the world of Gods and Goddesses courtesy of the Greek myths.

I always begin with the story of Medusa and Perseus. It is the best hook in the world because it has suspense, wild imagery, and clearly drawn lines of good and evil (that I love to blur and question as we proceed).

The myths allow for interesting discussions about the evolution of story and visual ownership over one's imagination. I always encourage the children to create an image of Medusa - based upon my barebones description embedded within the adventure - before I supply them with any other artist's renderings.

Medusa through the eyes of first graders

Their drawings show that children are not afraid to tackle the demons lurking under the bed or out there in the dark somewhere. In fact, the darker their illustrations are the more they seem to enjoy them.  Children chuckle as they add details such as sharp teeth, menacing eyes and wild hair. They laugh as they view pictures created by other children and gasp with open-mouthed smiles when we show them how other artists have portrayed Medusa.

This year I was talking with Sean Baptist, one of the teaching artists we work with from The Children's Museum of the Arts, and Sean was very excited to add his take on our Greek Gods, Goddesses, heroes and monsters.

Every week Sean has a new piece of art to share with us. He started with Medusa (see above) and so far has given us a befuddled Cyclops and a smiling Hercules surrounded by several of his labors. His art is a big hit with the kids and I plan to frame each one to use year after year.

An exciting offshoot of all of this is that Sean and I are planning to partner on a children's book. His sensibilities as an artist fit perfectly with how I envision my story so I really look forward to our collaboration.


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