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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