Monday, December 11, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Ali Stroker

"Make Your Limitations Your Opportunities"
Guest Artist Ali Stroker with the Pre-K and Second Grade students

Once upon a time, when Broadway Books First Class was merely a twinkle in my eye, I imagined facilitating simple, low-key guest visits for my students. Of course, that was never really the case as we welcomed administrators, guests and - most importantly - ASL interpreters from the start. Over time the visits have expanded to include more children and more adults, so that I now find myself playing the role of event planner.

Actress and singer Ali Stroker's visit was an event indeed! (We even had exquisite "pre-show" music from Esther Kim of Tokyo & the Boy!)

Ali Stroker made her Broadway debut in the 2015 Deaf West Theater revival of Spring Awakening.  She's also performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and New York's Town Hall. Television audiences recognize her from the hit shows Glee and Glee Project. Her guiding principle of "Making Your Limitations Your Opportunities" helps educate, entertain and energize others.

Ali and I selected the book The Gold Leaf by Kirsten Hall and Matthew Forsythe for her reading. It is a story of longing, tranquility, beauty and loss told through descriptive language and muted color. In the book, forest animals discover "something most unusual" in a gold leaf that shines and sparkles.

Inspired by the richness of the illustrations and story setting we created an autumnal wonderland in our classroom to mirror the theme of the book.

This meant a trip for me to Michael's craft store to purchase leaves and branches and an outdoor excursion for the children to gather fallen foliage.

We painted the leaves with gold acrylic paint and coated them with Mod Podge. The idea was that we would all toss our leaves in the air before Ali read so that as the words of the book washed over us, we'd be surrounded by leaves of every color, including the eponymous gold ones.

                                             Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno

Joyously throwing autumn leaves on a count of 1, 2, 3!

Being a deliciously sneaky event planner, I also had a surprise up my sleeve for Ali. I arranged for the author of The Gold Leaf, Kirsten Hall, to attend the event. I introduced the two talents after Ali read, but just before I did the children had a surprise of their own. Kirsten wrote about what transpired...

"The kids threw leaves in the air to begin Ali's reading. Only a (lucky, envied) few caught gold leaves as they fell. When the story was over those few kids who had caught the gold leaves surprised us all by getting up and approaching Ali to give HER their gold leaves. All on their own volition, all in the spirit of the book. The entire experience was a golden reminder of the many things we all have vs don't have, what matters vs what doesn't, and how not having can sometimes be the bigger gift."

Students give gold leaves to Ali Stroker after she read The Gold Leaf

Afterwards, Ali shared how she fell in love with the theater as a 6-year-old girl because it allowed her to express herself in a way that was otherwise unavailable to her. The joy of performing offset the difficulties she endured after being hurt in a car accident at Age 2.

Ali is the first person in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway, which she said was a big reminder to her that we need to create more opportunities for people living with disabilities. It was a rather powerful thing to watch a restless, rowdy group of leaf-throwing children quietly focus on the message behind Ali's words. And it was even more impressive to witness them transfixed by her beautiful singing voice. (You can watch her singing "Be a Lion" by clicking the song title.)  

Ali sings Be a Lion from The Wiz alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

Gifts and hugs and a bit of chaos followed as Ali and Kirsten autographed books for each child. Books were funded by my friends who supported a DonorsChoose project to ensure that each child gets a copy of the books read during the Broadway Books First Class visits.

It was heartwarming to see the preschool and second grade children sitting together on the rug to read and talk about the story or the illustrations. I heard from one parent the next day who shared that her son wanted her to read the book three times before he went to bed that night!

Ali Stroker and Kirsten Hall singing copies of The Gold Leaf

Farewell is not goodbye.  Ali is interested in setting up some theater classes or a workshop at our school. We are meeting later this month to discuss it.

"And then a mighty roar/Will start the sky/To cryin'/But not even light'ning/Will be frightening my lion/And with no fear inside/No need to run/No need to hide/You're standing strong and tall/You're the bravest of them all"

Ali is a lion!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Jonathan Freeman

We rubbed Aladdin's lamp and our wish came true!
We spent a morning with Tony Award nominee (and Disney's Jafar)
Jonathan Freeman

Broadway Books First Class opened Year Three this October with a magical visit from Broadway guest artist Jonathan Freeman. Jonathan has worked steadily on the Broadway stage for the past 43 years and was even nominated for a Tony Award for his role in She Loves Me, but he is perhaps best known for his vocal performances - most notably Jafar in Disney's Aladdin.

Jonathan is also heretofore credited with (unknowingly) guiding Broadway Books First Class through rough waters after some unexpected changes occurred at the close of Year Two.  

Last June, the misguided machinations of the administrative upper echelon almost brought the curtain down on my passion project. Their decision to assign me to teach preschool, instead of my beloved first grade, left me scrambling to figure out how to keep the integrity of the program intact. My vision for the program was for the visits to include my students.  How would a class of 4-year-olds sit for a read aloud and a discussion?

Luckily, I had a very kid-friendly performer waiting in the wings to usher in Year Three.

In addition to Aladdin (on stage and in the movies), Jonathan's resume includes Broadway roles in Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins.

And his voice can be heard in the long-running children's television series Shiny Time Station, Hercules, and Lilo and Stitch: The Series (among others).

Jonathan's artistic oeuvre hinted at his capacity to embrace the wee ones and, in turn, provided an entry point from which to immediately hook a young audience. All of this prompted me to expand the scope of the program to include more students. So, Year Three's premiere saw my energetic preschoolers joined by the darling second graders.

Students introduce themselves to Jonathan Freeman in American Sign Lanuage

I began to prepare for the visits long before Jonathan arrived. This included inviting the second graders to become "Book Buddies" with the younger children. Each morning, four of the second graders would join us to sit and read books in my classroom. This allowed time for everyone to become comfortable with one another and familiar with the environment. It also promoted excitement about literacy. The older children gained confidence in their reading abilities while the younger ones built up happy experiences around shared literacy events.  

The classes worked separately too.

I read children's books about the theater to my preschool class, including Backstage Cat by Harriet Ziefert and Amadina by Sergio Ruzzier. They learned about various aspects of showbiz and the language associated with theater (e.g., scenery, props, etc.).

In both classes we studied Jonathan's work. I brought in artifacts (i.e., Playbills) from the shows he's appeared in and discussed the storylines from several of the musicals. I made connections to other Broadway Books First Class visitors (the program was recommended to Jonathan by Mary Testa and Nathan Lane) and, of course, showed video clips from Aladdin.

Armed with this background knowledge each class brainstormed a list of questions for Jonathan and we selected four to ask during his visit.

I also worked with Jonathan and his lovely, helpful friend Karen to coordinate the visit.

Jonathan suggested an Aladdin Golden Book for the read aloud. He even brought 30 autographed copies and showcards for every student!

This was incredibly kind and exceedingly generous. I knew it would be a spectacular visit. And it was!

The day finally arrived and everyone gathered together in anticipation of Jonathan's arrival. There were cheers when he stepped into my classroom (from the adults and children alike).

I've read that whenever Jonathan meets new fans they always ask him to "Talk like Jafar" and this crowd was no exception. Personally, I wanted to hear him growl, "Prince ABooBoo". He acquiesced and it brought me so much joy!

After introductions, Jonathan settled in to read alongside American Sign Language interpreter Kathleen Taylor.

Jonathan and Kathleen in a dramatic reading of ALADDIN
(One of my favorite interpreting pictures ever!)


We had a front row seat to exquisite storytelling from Jafar himself! Everyone was engaged and throughout the story children passionately interjected, which was met with good-humored quips from Jonathan.

One student, Joey, could barely contain his excitement and asked several times, "Can I tell you something?" Jonathan, who kept things moving with a smile, responded with, "Can I tell you something?" and continued reading.

After the reading Jonathan laughingly turned to Joey and innocently asked, "Did you want to tell me something?"

Jonathan Freeman reads student-created questions

In the question and answer segment that followed Jonathan stressed the importance of working collaboratively with others throughout the creative process. He noted that it takes about 150 people to make Aladdin run smoothly and that any theater production requires many parts working together.

He shared stories of starting out as Jafar 25 years ago and how his journey with the character allows him meet folks like us. His warmth, patience and humor were very endearing. He spent time with each child and happily chatted with the adults in the room, who loved him as much as the children did.

Students enjoy signed copies of ALADDIN courtesy of Jonathan Freeman

As I walked Jonathan and Karen down to the lobby they said that they would like to try to arrange for the children to see Aladdin on Broadway. This is a HUGE logistical undertaking on both ends but Jonathan is currently working with Disney and the House Manager to figure it all out.

Meanwhile, he sent the class a copy of the beautiful, clothbound book The Road to Broadway and Beyond Disney Aladdin: A Whole New World.

And I sent him a collection of thank you cards created by the children.

As Year Three of Broadway Books First Class continues I am extremely grateful that it began with Mr. Jonathan Freeman.

There are moments when you must listen to the universe and allow the tenets of the words "Follow Your Bliss" to wash over and direct you. This program is influenced by good people.

Jonathan, I thank you!


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