Sunday, April 25, 2021

Storytelling with Kim Weild

First Grade students and teachers (Remote and In-Person) visit with Kim Weild on March 17, 2021

Once upon a time...

Many moons ago...

It was a dark and stormy night...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

There are as many ways to begin a story as there are stories. It is said that everyone has a story, but, truly, everyone has many stories. Stories and storytelling are woven into our DNA. They are an integral part of being human. They are the reason Homo sapiens have survived and prospered when other species of man have not. It is our ability to gossip and share information that allows us to work together in large groups (learn more about all this by clicking here). 

The power of storytelling cannot, and should not, be undervalued. 

Through the ages man has shared stories in many different ways. That progression has been skillfully rendered by Dan Yaccarino in his children's book I AM A STORY

I asked Kim Weild to read Dan's book during her Broadway Books First Class guest artist visit because Kim has dedicated her life to telling stories. The stories she tells are often stories of those whose voices are easily overlooked by society. It is through one of those stories that I introduced Kim to my first grade students.

In 2017, she teamed with playwright Charles Mee Jr. to direct his play SOOT AND SPIT about the life and art of James Castle. James was born deaf into a poor Idaho farming family in 1899. He was also autistic, and most likely dyslexic. His childhood was isolated and lonely. Yet, he found a way to communicate. He told stories through his art. 

 It was his art that I studied for a week with my students in preparation for Kim's visit. 

As D/deaf and CODA/SODA children (CODA/SODA = Children or Siblings of Deaf individuals), my students have firsthand knowledge of the joys and struggles associated with deafness. Even without that background, they could empathize with feelings of right and wrong elicited from James Castle's drawings. 

We began with this image of young James being taunted by his classmates. James used soot and spit to create his art on scraps of paper taken from the trash. Such was his need to express his thoughts and feelings because, as a child without language, his ability to communicate was limited. 

His story could have easily fallen through the cracks for us, if it weren't for Kim Weild shining a light on it. His story stayed with the students long after Kim's visit. As I write this, her visit is already 5 weeks in the past, yet a student referenced James Castle this week when we read the book Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat. She stated that the characters in that book used art to communicate "Just like James Castle tried to do."  Yes! A wonderful connection - exactly right!

We followed our week-long study of James Castle's art by studying another project spearheaded by Kim. It was a 2016 storytelling workshop with the students at our school, which culminated in a book and a show called HOW THE I BECOMES THE WE

Here, Kim facilitated a series of workshops for children in Grades 1-3 highlighting different ways to tell a story. They included ASL Alphabet Handshape Stories, The Physical Embodiment of Story, and Writing/Drawing. This was through her theater company Our Voices. A company that is "dedicated to investigating themes of otherness in society whether they are culture, language, gender, sexual orientation/identification or ability." In short, telling everyone's story. 

The embrace of diversity and respect for others had the children wondering...

Why did Kim like to tell stories so much? 

How did her job as a director help her tell stories? 

They also had questions about specific shows. One was related to the Broadway show AMAZING GRACE (Kim was Associate Director). It is a story loosely based on the life of John Newton, an English slave trader who later became an Anglican priest and eventually an abolitionist. He wrote many hymns, including Amazing Grace. One student asked Kim, "Why did the main character in the show change his mind? (about slavery)." This led to some rather deep discussions in class and with Kim.

They also were curious about her experience working with Keith Hamilton Cobb on AMERICAN MOOR. This is another powerful show "examining the experience and perspective of black men in America through the metaphor of William Shakespeare's character, Othello." 

The conversations built upon one another. Each helping to create background knowledge, which provided context for understanding. All this through the content of theatrical shows. All of this through storytelling!

I found it incredible.

After we signed off of our Zoom meeting with Kim the children began writing their thank you cards. One student veered from this to make a sign highlighting the message she took away from Kim's visit.


And then she added, I LOVE THAT!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Celebrating the 100th Day of School with Robert Ariza

Robert Ariza visits with First Grade on February 24, 2021
Robert Ariza has a beautiful voice. He appears comfortable singing in any musical style; from the smooth, dulcet tones of Sky Masterson in GUYS AND DOLLS (think Frank Sinatra or Harry Connick Jr.) to the swift, rapping wordplay of the titular character in HAMILTON. In fact, he's played both roles - the former in concert with the Billings Symphony Orchestra and the latter at Chicago's famed CIBC Theatre - since making his Broadway debut in 2015 with Deaf West's revival of SPRING AWAKENING. 

However, I first saw him perform in the Off Off Broadway production of Charles Mee Jr.'s SOOT AND SPIT. The play, directed by Kim Weild, tells the story of James Castle. James created art - using the tools mentioned in the show's title - as a means of self-expression. As an deaf man with autism in the early 1900s, he lived a life of isolation without access to spoken or signed language. Art was his language. In SOOT AND SPIT, his art comes to life to tell his story. It was a fascinating theatrical experience made even stronger when Robert Ariza sang a show-stopping duet accompanied by his own guitar playing. It was gorgeous. A fan was born!

I met him after the show and asked if he might be interested in being a guest artist with Broadway Books First Class. He was, but shortly afterwards he left to join the National Tour of LES MISERABLES. That was soon followed by a year-long gig in Chicago with HAMILTON. Then, the pandemic caused my program to halt for a year delaying his visit even further. 

Robert Ariza with his Broadway Books First Class t-shirt

It took four years, but we finally worked it out! Robert's visit happened to coincide with our 100th Day of School. This milestone in a school year has become a time of celebration and a guest artist visit is certainly a great way to honor the day. 

This has been a year of change and upheaval, so when he visited via Zoom, we had some students participating from home and others joining from the classroom. The experience isn't the same as a face-to-face, in-person visit, but the value isn't lost. 

For his read aloud, we chose the book THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! by Mo Willems. It is a story with an unexpected twist at the end, which only very savvy readers will see coming. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I sent Robert a copy of the book beforehand (signed by the class), along with stickers for him to sign and mail back to me. On the stickers, Robert wrote a "hello" to each student along with his autograph. After the visit, each student received their own copy of the book with the personalized sticker on the inside cover.


As you can see in the video, Robert's reading included fun voice characterizations of the hungry fox, the mama goose, and the portentous foreboding of her little ones. There was also a nice ASL interpretation from my friend and coworker, Cheritha.

The reading was followed, as always, with a question-and-answer session. This was based on the work I had done with the students in the weeks leading up to Robert's visit. During that time, we talked about his background and his performances. We learned a lot from his answers to our questions, which were...

1. Is it hard when somebody is sick and you have to do their performance? (This was based on his job as a swing in SPRING AWAKENING. He also learned ASL for this show!)

2. Do you have any ideas for other shows? (Robert writes music and composes, which sparked this question.)

3. What's your favorite show and why? (This was one we kept coming back to in our visit. INTO THE WOODS is one of Robert's favorite shows, but pinning it down to a favorite role he's played is more difficult. He's performed some treasures from Marius in LES MISERABLES to Alexander Hamilton in HAMILTON.)

We wrapped up the Q&A with a song. Robert played and sang BLACKBIRD by The Beatles for us.

In the days after his visit some of my Broadway babies could be found humming or singing this song. As always, we sent our guest artist a package with thank you cards and a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt. 

Thank you, Robert!

It's exciting to see what the future has in store for the generous performers who visit with us. I KNOW Robert's future is bright. We all look forward to welcoming him back again one of these days, but next time in person. He may just have his Tony Award by then - I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Supporting Trans and Non-Binary Students

In 2012, I wrote an article for Teaching Tolerance (now called Learning for Justice) entitled When Boys Love Barbie. It told of a young boy in my preschool class who loved to wear a shimmery wedding gown. He also wanted a Barbie doll for Christmas. This caused some conflict within his family because he was not conforming to societal expectations of what was appropriate behavior for little boys. 

I like to think that in the intervening years there has been a shift in understanding and acceptance of gender non-conforming students. I'm not sure that this is generally true, but there are certainly more resources (websites, children's books, workbooks, etc.) available to address the topic of gender expression. 

One is a reflective workbook by D. M. Maynard for teachers and support staff designed to help them "navigate supporting the gender journeys of their transgender, non-binary, and/or gender questioning students." It's an area many of us are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with for myriad reasons - the unknowns, the sensitivities, the fear of saying or doing something that is unintentionally hurtful or offensive. 

This workbook educates through games, exercises, and vignettes. It leaves us no room to close the door and pretend that issues surrounding gender do not exist because this workbook takes away the power of our excuses. It leads educators gently through the labyrinth of unknowns. These issues exist. Shouldn't we all be equipped to provide the support, guidance, and respect our students deserve. It may not be easy for us, but it's not easy for them either.

Of course, near and dear to my heart are children's books and D. M. Maynard even includes several titles in the Resources section, such as It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn and Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr. 

I also have some other children's books that can help open up a discussion with students about their own attitudes and viewpoints on issues of gender expression. 

They include Julián is a Mermaid and Julián at the Wedding by Jessica Love. They are exceptional in showcasing unconditional acceptance and support in the face of nontraditional expressions of gender. 

Sparkle Boy by Lesléa Newman and Annie's Plaid Shirt by Stacey B. Davids are both great for breaking gender stereotypes around clothing and what it means to be a "boy" or "girl". They allow us to see that gender identity is what you feel and not what you present.

Finally, check out Bunnybear by Andrea J. Loney. Bunnybear was born a bear but feels more like a bunny inside. He is misunderstood by the bears and the bunnies. He must try to find a way to fit in, while also staying true to who he is on the inside. 

As a student, Tiana, in my children's literature course wrote last semester about the book, "It is a great introduction to discussions on gender and identity because it allows for the initial conversation about feeling different than others without having to explain or go into depth about specific gender identities and terms. It brings up interesting questions like 'How do I stay true to myself' and 'How do I make friends with people who aren't like me' for students to think about and discuss before diving deeper."

Kudos to D. M. Maynard on her three-book series for partners, parents, and teachers of transgender and non-binary individuals. You can learn more about her books, workshops, retreats, and speaking engagements by contacting her at  

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Taking the Plunge with Mary Testa

Testing the Broadway Books First Class virtual waters with Mary Testa

Mary Testa inspired me to set aside my reservations about altering the structure of the guest artist visits. I was initially reluctant to accommodate for the upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I figured we'd pause things and pick back up again when this mess was behind us. However, it was already a year since Tony Award winning director Kenny Leon visited in January 2020. I'd either have to compromise the in-person visits for something virtual, as the rest of the world has had to do, or place the program on an extended hiatus.

As I was grappling with this decision, I watched Mary Testa and Jonathan Freeman conduct a live signing on Instagram to raise money for Broadway Cares. They were charming. They also had some nice words to say about Broadway Books First Class. It was heartening to see that virtual events could emulate some of the warmth and connection of a face-to-face interaction. So, I decided to "take the plunge" (that phrase is a nod to Mary Testa's tour de force performance in Queen of the Mist). 

Mary (a three-time Tony Award nominee) immediately accepted my invitation. We selected the children's book Firenze's Light by Jessica Collaco for her reading. 

Firenze's Light encourages the reader to SHINE ON! It is a message we both embraced and were eager to share with my students. One advantage of the Zoom platform is that I was able to record the reading to share with a larger audience. Now, others can enjoy the story told so expertly by Mary with her funny voices (my favorite is Kirie, the beetle), her humor, and her empathy. 

I worked with the students for a month to prepare for Mary's visit. We studied all 12 of her Broadway shows, from her debut in Barnum to the recent, celebrated revival of Oklahoma! The discussions about the shows led to inquires into mythology and voodoo (Xanadu and Marie Christine), characters who are mean vs misunderstood (Chicago, Xanadu, and Wicked), history, humor, and the impact of costumes, wigs, and make-up. In fact, as very visual children they were captivated by Mary's hair across the spectrum of her performances. 

As we went along, I wrote down their questions. In the final days before her visit we selected three main ones. You can listen to Mary's answers below (videos have ASL interpretation and captions are enabled).

Question #1 - Why did you want to be on Broadway? 

Question #2 - What was your favorite show and why?

Question #3 - What do you do now that Broadway is closed?

Things went so well that I've already scheduled other guest artists for February and March. I know I am taking a leap of faith by planning ahead because our school schedule has changed every single month this year. But, I am determined to make it work somehow. And with my brilliant students, their supportive parents, and talented guest artists we will undoubtedly succeed. 


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