Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane

First graders learning naughty from nice with Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane

I used to love rainy days when I was growing up. Those dark, comfortable afternoons brought a fresh, earthy scent wafting on the breeze through our open windows. I couldn't go outside to play with my brothers and sister so we would happily occupy ourselves inside with board games, coloring books, toy cars and our imaginations. Eventually, I'd slip away to find some blissfully snug spot and read.

Those comforting memories often revisit me today when I'm in my classroom with the rain tap-tap-tapping on the playground outside our window. That long ago feeling of cherished togetherness and safety returns to envelop me and my first graders.

It was one of those stormy, relaxed days when we metaphorically curled up with Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane's latest book Naughty Mabel Sees It All.

What could be better on a rainy day than welcoming these visiting authors into our peaceful space to share the latest antics of their darling, Mabel?

The children introduce themselves to Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane

Tony Award nominated producer - and charmer - Devlin Elliott is a returning guest to Broadway Books First Class. He visited during the first year of the program and happily accepted my invitation to come back a second time. This time he brought Tony and Emmy Award Winner Nathan Lane.

Nathan famously voiced Timon, the meerkat, in Disney's animated blockbuster The Lion King. That tidbit was not lost on my excited first graders who relished the thought of meeting the man behind Timon. We sang and signed our hearts out to "Hakuna Matata" and "Circle of Life" in preparation for our guests. In fact, we did quite a lot to prepare for our visit.  We learned about Nathan's job as a stage and film actor. We came up with a list of questions about the role of a producer, how actors and producers work together and about favorite roles and memories.

Devlin and Nathan did some preparation too. In addition to carving out the time in their busy schedules, they also generously offered to provide each child in the class with his or her very own copy of their book!

After introductions, conducted strictly in American Sign Language, we focused our attention on an energetic French bulldog named Mabel, whose ocular mishaps lead to a visit to an "optimist, an optopotamus, an op-tha-mo-lo-gist...Oh, you know, the eye doctor".

Nathan Lane masterfully read the book, stopping periodically for children's questions or simply to laugh amusedly at their quirky commentary. Devlin encouraged playful interaction during the reading to allow for close inspection of Dan Krall's illustrations. Also, never underestimate the humor inherent in a character passing gas (sound effects - as Devlin and Nathan know - only elevate the hilarity).

Devlin Elliott and Nathan Lane reading Naughty Mabel Sees It All with ASL interpreter  Lynnette Taylor

Naughty Mabel Sees It All is a children's book, yes, but like the best children's entertainment it is also chock full of references to keep the adults interested. I ask you, how many children's books hilariously reference Bette Davis as a wide-eyed, slightly off-her-rocker Baby Jane Hudson?

A very lively round of questions and answers followed the reading. We learned that producers generally do not really have much direct interaction with performers, except perhaps on opening night if the show goes well.

Nathan shared that of the many plays and musicals he's performed on Broadway his favorite tends to be whatever he is doing at the moment. He explained that he is currently performing in The Front Page and quipped, "It's about the newspaper business, which I'm sure you'll be fascinated by" (decidedly not a show for children). His "for young audiences" description of his character in the show, Walter Burns, who is a "ruthless, not-so-very-nice man" had the adults chuckling. He went on to explain that he likes to play the "mean guy" because they are always the most interesting and "do not see themselves as mean because they think they have a good reason for what they do".

Devlin taught us about a producer's job in a nutshell; "Find the show, raise the money and know when to close".  Also that having passion for a project is satisfying and fulfilling. He is currently producing an innovative show called White Rabbit Red Rabbit.

Students enjoy reading their signed copies of Naughty Mabel Sees It All.
Thank you Nathan and Devlin for your generous contribution!

We concluded the visit with gifts. Devlin and Nathan signed copies of Naughty Mabel Sees It All for each child before biding us adieu. And that brings us back full circle to the purpose of their visit in the first place, which is to celebrate literacy and the Arts and to encourage more children to enjoy a good book on a stormy day.  I couldn't be more grateful!

Please Darlings, keep an eye out for Naughty Mabel on Nickelodeon soon!

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Bryce Pinkham

For a time we were all gentleman in top hats thanks to our charismatic
  ringleader, Tony Award Nominee Bryce Pinkham
The performers who find their way to Broadway Books First Class are an exceptional lot. That should come as no surprise. It is a special someone who readily spends an afternoon with a group of young children to share a story and make them feel important.

Bryce Pinkham, who kicked off the second year of my little program celebrating literacy and the arts in New York City, certainly has a gracious spirit and a generous heart.

For anyone lucky enough to see Bryce in A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, or even catch his performance on the Tony Awards, his humor and talent are evident. It was those qualities, coupled with his penchant for community service that sent Bryce to the top of my visitor dream list.

Bryce is cofounder of an outreach program called Zara Aina (Share Life!).  Zara Aina is "an organization that provides under-privileged students in Madagascar with school supplies and instills self-confidence through the art of theater".  Their mission aligns with the vision of Broadway Books First Class, so I hoped Bryce would accept the invitation I sent to the stage door of the Walter Kerr Theater last November.

In true gentlemanly fashion Bryce responded with a handwritten note stating, "I would love to come join you guys at Broadway Books First Class after Gentleman's Guide closes".

A first grade student introduces herself to a joyful, attentive Bryce Pinkham.  

And so he did!

I prepared the students beforehand by showing them pictures of Bryce and discussing some of the roles he's played on Broadway. His youngest fans were very intrigued by the escapades of his Gentleman's Guide character Monty Navarro as well as his energetic performance in his current show, Holiday Inn (the show runs through the middle of January 2017).

We also came up with a list of questions to ask him about his life growing up and his passion for theater and helping others. We rehearsed our introductions and made top hats in his honor (as an homage to his gentlemanly inclinations). When he arrived we gifted him with his own collapsable top hat, which he graciously wore throughout the visit. What a guy!

Bryce Pinkham reading Be A Friend with ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

Bryce read Be A Friend by Salina Yoon. It is a sweet story of a self-proclaimed "Mime Boy" named Dennis who expresses himself in extraordinary ways. His path is a lonely one until he eventually finds a friend who shares the gift of imagination. Together they teach others that the world is more than what we see. It is also what we can create. We can generate endless possibilities if we can only imagine.

Bryce, a storyteller himself with a vast imagination, sprinkled his reading with exercises designed to engage his young audience. He showed them how to "climb a ladder" and "walk down the street" like Dennis.  A little girl shouted as he walked effortlessly in place but seemingly forward, "That's cool! It looks like the carpet is moving!" And it did!

Throughout the reading the children giggled, gasped, interjected, observed, commented and asked thoughtful questions. They made connections, shared their experiences and knowledge and traveled with Bryce through each page. The energy and joy in his interactions with the children were palpable.

Afterwards, Bryce taught them a mirror exercise, which has become a popular activity ever since. He explained that it requires, "Concentration, listening and team work. Three things you have to have if you want to be on Broadway. Concentration, the ability to listen and the ability to be a team player".  It's also a recipe for success in first grade.  

Bryce teaches the students some mime and theater exercises

After the reading we asked Bryce some questions beginning with, "Is it cool to be in Broadway shows and why?"

His response,
YES!  It is so cool. Every night I get to do what I love. I get to sing. I get to perform and I get to make people laugh. So, performing on Broadway - for me - is me following my dream. When I was your age I wanted to be on Broadway. So every night I go out there I'm very grateful. But it is also really cool because I get a chance to come meet tons of different types of people, like you guys. I would never be here if I hadn't been on Broadway.
They also asked him about Zara Aina and he gave his account of arriving in Madagascar to meet a group of children like them.  He explained how they communicated through gesture and the language of laughter. And our children seized upon the opportunity to teach Bryce some American Sign Language.

Bryce signed a book for each child with the optimistic idiom - Pigs Can Fly 

Our time with Bryce was coming to a close so we presented him with one final gift, a copy of Be A Friend signed by every student. Bryce returned the favor by tirelessly signing copies for all of us.

As he gathered up his things the children surrounded him. They asked for one more exercise, "Can you lift something heavy?" He obliged by teaching them how.

This is how you lift something heavy over your head.

All good things must come to an end. Bryce made his final goodbyes and after many hugs from the children we made our way down to the lobby. While we walked he wondered aloud how he could do more for the kids and how he could provide more support for Broadway Books First Class.

And my mind wandered back to the book.  Only this time I saw it a little differently...

"Bryce was an ordinary man who expressed himself in EXTRAORDINARY ways."

A Thank You card for Bryce Pinkham - "LOVE HIM"

Monday, October 31, 2016

"Ichabod's Head"

So much drama in one picture!
My former team teacher, Oni, visited recently to share one of our favorite Halloween stories with my current crop of first graders.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a riveting story.  It never fails to get the little ones deliciously frightened and humerously freaked out.

The suspense builds until the midnight ride across the bridge near the graveyard on the moonlit night.  The shadow of a figure behind Ichabod's broken-down horse, the intensity with which Ichabod strives to reach safety, the hooves clomping closer and closer until Ichabod turns to witness the horse rear up behind him and upon it...THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN!

A mad dash but it is too late!  In a swift motion the Headless Horseman catapults his pumpkin head toward a terrified Ichabod. An owl hoots.  The wind blows. The church bells ring.  Then, silence.

Notice the labels..."No Head" (very helpful)

In the aftermath the townsfolk are left with a mystery.  What happened to Ichabod?  All that remains is a shattered, smashed pumpkin at the foot of the bridge.

And if anyone knows the true story...they aren't telling (Yes, we are looking at you Brom!).

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Broadway Books Upper Class with Gregory Jbara

Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara and theater students from BCS448
I had an opportunity to hang with the big kids last week courtesy of Broadway Books Upper Class. This program extends the reach of Broadway Books First Class into the upper grades and kicked off its inaugural session with Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara. It seemed only fitting that he would be our initial guest because I credit him with lighting the fuse on our little rocket in the first place.

Broadway Books Upper Class started when Kori Rushton, a drama teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative and the Artistic Director of IRT Theater in Greenwich Village, approached me about expanding and adapting my guest artist series for older students. This new incarnation replaces the children's book read aloud with a series of in-depth questions about the life and loves of a theater professional. Guest artists are also invited to perform a monologue, song or scene for - or with - the students.

Gregory Jbara accepted the invitation to perform by bringing along a script from his long-running CBS hit Blue Bloods. He read a scene between his character, Garret Moore, and the New York Police Commissioner played by Tom Selleck with a delighted student.

Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara reads a scene from Blue Bloods with a BCS drama student
As the scene unfolded I glanced around the room to take in the faces of this rapt audience. It was very interesting to view these high school students through my first grade teacher lens. I generally dwell in the 6-year-old mindset so it intrigued me to project the fresh, open personalities of my students forward into the angsty teenage years.

There was one young man who could not contain his excitement for Greg's visit or his sincere interest in theater. He was charming in his gratitude for this high profile visitor and expressed this in his words and demeanor.

Then, seated next to me there was a student trying hard not to appear engaged. He sat slouched with his hoodie pulled over his head and his chin resting on his fist. He appeared to be the high school student who is a bit too cool for all of this. Only his eyes gave him away. He watched and listened intently throughout the visit. He may have even smiled.

Next, there were the two students who seemed to really like each another. Perhaps they were dating.  They caught one another's eye throughout Greg's talk and there was an obvious connection between them. Their quiet smiles and meaningful looks gave an indication of shared expereince and I just knew they would be talking about this visit later.

And there was the confident student who had it all together. She appeared to be the respected leader of the class. Their voice. She kept things on track and ushered us into the Q&A portion of the morning.

Gregory Jbara answering questions in a blackbox theater room
The students attentively listened to Gregory Jbara as he responded to their thoughtfully prepared questions.
  • Has a moment of weakness ever affected your life?
  • Who was your first heartbreak?
  • When did you go though a big change in your life? What was the before and after?
  • What persuaded you to become an actor?
  • What was your favorite show you ever performed in?
  • Have you ever experienced any discrimination when auditioning for a role?
They asked 22 questions in all. With each answer we were treated to the inside scoop of the Broadway rehearsal process (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), the Tony Awards (Billy Elliott the Musical), the audition process (Victor/Victoria, Chicago), how a performer balances life and work (the challenges of saying, "No"), how decisions are weighed and made by a professional actor and what inspires someone to live a life upon the wicked stage.

We had our own little private Inside the Actors Studio conversation and it was riveting. I saw how adapting my Broadway Books series for older students allowed for deep conversations that wouldn't fly in first grade. This extension felt like the perfect compliment to BBFC.

The drama students are now going to create a monologue (or theater piece) to perform inspired by the answers Greg gave to their questions.

There are many take-aways from an experience like this and those lasting impressions depend on the individual. For me, what sticks is when Greg talked about positivity. He described himself as a positive person with childhood memories of being loved and supported. It speaks to me because I relate to it in a personal way.

My experiences and outlook mirror those he described. I believe Greg's upbringing allows him to be a man who can now extend himself to others by giving back to the community in ways such as Broadway Books First Class. And with that in mind, it pushes me further in trying to create a safe, loving environment for the students in my class, so they can become adults who pay it forward like Gregory Jbara.

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!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Oneika Phillips

Sharing stories and feeling brave with Broadway dancer Oneika Phillips

Year One of Broadway Books First Class came to a close with a Whoosh!, a wave and a wee bit of wisdom courtesy of Broadway dancer Oneika Phillips.

This year my students met actors, singers, dancers, directors, producers, playwrights, choreographers and a drag legend. They explored the creative process of theater from audition to performance with lessons in teamwork, tenacity and a celebration of an individual's unique talents and gifts.

They learned firsthand how the child they are now sets the stage for the adult they will become.  Each boy and girl was shown that they have value through the generous embrace of the professional theater community in New York City.  It was a brilliant outpouring of love wrapped neatly around lessons involving the importance of books and the power of words.

Gregory Jbara (our first visitor) and Oneika Phillips (our last) were perfect book ends. Greg expressed how a lifelong theatrical spark was ignited in him when he was a boy. He shared his reminisces of that exuberant feeling of first realizing that an audience was applauding him.

Oneika focused on the work that goes into maintaining a life on the stage and how grit and determination play a role in keeping your body, heart and spirit strong.

Her visit began with a...


Our classroom door swung open and we all turned towards our exuberant visitor.  Immediately a wave of love, energy and kindness came washing over everyone. Oneika is an undeniable force.

Prior to her visit we had spent months deciding on the perfect book to match her theme. We happily agreed upon Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark.  Oneika wanted to share her story of injury and recovery with the students to underscore the other side of performing. The importance of taking care of your body in order to do the things you love, which for her was dance.

Oneika Phillips as Anita in West Side Story

Oneika is an incredibly dynamic - and ridiculously flexible - dancer. One day in rehearsal she executed a dance move in which she basically kicked herself in the back of the head (can you imagine?). The incident ultimately lead to x-rays, surgery and physical therapy. She shared all of this with the children who, in turn, regaled her with stories of their own brushes with illness and injury. I learned a lot about the children that day.

We kept circling back to the morale of the book, which resonated with the students.
Just because you're afraid doesn't mean you aren't brave.  
Being brave means doing what you have to do, no matter how scared you feel.
Oneika's work ethic also extended into her preparation for her visit. She attended classes in American Sign Language so she could converse with the students in their first language. She happily engaged with them in ASL for introductions and allowed the students to guide the expansion of her vocabulary throughout the afternoon. Her dedication - and signing skills - were impressive!

Oneika Phillips and ASL interpreter Mary Grace Gallagher

As always, the students had some questions for our guest. We learned that her favorite Broadway experience was with the show Fela! because she was proud to bring African dance and culture to Broadway and that she loves to dance because it makes her heart happy. Dancing is joy shared with an audience.

Oneika then turned the tables and asked the kids some questions, like "What do you enjoy doing?"  Their replies included reading, playing basketball, dancing, jumping, playing, eating, climbing on stuff, math, gymnastics, dancing on poles, playing with younger siblings and fishing.  I must admit, the dancing on poles response got me curious but we didn't pursue it.

Our time together quickly drew to an end with gifts and hugs.

We gave Oneika a copy of Franklin Goes to the Hospital signed by the class and she signed copies of the book for each student (books courtesy of the "47" Alumni Association of the Deaf).

As we said goodbye I was struck once again by the willingness of folks in the professional theater community to give their time, energy and heart to a small group of first graders.

It is an outstanding testament to the character of those in the Broadway community and a wonderful promise of continuing success for the program.

Thank you Oneika and all of our Year One visitors!

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.


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