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.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From David Caudle, Anastasia Traina and Scott Cohen

Scott Cohen, Anastasia Traina and David Caudle landed gently in First Grade to
share with us the quiet beauty and powerful message of Bitsy & Raff
I've studied butterflies...

Surrounded by young children I've watched some very hungry caterpillars prepare for their time in the chrysalis and then breathtakingly emerge in bursts of color. I've nurtured and protected these tiny, tenacious creatures from small, overzealous hands eager to touch. And I've anticipated the quick, swiping, dance-like movements of a five-year-old whose body language reveals a reluctance to actually having a butterfly land on him.

It's clear that artist Anastasia Traina also studied the movement, stillness and shifting nuances of these expressive creatures to create her exquisite watercolor illustrations for the children's book Bitsy the Heaviest Butterfly & Raff the Tenderest Reed written by David Caudle.   

The story is a beautiful lesson in overcoming naysayers, challenging misconceptions and celebrating the warm embrace of friendship. So, when David and Anastasia agreed to share this special book with my students as part of Broadway Books First Class, I was overjoyed.

We were also honored to welcome charming - and popular - actor Scott Cohen! Scott read the book to the children while we all got lost in the world David and Anastasia created. The children questioned, laughed, commented and applauded throughout the reading while getting cozy on the rug as if Scott, Anastasia and David were old friends.

Scott Cohen reading Bitsy & Raff with ASL interpreter Mary Grace Gallagher

The reading was followed by questions. The children wanted to know why David wrote this book. His answer was reminiscent of what Charles Busch shared when asked what gave him his creative spark, which I find interesting since both are playwrights. Is there a common thread running through the psyche of those who write scripts?

David said that he was interested in the juxtaposition of something light (a butterfly) carrying around the weight of despair and loneliness thereby becoming something "other than". Bitsy is about the transformative power of finding someone special to laugh with, to feel safe with, someone who gives us strength and allows us to joyfully become our authentic selves. It's what Charles described as finding that tribe or group of people in his life who understood him and inspired him to create.

A magnificent trio - Anastasia Traina, Scott Cohen and David Caudle
Throughout the visit I was struck by how this generous trio listened. They were still and silent when others spoke. They were interested and thoughtful. After they left I started to wonder if I am spending too much time with the wee ones who routinely cut one another off in conversation and display other outward manifestations of a short attention span. It was a striking difference and I think I learned from them too.

The visit ended, as always, with gifts. Usually we all sign a copy of the book for the performer(s) but as this was the first time a visitor had actually written the book that was read, we had to give it some more thought. It was decided that we would use simple materials to make a child's tribute to Bitsy and Raff.

After lots of hugs and goodbyes Anastasia, Scott and David quietly flew off towards other adventures but left behind a charming story and a message we will revisit again and again.

So, the next time you see someone different from you,
Don't make fun as the others in your pond might do.
Make friends instead, and you'll have the last laugh,
Find strength in each other, like Bitsy and Raff.

Culture Shock Festival

Friends of the High Line present Culture Shock, a free arts festival on April 23 from 12:00 PM to 4:00 PM.  This annual Spring opening event is a "joyous, one-of-a-kind celebration" with diverse performances by local artists representing a wide variety of genres.

The program of music, dance, poetry, comedy and storytelling includes a bilingual (English and American Sign Language) performance inspired by the First through Third Grade students at my school (PS347).

The stories were developed during the Winter Workshop with artistic director and creative powerhouse Kim Weild and a group of teaching artists - I was honored to be among them.  The High Line performance at 2:30 PM celebrates children, language, culture, diversity and imagination.

I am thrilled to have an opportunity to perform in this piece - How the I Becomes the We - as a modern day, slightly manic Mr. Rogers guiding a young (and not-so-young) audience into the realm of possibility through creative storytelling.

An exciting, added bonus is that a companion book will also be available for purchase at the event!  It joyously documents the journey from idea to story and encourages children to dream.

Consider this an invitation to join us on the High Line and if you do, please take a moment to say hello.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Return to Teaching Tolerance

I am back as a writer for Teaching Tolerance after a necessary hiatus due to the demands of completing my doctoral studies.  

My lastest post entitled Confronting Creepy Crawlies and Implicit Bias is reposted below.

If you ask elementary school teachers to explain their everyday duties to the uninitiated, you will get a fairly long list of responsibilities residing outside the realm of reading, writing and arithmetic. There exists an unwritten—yet expected—job description that simultaneously demands we assume the role of parent, social worker and medical provider.
One example: Many teachers are accustomed to putting on plastic gloves and maneuvering pencil erasers to check small heads for nits (louse eggs) and head lice. It is an “Eek!”-inducing affair that causes most of us to scratch at imaginary bugs for hours afterward. Yet, we brave the creepy crawlies in the best interest of the child. If we find nits, a letter is sent home informing the parents and providing instructions for how to get rid of them. If active lice are found amongst the hair follicles, the school nurse takes over and the child is sent home for treatment.
The cycle of screening and treatment usually continues for several weeks as the critters enjoy the hospitality of their young hosts and outbreaks remain a daily occurrence. The added concern of bedbugs permeates our diligent search for tiny insects.
It is no surprise, then, that this becomes a topic of discussion amongst teachers. It freaks us out. It makes us uncomfortable. It also provides a showcase for some of our implicit biases when we try to figure out how it all began.
Implicit bias, as described by Zaretta Hammond in “Is Implicit Bias Racist?,” are “the unconscious attitudes and beliefs that shape our behavior toward someone perceived as inferior or as a threatening outsider.” Teachers operate within unquestioned assumptions every day. We all do. In cases of lice and bedbugs, I started to notice how we perceived some students as “more likely” to introduce them into the classroom environment based on things like socio-economic status. In one instance, everyone figured it was the boy whose illiterate parents lived with him in a shelter, but we were surprised to learn that, no, it was the boy with educated parents living in a middle-class home. Digging deeper, I began to notice how these assumptions trickled down into other aspects of the day, from who got hugs to speculations about which parents read with their children.
Hammond offers tips to bring implicit bias to consciousness. These begin with checking our assumptions and looking for patterns of inequality, which have relevance in terms of lice. Our biases can influence our behavior in subtle ways, yet children perceive our unspoken attitudes even if we are not quite clear about them ourselves.
Thankfully, we can test ourselves for hidden biases surrounding stereotypes and prejudices. A little self-knowledge coupled with a smidge of education about the actual repercussions of nits, lice and bedbugs can help assuage potentially hurtful interactions stemming from unintended discrimination.
After doing a check for critters, if I find any, I always initiate a class discussion to gauge reaction and promote understanding. These talks not only help the students but also serve to reinforce an empathic, educated response from any adults in the room.
Next, a read aloud of David Shannon’s book Bugs in My Hair! allows us to approach the topic with humor. Never underestimate the value of an amusing illustration or characters whose over-the-top reactions allow readers to laugh and learn simultaneously.
Finally, we share some facts:
  • Anyone is susceptible.
  • Lice are annoying but ultimately harmless.
  • If an outbreak occurs, keep long hair pulled back, refrain from daily washing (lice do not like dirty hair or hair with product in it).
  • Treatment can be found with over-the-counter delousing shampoos and nit combs.
  • Wash clothing and bedding in hot water, vacuum rugs and place what you cannot wash or vacuum in plastic bags for two weeks to kill lice.
Most of all, lice are not a commentary on cleanliness, education or socio-economic status. They are simply a result of close interactions amongst children and an unfortunate reality in elementary school classrooms. We may not be able to change that, but we can certainly change how we respond.


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