Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Julianne Moore

First Graders embracing what makes them unique with Julianne Moore

Julianne Moore is a wildly successful actress, well known and well respected - she won an Academy Award! - for tackling the complicated inner lives of ordinary (and extraordinary) women in a way that allows audiences to understand and empathize with them.

She also writes children's books.

Her work as an author for the elementary school set is distinguished by the same standard of quality she brings to performing.

The Freckleface Strawberry book series showcases her uncanny knack for capturing the everyday experiences and exuberant drama inherent in the life of a seven-year-old.

So, it was an incredible honor to welcome her into my first grade classroom to read those stories and discuss the writing process with my fledgling authors. Julianne joyfully interacted with the children in American Sign Language (ASL) - yes, she signs! - and happily encouraged their participation throughout the visit.

Freckleface Strawberry is a "story about a little girl who is different...just like everybody else".

It was inspired by Julianne's childhood experiences when her red hair and freckles caused some angst and earned her the nickname Freckleface Strawberry. However, as adults, we realize that our troublesome childhood problems don't seem to bother us so much anymore. The eponymous picture book is a story of coming to accept - and eventually celebrate - the things about ourselves that are unique.

Freckleface Strawberry sends the message that rather than losing sleep worrying about conforming or fitting in or wanting desperately to adhere to the perception of "normal" that children instead embrace you-ness. Of course, that is easier said than done and that's why it is up to those of us who know better to provide example upon example of the tenets of acceptance, love, tolerance and forgiveness of others...and ourselves.

A student introduces himself to Julianne Moore in American Sign Language

That message made me wonder about how it plays out in the everyday lives of my students. As Children of Deaf Adults (CODAs) how do they feel about having deaf parents in a hearing-centric society? Do they see the benefits of being bilingual? Is any of this even an issue?

To understand my current students better I enlisted the help of three former kindergarten/first grade students; Kinda, Michael and Lana. My little babies - I taught Michael for four years beginning when he was just 3-years-old in preschool - are now all grown up and attending college. I wrote each of them asking how they felt growing up as a CODA. Their responses were insightful and they all reflected that their reactions were situational (i.e., based on the community around them).
Being a CODA as a child, created very different perspectives for me at the time. When it was school related, I was always embracing the fact that my classmates and I knew American Sign Language because we were able to make the silliest jokes from across the room if we weren't able to speak at the time. However outside of school, I mostly had the attitude every kid had whenever parents wanted us to do something for them.  In my case - and as well as other CODAs I'm sure - whenever my parents needed an interpreter, I was always the one to do it. It was always "Ugh why? I don't want to do it" or "Can't you postpone it?" At the time these appointments they needed me to help translate seemed so long and tiring. I nearly always complained. My feelings being a child of a deaf adult(s) really depended on the situation. 
When I was younger, I never wished my parents weren't deaf, I was amongst other CODAs and so I didn't feel different, we all have had the same experiences with our parents. As I was transitioning from middle school to high school and I was in a whole new different environment and they would have parent teacher conferences or anything that involved the parents I was shy and always excluded my mother...sometimes teachers would ask, how come your parent doesn't come to your (dance) performances?
And like Freckleface Strawberry there is a "happily ever after" when our differences are woven into the fabric of who we are and the person we become...
Growing up, I learnt that being a CODA is something I'd never change. Having deaf parents has been a learning experience.  It gave me a sense of identity in this world. I love the community I am a part of and I love what the culture has brought into my life.
I love being a CODA and I'm so grateful to be blessed with deaf parents.
So we teach. We teach in the classroom. We teach by example in our daily lives. We teach through writing. We teach by being role models. And we teach by sharing our own experiences with a willingness to be vulnerable, honest and open.

Julianne Moore reading Freckleface Strawberry beside ASL interpreter Lynnette Taylor

The Freckleface Strawberry books as crafted by Julianne Moore are chock full of those moments wherein potential roadblocks for children coping with being "different" are met head on. For example, in Backpacks! the character Windy Pants Patrick is seen eating breakfast with his two moms in direct juxtaposition with Freckleface Strawberry and her (more traditional) family. On the next page the children set off to school with a big kiss from their respective parents. The focus is, rightly, on family and love and for many children with two moms or two dads it allows them to see themselves in the pages of the books they read. The effects of that are immeasurable. Brava Julianne!

Each child is different...just like everybody else.

In our first grade literacy curriculum we spend time immersed in series books. We study and write books with the same characters (e.g. Curious George) who engage in different adventures across several titles. The Freckleface Strawberry books, with their relatable characters and storylines, are a perfect fit and every first grade teacher should have them in his or her arsenal of high-quality children's books to pull out again and again, year after year to help meet the objectives surrounding the teaching and learning of series books.

It also helps when you have a guest author like Julianne Moore answering questions about the writing process. The children asked, "Do you like your books and do you ever make mistakes?"

Questions and answers with Julianne Moore

She explained that she likes stories about real people and that inclination has influenced both her choice of roles and her writing. And yes, she told them, "I make a lot of mistakes. Oh, yes! Especially when I am first writing...I read it and think, 'That's bad. I don't like it. I need to do it again.' And so I write it again and again and again until I am happy with it. You have to practice."


In an instant the faces of the little ones showed amazement and relief. It's difficult sometimes for first graders to untangle the mess that is the creative process involved with writing stories. They shared that they sometimes have trouble thinking of ideas and - God love her - Julianne expressed the importance of concentrating and focusing on your work. "But, it still should be fun because the stories can be about anything. They can be about you, about things you like to do, things you imagine. Anything you want...anything you want."

That right there is some great advice.

Julianne Moore donated signed copies of Loose Tooth! for ever child in First Grade

As an added surprise Julianne gave out copies of her chapter book Freckleface Strawberry Loose Tooth!, which she brought in for all the children. The chapter books in the Freckleface Strawberry series are perfect for beginning readers who can tackle them on their own by applying their newfound reading strategies. As the children read I kept hearing, "Just like us!" because the characters engage in activities that are similar to their own experiences. Relatable = motivation to read = better readers.

After more than an hour together we all hugged Julianne goodbye but she had one last surprise up her sleeve.

Shortly after her visit I received copies of all of the Freckleface Strawberry books signed, "To Gary and his class. Love, Julianne Moore"  How amazing is that?

As a child I was a bit of a nerdy bookworm (just ask my brothers who teased me with the expression, "Reading is fun for mentals") but, like Freckleface Strawberry, I have come to embrace that aspect of myself and celebrate that I am different...just like everybody else.

Thursday, June 1, 2017


Sketching young Heracles with the pelt of the Nemean Lion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Something quietly blossomed this afternoon and it was beautiful - my first graders became a family.

I've noticed this week that the seeds of cooperation, respect, kindness and "oneness" started bearing fruit. One by one and then seemingly all at once this amazing group of children started to move away from their little egocentric tendencies and operate as a unit.

It was evident during reading workshop yesterday when they were scattered around the room quietly reading. A palpable sense of determination and collective joy hung in the air.

Each child applauded the achievements of his or her classmates whose reading assessments indicated they had moved up a level. There were discussions about books. Incredible insights into the author's message being shared on strips of paper and placed into books. Children recommending titles to one another. A sense of purpose prevailed.

These interactions appear to be the cumulation of our time together, which includes lessons in being mindful and taking mind breaks 3 times a day to center our thoughts.

But today we took a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see sculptures of the Greek heroes we've been studying and the kids impressed the shit out of me.

Sketching Andromeda and the Sea Monster

I think they impressed everyone around us too.

As we gathered around a statue of Andromeda I asked them several questions such as, "Why is she looking up?" and "How is this artist's depiction different from the one you had visualized?  How is it the same?" Their answers prompted onlookers to ask disbelievingly, "How old are these students? What grade is this?" They carried themselves like college students on a museum trip.

Then they sat down to sketch and became fully immersed in the activity. So much so that I was ready to move on long before they were.

On the sidelines two artists sat sketching. Their drawings were not only of the artwork but included my little masterpieces as well. They kindly agreed to share their work with the students and offered tips on how to utilize the paper to maximize the drawing space.

Two kind artists share their sketches
Later, they sat on the ground with a group of children who had questions or who were becoming frustrated with their artistic skills. Role models are everywhere if you keep your eyes open. New York City is a wonderful teacher.

Next, we moved slightly to the left to study Perseus with the head of Medusa. If a bare-breasted Andromeda was cause for giggles and fascination, a naked Perseus seemed even more so.

But that quieted as they set to sketch. We had discussed nudity in art prior to the visit so establishing an openness and artistic viewpoint on the human body beforehand helped minimize - somewhat - the gasps, stares and pointing.

Sketching Perseus with the head of Medusa

However, they captured it all in their sketches.

A child's sketch of an older Heracles cloaked in the skin of the Nemean Lion

We ended the trip with a visit to the rooftop for some very interesting art and an exquisite view of the Manhattan skyline.

Adrián Villar Rojas, The Theater of Disappearance
What a day! The little ones are growing up and I feel like my mom when she says, "I wish I could keep you kids little forever". It always seems like just when things start running smoothly and a class becomes everything a teacher could wish for, they move on.

Still, I have them until June 28 so I'll be practicing mindful appreciation until I have to say farewell.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Children's Books: The Fall/Winter Preview from Little, Brown and Company

Last month I had the thrilling opportunity to attend the Fall/Winter preview of upcoming Books for Young Readers at the offices of Little, Brown and Company. The invitation was extended because of my work with Broadway Books First Class but the event is generally held for school librarians.

I was so excited to step into the halls of this publishing company and spend time discussing new books with the editors. On top of that (as if this weren't enough) they had a table set up with copies of each book, free and available for the taking.


I had stepped into children's book heaven and could barely contain my happiness. And happiness is meant to be shared, so here are some of the books previewed that afternoon. I selected a few of them for Broadway Books First Class so they will pop up again in the coming school year.

Hey Black Child is based on a poem by Useni Eugene Perkins and illustrated by six-time Coretta Scott King Award winner and four-time Caldecott Honor recipient Bryan Collier. "This lyrical, empowering poem celebrates black children and seeks to inspire all young people to dream big and achieve their goals." Bryan Collier brings this classic, inspirational poem to life with his colorful illustrations that depict the roots and history of African americans. Available 11/14/2017

Malala's Magic Pencil is the first picture book written by Nobel Peace Prize winner and New York Times bestselling author Malala Yousafzai. The story is inspired by her childhood in Pakistan where she wished for a magic pencil to change the world around her.  As she grew the wishes changed with the conflicted world. "Her right to attend school was threatened - just because she's a girl. Instead of a magic pencil, Malala now picked up a real one.  She wrote alone in her room about the challenges she faces, but people from all over read her words.  And her wishes started to come true." Available 10/17/2017

The Bad Mood and the Stick comes from New York Times bestselling author Lemony Snicket. "It is a witty, deadpan tale of the mysterious and unexpected ways that bad moods move through the world." Available 10/03/2017

Brave by Stacy McAnulty with illustrations by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff is about the unique challenges, fears and pressures every kid faces and how each child can meet them with a courageous heart. Available 10/03/2017

Read the Book, Lemmings! is from the New York Times bestselling team behind Wolfie the Bunny. It is a hilarious and fresh story about the importance of learning to actually read the facts. I am a big fan of Zachariah OHora because his artwork reminds me of Curious George illustrator H. A. Rey. Available 11/07/2017

All in all I left there with about 11 children's books and 12 young adult titles. I didn't want to be so greedy but the editors encouraged it. They even provided us with a handy-dandy tote bag. I brought these books along to my course on Children's Literature that I teach at Fordham University. So, that along with this post and the inclusion of several titles for Broadway Books First Class constitutes a bit of paying it forward.

Other titles to check out include; Bear and Chicken by Jannie Ho, Love the World by Todd Parr, The Littlest Train by Chris Gall, Baby Bear's Book of Tiny Tales by David McPhail, The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC's (the Hard Way) by Patrick McDonnell, Rory the Dinosaur Needs a Christmas Tree by Liz Climo and Sweet Pea & Friends: A Farm For Maisie by John and Jennifer Churchman.

Also, the young adult novel The Magic Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Treshelle Edmond

Being silly and having fun in First Grade with guest artist Treshelle Edmond

Broadway Books First Class was designed to celebrate the Arts and promote literacy.  Literacy development, as in learning to read, is a complex business. It is also the business of each and every child in first grade. 

Lifting words off the page and making meaning - or comprehending - the author's message requires the coming together of many strands involved in the reading process including letter recognition, letter/sound connections (phonics), sight word recognition, vocabulary development, print concepts, language structures, background knowledge, the alphabetic principle and inferencing skills. It is the interplay of those competencies that allow for fluent, skilled reading to emerge. 

Children navigate through this process in a predictable manner. Teachers assess the steps along the way by listening to the child read aloud - word by word - and providing support to scaffold development. 

Imagine now that another element has been thrown into this already full mix. Imagine now that you are a child who communicates in American Sign Language (ASL) and, in order to make meaning from the words and sentences on the page, you must take an additional step by translating written English into ASL.  

Suddenly, phrases a child might read aloud such as, "The sun comes up on the water. It is shining on the lake" require more than a word-for-word verbalization. To demonstrate understanding of this passage a child who is deaf or hard of hearing must show the concepts of the sun rising and shining on the lake in ASL. That added step dwells in the territory of the very skilled reader.  

So, it is thrilling when our guest artists are the embodiment of this and can demonstrate how to lift words off the page and make meaning using ASL. One such role model is Treshelle Edmond, who masterfully read Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen.

Treshelle Edmond reads Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen in ASL

Treshelle's reading highlighted the work of an artist as well as that of a teacher. She utilized a projected image of the book while sometimes referring directly to a hard copy of the text. She thoughtfully embodied the strong-willed protagonist, Sassy, showing how Sassy worked to achieve her dreams.

With each page the children, who started out in a large circle, crept closer and closer to Treshelle as if pulled by an invisible force.  Therein lies the power of storytelling!

At points Treshelle put the reading on hold to lead the little ones in a dance exercise to bring the elements of the story into their bodies. It is a technique which takes advantage of the total physical response method used in teaching second language learners and aids in keeping young minds focused.  

Treshelle Edmond leading us in a "Sassy" inspired warm-up

Treshelle's exquisite storytelling was also on display in her Broadway debut as Martha Bessel in Deaf West's Tony Award Nominated musical revival of Spring Awakening. She can break your heart or make you laugh and for one afternoon in elementary school our first graders went along for the journey.  

She also spoke with the children about her experiences on the TV shows Glee, House and The Fresh Beat Band and signing the National Anthem at Super Bowl 2015 with John Legend and Idina Menzel.  The kids were curious to know if she signed in every show and her answer was, "Yes and no" explaining that it depends on the character.  Does the role depend upon visual storytelling or require voice?

It was good for us to discuss the value of both languages and highlight the differences between ASL and English.  An ongoing goal in class is to help the students recognize the value of both languages and understand the differences between them.

We had a touching moment when one student commented to Treshelle that being deaf was her gift. We all understood that.

And speaking of gifts...we gave her a copy of the Dancing in the Wings signed by all of the children.

Our "show of gratitude" to Treshelle Edmond

Before she departed Treshelle was kind enough to autograph books for each child.  The funding for books this visit was pieced together from donations from parents, our student teacher and masterful interpreter for Treshelle's visit Cathy Markland and yours truly.

Thank you Treshelle for making it safe for all of us to dream!

Each child received a copy of Dancing in the Wings signed by Treshelle

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Mary Testa

First grade faced The Darkest Dark and took a rocket to the moon with
Tony nominee Mary Testa

The dreams of childhood quietly nestle within the protective care of possibility. With youth comes the optimistic projection that the future is "a blank page or canvas" awaiting our direction.

What is your dream?

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

These are questions adults ask little ones while encouraging them to open their hearts and imaginations to what lies ahead.

Dreams - and the quest to achieve them - were the theme of our Broadway Books First Class visit from two-time Tony Award nominee Mary Testa. Mary represents the successful manifestation of the Broadway dream beginning with her debut on The Great White Way in 1982 in the musical Barnum. That was followed by Tony Award nominated roles in On the Town and 42nd Street, in addition to parts in beloved musicals Wicked, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Chicago.

However, the first time I remember seeing her perform was as the fiery muse - and daughter of Zeus - Melpomene in Xanadu! She was intense and funny and I was drawn to her boundless energy and a little frightened by its manic unpredictability. Then, years later, I watched her quiet, heartbreaking portrayal of Barbara Bush in First Daughter Suite at the Public Theater.

Those performances demonstrated that she was equally adept with both animated hijinks and sustained compassion, so when she stepped into my classroom to meet the children I knew they were in good hands.

Students introduce themselves to Mary Testa in American Sign Language

It turns out Mary knows some American Sign Language (ASL) and even has a name sign given to her by Tony Award winner Phyllis Frelich (Children of a Lesser God)!

After introductions, Mary led the children into The Darkest Dark written by Astronaut Chris Hadfield and illustrated by The Fan Brothers. The book recounts Chris' childhood in the 60s where his desire to explore the universe had a hitch - he was afraid of the dark. This changed one night in 1969 when he gathered around the TV with a crowd of adults and children to witness intrepid astronauts landing on the moon. That night Chris realized that you are never really alone in the darkness (in a good way).

"Your dreams are always with you, just waiting. Big dreams, about the kind of person you want to be. Wonderful dreams about the life you will live. Dreams that actually come true."

Mary Testa reading The Darkest Dark alongside ASL interpreter Rachel Grudberg

Facing challenges and overcoming fears is a step on the path to achieving our dreams. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, the hero's journey is never easy but it is always worthwhile. And we are all certainly the hero of our own story - or dream - aren't we?

During the question and answer period Mary's determination, joy and empathy were on full display. When asked to share one of her favorite theatrical memories she related the story of meeting a boy after a performance of 42nd Street. He had come to see the show as a brief respite from the pain and exhaustion surrounding the illness of his father and thanked Mary for giving him those precious hours of happiness.

He returned a few months later with his mother after his dad had passed to thank Mary and the cast for giving them some happiness during a difficult time. As she spoke, Mary began to cry and the children commented on it, asking why? In that moment she helped them understand the power of theater and the heart of an artist.

...And made my dreams for Broadway Books First Class come true, which is to set the stage for my students to become smart, caring adults who appreciate literature and the Arts. I want my students to emulate Mary Testa. She is a beautiful role model.

Mary Testa autographing books while a student fingerspells his name

Mary shared more stories and thoughtfully answered more questions about her favorite performance (in Queen of the Mist, which was written for her by Michael John LaChiusa) and most embarrassing moment on stage (going up on her lines in 42nd Street when her sister was in the audience).

Her stories stayed with the children, as did her lesson on the importance of collaboration in the theater and in school. Her words and lessons come up every so often in various ways but most recently in our poetry unit.

It has been a few weeks since her visit yet one little girl wrote a poem in Mary's honor.

Mary Testa
She does special shows in important roles
without her Broadway couldn't be
She is quite Mary/for her name that is
We put her to the test/She passes gratefully
Her name will be known
Mary Testa
Broadway Star

Mary's visit showed a group of first graders that dreams can come true and that when they do it is best to live in them with grace and gratitude. We all send a big hug of thanks to Mary Testa and look forward to seeing where her dreams lead next.

Thank you to Columbia University Teachers College for the grant allowing me to purchase books for each student

Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Let the seal do the work"

A personal renaissance has emerged lately, which has reignited my passion for language and linguistic development.

Once upon a time, I discovered American Sign Language (ASL) and it clicked for me. ASL changed my life and, at first, I pursued it through weekly classes, using work books and videotapes to immerse myself in this visual language until it literally crept into my dreams.

In those early days I'd practice fingerspelling everything I heard while watching TV to build dexterity and muscle memory. I'd seek out opportunities to sign even though I'd become flushed with embarrassment at my lack of skill in both receptive and expressive language.

I studied the linguistics of ASL, the structures of grammar that native users know intuitively but second language learners must be taught. And slowly, in the company of some incredible - and patient - role models I actually started to think in ASL (rather than first formulating a thought in English and then translating it).

All of this was to achieve my goal...
  • to be a good teacher 
  • to work with children who are Deaf and hard of hearing
  • to convey my message though ASL with clarity.

I never wanted to be an interpreter. I still don't. But, there are circumstances when I need to step in and interpret during the day. As it happens, this semester I have the great, good fortune of mentoring a student teacher with over 30 years experience as a sign language interpreter (including Broadway).

So, when opportunities come up that require me to interpret we've decided it would be nice to flip the script and let her take notes and supply feedback.

It has been transformative, thrilling and inspiring.

She is taking me to another level by fine-tuning my presentation and making me aware of things I never would have thought about on my own.

She has taught me a lot - e.g., imaginative uses of classifiers, new vocabulary, how to utilize wait time, etc. -  but my favorite note was, "Nice letting the 'seal do the work'".  Basically, this refers to allowing the child to see what is happening for themselves rather than trying to interpret it. She related a story about a trip to the Central Park Zoo where the children were watching a seal lounging in the sun and pointing out that rather than interpreting his movements it was smarter to simply let the children watch the seal. "Let the seal do the work" is applicable to a great many situations.

I love our discussions about what I am doing well and what I can improve.  One thing is clear to me, no matter how many degrees I get I will always enjoy being a student.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Another Broadway Books First Class Visit From Hollie Wright

Hollie E. Wright surrounded by the first grade Firebirds
There are times when saying, "Yes" opens us up to amazing grace and gratitude.

For me, that happened quite literally when I accepted an invitation from Nicole Duncan-Smith to accompany her to Amazing Grace on Broadway. It was a month before Broadway Books First Class premiered with Tony Award winner Gregory Jbara and we spent the day planning its debut.

Amazing Grace is a powerful show that delivers a one-two punch near the end. It left me an emotional mess - so much so that a woman seated several seats away offered me a Kleenex (or three) before the cast took their curtain calls.

Afterwards, I quietly pulled my sorry self together and slowly made my way out of the theater. It was then, on a hot night in early September outside the Nederlander Theatre, that I first met Hollie Wright. Nicole introduced us and the demands of actually speaking broke the walls of my constrained emotions.

I managed a friendly hello but quickly LOST IT while telling her how much I loved her show. Her response? She pulled me in for a hug while her nurturing voice whispered kindly, "Oh, honey".

That night Hollie held and comforted my aching spirit.

That night Hollie became the heart of Broadway Books First Class.

Her visits stand as a testament to my initial impression - she is a beautiful soul.

In my mind, Broadway Books First Class will forever remain synonymous with Hollie's kindness, her inclusiveness and her joy. I hope she remains a perpetual visitor who returns year after year.

The children introduce themselves, in ASL, to Hollie

This year she read Firebird by Misty Copeland. In the book, Misty Copeland tells the story of a young girl - an every girl - whose confidence is fragile and who is questioning her own ability to reach the heights that Misty has reached. Misty encourages this young girl's faith in herself and shows her exactly how, through hard work and dedication, she too can become Firebird".

Sitting on the floor surrounded by children (some wearing tutus or well-worn Capezios), Hollie made the story personal by sharing stories of her journey as a professional dancer on Broadway and as a teacher at The Alvin Ailey School of Dance.

Hollie Wright reading Misty Copeland's Firebird alongside ASL interpreter Kathleen Taylor

This led into the question and answer portion of the visit wherein the children lifted their last question up in one loud voice with hands raised in sign, "Can you teach us to dance?"

Dance class in First Grade with Broadway performer Hollie Wright 

Without missing a beat Hollie directed their young bodies into rows and began teaching them ballet. A shift had occurred. Suddenly, the oft-times frenetic energy of a first grade classroom reflected the disciplined, mirror-lined walls of a dance studio as Hollie led them through a series of ballet exercises. Each student raising a curved arm, stepping into fourth position and executing a straight-backed plié with quiet concentration. It was rather impressive.

A Thank You card to Hollie depicting our Firebird inspired dance class

Hollie also pulled back the curtain to show the children how a dancer keeps limber and in shape with  textured balls. She passed them around before demonstrating how she uses them to stretch or soothe aching muscles. She related it to building reading muscles and the taking time to develop new skills, which is a good lesson for impatient 6-year-olds.

Demonstrating how a dancer keeps in shape

Hollie then signed copies of Firebird for each child before departing to teach her class at The Ailey School.  Then, the children set about writing thank you cards.

Saying yes on that hot September night in 2015 altered the course of my fledgling program because I met the incredible Hollie Wright. Hollie brought the program to the attention of the talented Amazing Grace family and with one email she piqued the interest of Kim Weild, Oneika Phillips and Elizabeth Ward Land.

Kim Weild then brought on Alexandria Wales, Stockard Channing, Devlin Elliott, Nathan Lane, David Caudle, Anastasia Traina, Scott Cohen and, by extension, Jeremiah Maestas. She also spearheaded the Winter Workshop at PS347, the book How the I Becomes the We and its subsequent performance on The High Line.

It is interesting to witness how the ripples of a simple, "Yes" can create unforeseen momentum.

Thank you Hollie!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

"A Dangerous Book"

The image of the great, tall tailor stepping out of the shadows with shears in hand preparing to cut the thumbs off naughty, little Conrad is darkly intoxicating.

German cautionary tales, such as those represented in Struwwelpeter, provide a powerful commentary when viewed through a sociocultural lens.

Once upon a time children were not considered the precious little gems they are today.  In fact, the fairy tales collected and published by the Brothers Grimm were originally targeted for an adult audience.  The old stories kept things interesting back in the days when families and friends gathered around the hearth to entertain and pass the shadowy hours before retiring into slumber.

Hansel and Gretel 
The settings (an ominous forest), characters (mysterious witches) and storylines (struggles to feed and maintain a family) are familiar aspects of the most enduring stories (Hansel & Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood).

They were also reflective of the times.  The mortality rate for urban children under age five was as high as 66 percent in the late 1600s, it was not uncommon for women to die in childbirth, forests were dangerous and the majority of the population believed in - and feared - witches.

I've embarked upon an exploration of the history of these beloved childhood stories by Charles Perrault (Mother Goose), The Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy and others for a university course I am teaching on Children's Literature.

As I learn more about the beauty and horror in bedtime stories I am grateful I dwell in a professional landscape that allows for research rooted in theory and research based on practical implementation.

I became curious about how children today would react to the darkest of the dark.  They were already fascinated with The Legend of Sleepy Hollow so would they embrace The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb? Would it be too much?

If you are unfamiliar, check out this video.

I began by acting out the story embodying the great tall tailor who "always comes to little boys that suck their thumbs".  The children giggled and called for more.  That afternoon - and for many days since - they've reenacted the story on the playground.  They also silently ask to read the book during free time by holding up their thumbs and pretending to snip it off.  They even drew pictures.

The Story of Little Suck-A-Thumb

In the end, I suppose children today are undeterred by the warnings presented in Struwwelpeter to be "good at meal-times, good at play, good all night and good all day" or else a terrible fate awaits. thoughtful first grader did quietly comment as he handed the book back to me, "This is a dangerous book".


Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Elizabeth Ward Land

Glorious songbird Elizabeth Ward Land showers the children
with words, music and love

"Some combinations of words, miraculously, arouse intellectual curiosity, and that is the real magic performed by childhood books." 
Enchanted Hunters by Maria Tatar
Books, like theater, usher us into new experiences through the power of words.  Storytellers have been sharing ideas and imparting lessons from the fireside for generations.  Under the spell of those wondrous words children adventure outside their experience and become empathic observers.  In the long tradition of welcoming the troubadour's song Broadway Books First Class whisks children away to new lands and gently carries them home again.

The Bear and the Piano
That was the message from Broadway veteran Elizabeth Ward Land when she visited first grade this month.  She read The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield to a rapt audience of 6-and-7-year-old children.

It's a story of longing to "explore the world beyond" and the struggle to stay connected to your roots, your heart.

That is something our guest knows something about.  As an actress and singer Elizabeth has performed in many Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, National Tours and concerts.  Our paths first crossed during her run in City of Angels as I sat "out there in the dark" watching and listening.  They crossed again in The Scarlet Pimpernel (she was in all 3 Broadway versions and I saw every single one) and finally in Amazing Grace the Musical.

The children introduce themselves to Broadway's Elizabeth Ward Land

However, it wasn't until Broadway Director (and BBFC alum) Kim Weild assembled a talented group of performers for Broadway Holiday that I met Elizabeth in person.  During that fundraiser she sang "My Grown Up Christmas List" while I signed.  We hit it off splendidly and I knew she would enrich the lives of my students by surrounding them in words and music.  How wonderful it is that she accepted my invitation.

In addition to the reading, Elizabeth sang us the first song from her mesmerizing CD First Harvest.  It was one of those "you could hear a pin drop" moments as she sang, "There's been a change in me..." beside our ASL interpreter who ensured that all of the children understood the message of the song.

Elizabeth Ward Land sings "A Change in Me" alongside ASL interpreter Sarah Bartow

Once she concluded, the class erupted as the children stood and threw their hands up to applaud or holler approval.  It was a spectacular moment filled with happiness and appreciation.

As always, we asked her some questions about life in the theater. The themes of the shows she's performed gave the little ones quite an education.  In preparation for her visit we learned about the French Revolution and "Madame Guillotine" courtesy of The Scarlet Pimpernel and Amazing Grace led to a discussion of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade.

They found the guillotine most intriguing so naturally their first question was, "In the show The Scarlet Pimpernel how did people get their heads chopped off?"  That question recalls the somewhat dark purpose of children's books in the first place, which was "navigating a child's fears about sleep as a prologue to death" (Tatar, 2009, p. 97).   There is a reason children are fascinated with darkness and death - it is part of growing up and accepting our mortality.

Elizabeth walked them through it unscathed and moved seamlessly on to their next question, "How did you learn to sing so good?"  She shared her tale of vocal lessons and the musicality instilled in her by her mother.  Elizabeth plays the piano, oboe, percussion, guitar and a little ukulele.  Those talents were on display when she performed last year at The Public Theater in Southern Comfort.  And with that we broached another topic - transgenderism.

Signing copies of The Bear and the Piano for each student.
(Book made possible by a donation from The Louis Valentino Jr. Memorial Fund)

The eventful morning ended as it began - with a celebration of words.  We gifted Elizabeth with a copy of the book signed by all of the children and in return, she signed copies for each one of them.

THANK YOU Elizabeth Ward Land for making a difference in the lives of these children, treating them with respect, teaching them about diversity and acceptance, for your words and for your glorious singing!

As Wordsworth put it: "What we have loved/Others will love, and we will teach them how"

"Love her!"


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