Sunday, May 19, 2019

Winding Down

Thumbs up for summer vacation
This difficult school year is coming to an end in 6 weeks and I couldn't be happier. I've been teaching 23 years - this has been the most unfulfilling experience to date. If they were all like this I would have walked away long ago.

The educational system is flawed. That is nothing new. Teachers are undervalued and disrespected politically, culturally, and administratively. However, we show up every day because of the relationships we foster with one another and because we believe the work we are doing with the children outweighs all the negativity.

Those moments of purpose provide the fuel to keep our engines running. The fuel I was given this year was compromised. Fighting negativity takes a toll. I look forward to viewing it in my rearview mirror.

There were some good things. Broadway Books First Class continued the mission of celebrating literacy and the Arts (although not to its full potential). My students are clever, engaging, eager, joyful, inquisitive, insightful, funny, charming, and sweet. Although I didn't get to utilize all of my skills as a reading specialist and use my knowledge of ASL to bridge language and print, I was able to facilitate and guide their learning in developmentally appropriate ways.

As the school year winds down I am becoming more zen about the experience. What has it taught me? I'm starting to redirect the anger and disappointment and trying to forgive those who caused it or made it so difficult. I was told yesterday to "Let it go" and forgive. It's simple, but good advice. Forgiveness is always healing. However, I think it is also easier to forgive after the fact. It's hard to forgive while still experiencing the pain.

I look forward to a summer of healing and rejuvenation. I've never counted down the days, but this year it's nice to know I can walk away in 26 days.

Year 24, please be good to me!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Christine Pedi

Making silly faces with Christine "Lady of 1,000 voices" Pedi

Christine Pedi dwells in a land heretofore uncharted in the short history of my literacy and Arts program - she accepted a face-to-face invitation to visit my classroom without knowing anything about me. To my knowledge, there were no mentions or words of support from others who've participated. This tactic of cold calling previously bombed with the other performers I've approached - Sarah Jessica Parker, Cherry Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Matthew Broderick - but, I stand undeterred for the greater good. The Divine Ms. P. proves tenacity pays off!

In early October 2018 I saw Christine perform in NEWSical the Musical on Theatre Row. I've long admired her work, but this was the first time I saw her live and in person.

Christine holds a special place in my heart because the last memory I have of my dear friend, James, was giggling over Christine's parody of Telephone (over the telephone! James was watching in New York and I was watching simultaneously in Florida). In the video, Christine switches the roles of Lady Gaga and Beyonce with Liza Minelli and Carol Channing. It was just the inspired silliness James enjoyed and although he sadly and unexpectedly passed soon after, his laughter that day is what I remember. Art lifts us, heals us, and brings us together.

Christine's energy, irreverence, and humor were all on full display as I watched her on stage. After the show I asked her about visiting my classroom to read and she was immediately on board. It turns out she was meeting with popular - and prolific - children's book author Tomie dePaola in the coming days, so the timing of my request was serendipitous. She suggested Tomie's book Oliver Button is a Sissy, which is a beautiful story about an artistic little boy "who won't give up on the dreams that make him unique".

Christine Pedi reads OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO! by Dr. Seuss

Christine also suggested her all-time favorite children's book Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss. This classic picture book with its sage life advice has many, many fans - including former Broadway Books First Class guest artist Michael Urie, who also places it at the top of his favorites list. Ultimately, we decided on the latter choice (although I believe Oliver Button is a fantastic choice for the program).

I wondered, "Would she read the book using the warm, motherly voice of Julie Andrews or Angela Lansbury?" I could only hope!

Christine is known as "The lady of 1,000 voices" due to her incredible ability to step into character as Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and other well-known divas. This was first showcased in the legendary Off-Broadway revue Forbidden Broadway (and later in Forbidden Hollywood).

In preparation for her visit I showed the children Christine's Hello Dolly auditions video (I stopped it before "Patti LuPone" dropped the F bomb). As we watched I realized we were laughing for different reasons. I was chuckling because of Christine's spot-on interpretations of each performer. The children were laughing because she was wearing funny wigs, talking in different voices, and being silly. They were unfamiliar with Liza, Bernadette, Patti, etc. Although they did know Oprah and remarked afterwards that she was their favorite.

I also thought about the fact that some of the children are hard of hearing. How could we maximize the impact of the various impersonations for them? It turns out that augmentative technology, visuals, and an offer to feel her throat as she spoke did the trick. When the children asked her to do a voice, she entertained them Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast and with various character voices, such as a witch, a little baby, a toothless old man, a snake, and a chicken. She told us that in order to do character voices she thinks about the energy of the person or the animal. They responded with their own versions including a heart girl, a frog, and an Italian-accented Mario. That's a lot of frenetic energy pulsing through a classroom!

Christine as Holly Blue Agate on STEVEN UNIVERSE

A voice the children were familiar with was Holly Blue Agate on the popular animated show Steven Universe. We took a moment to watch a clip from the hit Cartoon Network program, which was a good idea. It quieted all of the voices and led into Christine's other work. After all, she is much more than those myriad voices.

She has performed in three Broadway shows; Little Me, Talk Radio, and Chicago. During our Q&A she told us that Chicago was her favorite because, "It has been running for 22 years. It has some of the best music I've ever heard in my life. And it's funny and it's intelligent at the same time. That's why I like the Dr. Seuss book because it's very fun and it's joyful and it's colorful, but it's very smart. And I like things that can do both." She told us she saw the show 16 times! This meant she was in it for two weeks before she performed the show more than she saw the show. To which a child stood up and asked,

"Was Broadway your passion?"

I loved the essence of this impromptu question because it showed a depth of understanding about what drives performers like Christine. There is a calling that cannot be ignored. It is thrilling to me that the students are gaining an understanding of this and beginning to think about their own path in life. As Joseph Campbell stated, it is important to follow your bliss.

Students ask questions about Christine's many voices and her life in the theatre

It seems that the question also brought us back full circle to the overarching lesson of the book she just read. One that tells us the path of life isn't always easy, but the path is ours and with determination we will get through.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)

KID, YOU'LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!

Christine signs a book for this very grateful birthday unicorn

*You can learn more about the fabulous Christine Pedi by clicking here.

**Photo credit: Eileen Lograno and Yours Truly.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Oneika Phillips


Broadway Books First Class guest artist Oneika Phillips has an indomitable spirit. Her energy and light heralded her arrival and had every head turning when she entered the classroom. From the start we all knew this was going to be an inspiring visit. How can anyone resist Oneika's infectious smile and genuine, loving spirit?

Oneika joyously greets the children
Hers is a story of challenges, tenacity, belief, and ultimately, triumph. It is one we both had to share with the children because we wanted to teach them that attitude is key.

We may not always have control over our circumstances, but we do have the power to balance light with the darkness. It is a lesson that follows a complicated, emotional path, which begins by facing our fears.

We all get scared sometimes. Terrors can come in irresistible packages with eye-catching ribbons that demand our attention. These nightmares are the kind that elicit bloodcurdling screams followed by a rush of adrenaline and a pounding heart. They can be found in the pages of the cautionary tales shared by former guest artist, Aaron Mark. Fortunately, this type of terror is usually fleeting. We find our way out of the haunted house, we wake up from the nightmare, the movie ends, or, like me, realize the snake your twin brother put on your pillow is fake. We return to functioning as normal within a relatively short period of time.

However, there are other frights. Ones that run deeper. Ones that linger and slowly eat away at our edges. They instill in us a sense of dread, bringing pangs of despair and bouts of worry, They have the ability to cripple us. These are the challenges. They can either crush us or they can show us we are stronger than we realized.

Oneika Phillips guided the children down the uncertain passageway of the quieter fright during her visit. She led our discussion with compassion, giggles, and a few playful dance moves.

Here's Oneika's story and how I discovered the perfect children's book to help tell it.

Oneika in action!
Oneika's dance training, undeniable talent, and smooth moves landed her the plum role of Anita in the 50th Anniversary International Tour of Jerome Robbin's West Side Story. She is an incredibly strong, flexible dancer, but unfortunately not impervious to injury. One day during rehearsal she executed a tricky dance move that left her with a fractured back.

Suddenly, all that she worked for was in jeopardy. Decisions had to be made to heal her body. The physical road back to where she was before all this happened is just one side of the story. There was also the exhausting, frightening, emotional toll. The two walk hand-in-hand, merging at the center of it all to determine how we come through a crisis.

Oneika fought her way back and, not only maintained, but soared! She most recently shined as a denizen of Bikini Bottom in the smash Broadway musical SpongeBob SquarePants.

I struggled to find the perfect book to frame her story the first time she visited in 2016. The book I found - Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois - contained a wonderful message about bravery, but didn't quite capture the nuances of rebuilding one's life after a traumatic incident.

Then, one afternoon I was in the children's book section of New York's famous Strand bookstore with my friend Esther when I came across After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat. It stopped me in my tracks. Here was a powerful picture book about the debilitating aftermath of an injury. How it can stop us from doing the things we love because we are frightened of getting hurt again. A book about the emotional scars left behind after the body heals. Using simple text and outstanding illustrations Dan Santat gets the reader inside the noggin' of a trepidatious Humpty Dumpty. It is at once instantly relatable and finessed to explore the deeper issues underpinning fear. And children follow Humpty Dumpty through the pain until he ultimately learns to soar (figuratively and literally).

Oneika Phillips reads AFTER THE FALL by Dan Santat

That last bit was the clincher for me. For although I knew that Humpty Dumpty was an egg, I never imagined what was inside him. To realize - through the author's eyes - that he was always an egg on his way to BECOMING something new blew my mind. Did you ever think about that? What a great, new perspective on a nursery rhyme I've known since childhood. It was exactly the children's book we needed to tell Oneika's story.

There comes a time to celebrate moving forward. After facing fear with bravery and navigating through challenges, the relief of pushing past it all deserves an outpouring of happy. We did just that in a language Oneika knows well - dance!

Oneika taught us the Super Sea Star Savior choreography from SpongeBob SquarePants (also referred to as the Sardine Dance). The exuberant cascade of joyful energy swept us all away. Catch a glimpse in the short video below.



In fact, SpongeBob proved to be a very big draw for the students. They couldn't help but share their encyclopedic knowledge of the characters and storylines. Oneika and I were talking about organizing a trip for the children to see her perform in the show - as Jonathan Freeman did with ALADDIN - but the show was forced to close because of scheduled renovations to the historic Palace Theatre.

Punk Fish Fan Art!
Oneika shared some bright, colorful fan art of her character, "Punk Fish", with her neon green mohawk (hard to miss!). She traveled a long path from Grenada to Broadway. Her determination, work ethic, dedication, and pure joy for dance pulled her through the difficult times.

It also taught the children an important lesson about the power of the mind to heal. Optimism and a can-do spirit is never to be underestimated.

Before we said goodbye Oneika spent a little time with each child. She wrote personalized messages in their books (made through donations for this project on DonorsChoose.org. You can follow this link to support future projects).

Be sure to keep an eye out for Oneika's next project. You can bet I'll be there cheering her on!

Oneika fingerspells this child's name. Here she is signing the letter "R"

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