Monday, December 11, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Ali Stroker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                             Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ali Stroker and Kirsten Hall singing copies of The Gold Leaf

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

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

Ali is a lion!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Jonathan Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Students introduce themselves to Jonathan Freeman in American Sign Lanuage

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

The classes worked separately too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It.
Was.
Amazing!

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

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

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

Jonathan Freeman reads student-created questions

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

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

Students enjoy signed copies of ALADDIN courtesy of Jonathan Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan, I thank you!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

SiriusXM "On Broadway" Interview

This summer I was interviewed on SiriusXM Satellite Radio by the Amaaaaazing Seth Rudetsky about Broadway Books First Class.

There were some delays getting started and by the time we sat down I was feeling a bit nervous, but Seth is certainly excellent at keeping things lively, interesting and on track.

It was such an honor to share the program with a larger audience and give thanks to the wonderful performers who've so willingly supported it.

The interview was broadcast on Stars (Channel 109), Entertainment Weekly (Channel 105) and On Broadway (Channel 72) in September.

I typed up a transcript of the interview so my friends who are deaf/hard of hearing have equal access and figured I would share it here as well.


Seth: Hi everyone.  This is a special edition of Seth Speaks because we had a technical malfunction and instead of cancelling the show we are continuing with my guest but my audience is literally in a separate room where they can sort of see me through 2 panes of glass, yes, they are waving frantically and they can hear me and I can hear through an ambient microphone their fake laughter – audience let me hear it. (Audience laughs) Just as fake as every week.  Excellent.  And cut!  Alright, for my first guest I have a Dock-ter but he’s not here to talk about that weird lump on my shoulder.  He’s here to talk about his amazing Broadway program for literally first graders. Dr. Gary Wellbock?
Gary: Wellbrock, yes.
Seth:  Still got it.  Not Jewish. Okay, so what exactly is this program?  From what I read about it it sounds amazing but describe it to my audience.
Gary: Sure.  It’s called Broadway Books First Class.
Seth: Already I like it, it has the word Broadway in it.  Keep Going.
Gary: (laughs) Basically at its core it’s a pretty simple idea but the concepts that support it are more complex.  So, what I do is I invite Broadway performers into my classroom to read a book and answer about 3 questions about life in the theater, life as an artist. 
Seth: So you bring like Patti Lupone to read her autobiography “Glenn Close stole my role!” And the first graders literally enjoy it?
Gary: Ahhh, I would love that.  And I’d make sure the children put away their cell phones before she came to the classroom.
Seth: (laughs) Exactly. Da Da Da Da Da Da – Reference! Wait, what kind of books do these Broadway people read?
Gary: The books are high-quality children’s books.
Seth: Oh, they’re children’s books.  I see.
Gary: Yeah, children’s books.  And, they’re read…the kids that I teach are Deaf and hearing and hard of hearing.
Seth: Oh, I didn’t know that part.
Gary: Oh, yeah.  I try to make sure that I have a nice balance of Deaf performers and hearing performers and the performers who are hearing, when they come in there is an interpreter that sits beside them..
Seth (interjects): Wow
Gary: and interprets the book.
Seth: And so, I guess the question is, “Why bring in a Broadway performer just to give my version of the story?”  I used to, for a long time I performed for these AIDS patients in hospitals and it is amazing when I bring Broadway performers but so many non-famous people are amazing and when I would bring in a Broadway performer they’d be like, “You’re good” like it was no different, they wouldn’t care if you were a Broadway star or not.  Aren’t the kids like, “We don’t know who you are Dame Judi Dench”.
Gary: Well, I think that would happen if it was just a one-time event where someone would come into the classroom and read a book but that’s not how it happens.  I really try to reach out beyond the walls of my classroom to have New York…the whole idea is that New York is this great cultural center so I try to take advantage of what’s going on here.  And when I have a performer come in, say Alison Fraser
Seth: The original Trina in Falsettos, well, March of the Falsettos…go on…
Gary: We’ll talk about her work for a week or two prior…
Seth:  You mean, you and the kids will?
Gary: Yeah, yeah
Seth: And they are like, 6-years-old?
Gary: Yeah, six, seven, seven-years-old.
Seth: Aren’t they like, “What’s Equity?” How do they understand anything?
Gary: Well, we have discussions about that.  I really let them lead the discussion and, you know, I start with Googling Alison Fraser or Bryce Pinkham and we have a discussion about that.  What really helps is if I am really into that performer.
Seth: Of course
Gary: Like Alison Fraser, I love her work so much.
Seth: Yeah, she’s amazing.
Gary: So that I am able to talk about what she did in Romance/Romance or The Secret Garden so one day we just talk about The Secret Garden and all of those things play into what the kids are going to bring into the conversation.
Seth: So, even if they’re musical theater stars and a lot of the kids are hearing impaired it doesn’t matter that they can’t necessarily hear them singing.
Gary: No.  And Elizabeth Ward Land, I don’t know if you know…
Seth: I know Elizabeth Ward
Gary: She came in and she sang a song.  Alison Fraser sang a song. Most of the kids in my class are CODAs, that means they are Children of Deaf Adults so their first language is American Sign Language so the interaction there is that they can obviously hear but I have the support of the interpreter there to make sure that their first language is covered.
Seth: Wait a minute, so the kids are actually hearing. So, what’s the ratio of the kids in your class of hearing vs. not hearing?
Gary: I have 21 kids and 17 of them are CODAs.  That means most of them are children of Deaf adults.
Seth: But they themselves can hear?
Gary: Yes
Seth: And then the other children are Deaf?
Gary: Deaf or hard of hearing, right.
Seth: I see. What an interesting combination. What kind of school is this?
Gary: It’s a dual language school.
Seth: I see.
Gary: We do spoken English and written English and then ASL – American Sign Language.
Seth: Oh, it’s all so creative on so many different levels. So, you have these Broadway performers come in and perform and read these books. What I like about it is I’ve met so many Broadway stars who say it wasn’t until they were 20 that they realize they could have a career as a Broadway…like “We didn’t know you could get paid for being on Broadway” So I love that you are telling these 6-year-olds from the very beginning that you can actually have a job as an actor because a lot of people don’t realize that.
Gary: Yeah, and if anything else it’s an appreciation of the Arts, right?
Seth: Exactly
Gary: They live in NYC so I want not only to build maybe somebody who might be a performer but to build an audience so Broadway keeps going.
Seth:  I know. It drives me crazy that so many people that actually live in NY don’t go to Broadway.  I love that you’re doing this. Who decides on the books?  You do?
Gary: The original idea was that I would have the performers bring up a book that maybe they loved from childhood that was a favorite but that didn’t really go over.
Seth: Why not?
Gary: Nobody really had a big suggestion or they were more hesitant…
Seth: I sure do
Gary: …about bringing something in. Well, I have a book idea for you too.  I want you to come.
Seth: What? I want to bring in my own book!
Gary: Oh, you could do that.  But, I got you this book right here.
Seth: Oh, this is the book. Oh, hold on.  Let me see it then. I’m unwrapping on the air because people love dead air. Okay, so hold on.  It’s so well wrapped.  Did you wrap this yourself?
Gary: Yeah, yeah.
Seth: I am the worst wrapper.  I am super depressed.  Okay, so this is the sound of paper tearing. (Opens present) Audience can you verify that I am unwrapping and it’s not some bad sound effect?  The back is beautiful.  Ahhhh, this would be a good book for me.  Audience look It’s called The Bear and the Piano. 
Gary: Do you know that one?
Seth: No, I don’t know it at all. OMG, it’s so lovely.
Gary: Yeah, it’s a beautiful book.  It’s about learning to play the piano and it’s about going off and following your dreams and coming home again to the people that love you.
Seth: It’s a more sensitive book. Mine that I’m obsessed with is Nosey Mrs. Rat.  Do you know that book?
Gary: No, I don’t.
Seth: It is hilarious. It’s about a Be-yitch of a rat who is really snoopy and she literally has helium balloons so she can float up and look through the windows of her neighbors, she’s such a bitch (laughs).  Anyway, but this one is much more sensitive The Bear and the Piano. It’s so beautiful too.
Gary: No, if you come you can read whatever you want. You know, I would love that.
Seth: I love the illustrations in this.  So, this is…I am trying to think of how people can adapt this.  They don’t always have Broadway performers so how would you adapt this to another city?
Gary: Well, what I…the idea is to take what you have in your community…
Seth:  Ahhh
Gary: …and make the most of it.  So, at the very least teachers can invite parents in to read a book. And it’s about building excitement for literacy.  It’s about kids wanting to come to school. You know, when I was little if there was an event I was more excited to go to school.
Seth: Totally
Gary: And obviously I am someone who loves school in the first place but I remember waking up early and really wanting to come to school and I want to give that to the kids I teach.
Seth: So you build it up. You don’t just say, “They’re coming today” You build it up weeks in advance.
Gary: Yeah, weeks in advance.  And then we talk about it afterwards.  Right now they are very theatrically wise.  Michael Urie was in…
Seth: Ah, he’s so great.
Gary: Yes, he was.  He was fantastic.  He was the last one, the last guest we had this year.  Right before him was Julianne Moore and Nathan Lane…
Seth: NATHAN LANE! Did he scare the kids with a loud voice?
Gary: No, No and I was hoping he would (audience laughs) but he didn’t.  But the kids became very theatrically wise so they went off script because most of the time I ask them to come up with three questions, which we develop and we kinda stick to that but by the time he came they were asking him, “Do you have any Tony Awards?” “Do you know…”
Seth: Oh, so they hurt his feelings. Wonderful. (laughter) He has to say, “No, I don’t” It’s very kind of you. Do not ask me that question if I come because I’ll be literally devastated.  (laughs).
Gary: (laughs) Okay
Seth: So, in conclusion…Okay, this particular program is called
Gary: Broadway Books First Class
Seth: Broadway Books First Class.  Oh, I get it First Class.  And you can develop it in your community and how can people contact you to just say, “How do you actually do it?” Do you have a website or something?
Gary: Yeah, it’s Broadway Books First Class dot com
Seth: Oh, that’s easy
Gary: And there’s a tab where it says “Contact” and you can send me an email and I’ll get that and I’d love to talk to people about it.
Seth: And there’s no apostrophe in Broadway’s books?
Gary: No, no
Seth: Wait, Broadway Books.  I see, Broadway Books Fist Class dot com.  It’s such a great idea.  And get this book it’s so beautiful it’s called The Bear and the Piano or Nosey Mrs. Rat, which is hilarious. Alright, thank you Dr.!
Gary: Thank you so much.  I appreciate it.
Seth: Applause from the audience in the next room.  Excellent fake applause people.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Fundraising

Photo Credit: Kim Weild
Broadway Books First Class ushers in Year Three in October with a visit from Tony Award Nominee - and Jafar in Disney's Aladdin - Jonathan Freeman.

The program, originally conceived for children in First Grade, has expanded its reach over time. In Year Two I partnered with Kori Rushton of IRT Theater to create Broadway Books Upper Class. This year I am working with children in First and Second Grades, as well as a class of preschool children.

Broadway Books First Class celebrates the Arts and promotes literacy by inviting Broadway performers into the classroom to read children's books and talk about life in the theater. The guest artists also autograph copies of the books for the students to take home.

In the past, I have received grants and donations to purchase these fabulous books.  This year I am hoping to raise money through a project posted on DonorsChoose.


The books (above) represent a variety of topics rooted in the theory of counter storytelling and components of critical literacy (in addition to simply being wonderful books).  They promote discussion and questioning as they allow children to see themselves in the books they read.

I am very excited by the prospect of sharing these books with the children and welcoming the guest artists this year, including Julie Halston, Douglas Sills, Charles Busch, Anthony Lee Medina, Alison Fraser, Devlin Elliott, Kim Weild, Kecia Lewis, Alexandra Wailes, Ali Stroker, Seth Rudetsky and Vanessa Williams.

As of this writing the project has received over $1,200 in donations but still needs another $1,600 to become fully funded.  Please consider supporting the program with a donation (every dollar helps).

You may follow this link to learn more about the project.

UPDATE: THIS PROJECT WAS FULLY FUNDED ON OCTOBER 3, 2017.  THANK YOU TO THE FOLKS WHO DONATED TO SUPPORT LITERACY AND THE ARTS IN THE CLASSROOM!

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."

BINGO!

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

Becoming...

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.

Adri├ín 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.

What?!

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

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