Saturday, August 7, 2021

Pruning the Stone Garden


Pruning the stone garde
n is a phrase that washed over me in hypnopompia - that time when our minds are slipping back into reality after slumber. My head on the pillow, my mind in the clouds, those words kept a continual loop while I tried to decide if I should get up to write them down or repeat them often enough so I'd remember them later. 

They also confused me. What the hell does "pruning the stone garden" mean? I tried to make sense of it as images of a graveyard came into view as though I were a passenger looking out the window of a slow moving car. I wondered, "Is a stone garden a sea of headstones in a cemetery?" It may be, but I knew that didn't tell the whole story. 

I woke up intrigued by the phrase. I may not be clear on the meaning, but I certainly appreciate the way the words and images play together. Someone told me it could mean futility. That makes sense too. 

I do know that it is twisted in with the concepts of life, loss, death, grief, and longing. I continue to struggle with the reality of a life without my mom. It is constantly on the forefront of my mind as I journey on in this diminished state. I can sometimes talk myself into the calmness of believing she is not gone. In those moments, I shift back into who I was for a spell. But, that's not reality and I'm not crazy enough to live in that delusion. 

Perhaps pruning the stone garden means snipping away the hard things to make what is here, what I'm left with, more beautiful. It may mean I need to deal with my shit and appreciate what I've been given in the past and all that I still have. 

What do you think?

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Remember Me

Dickie Hearts with some of the first grade students
 
Remember Me is a song from the Disney/Pixar animated Dia de los Muertos themed feature film, Coco. The haunting lament to dearly departed loved ones tugs at the heartstrings, especially for those of us currently dealing with separation and loss. 

Yet, grief is a serpentine trickster. For mixed in with the pain is the joy of remembrance. Those bittersweet memories that speak to our core and make us appreciate what was, even as we struggle to somehow process it all. Death, life, memories, meaning, purpose, struggle, and finally the possibility of peace slither through our thoughts. As is often said about many things, "It's complicated". 

This year was filled with loss of many kinds. COVID-19 changed our educational landscape. Children were separated from classmates, teachers, and the school community. However, we all found new ways to connect - remotely through Zoom or in person keeping socially distanced and wearing masks. 

In the midst of all these changes, Kori Rushton of IRT Theater reached out to ask me to partner with her on new project. Our last collaboration was an American Sign Language (ASL) music video for Dear Theodosia from the wildly successful Broadway musical, Hamilton. This time she suggested my first graders record the up-tempo version of Remember Me in ASL and Mexican Sign Language ("legua de señas mexicana" or LSM). I was immediately onboard, so the planning began.

Students sign Recuérdame (Remember Me) in LSM

To start, we needed a Director of Sign Language (DSL) to interpret the song into ASL. Dickie Hearts, an actor, screenwriter, and filmmaker, who is also Deaf, openly gay, and trés charmant was a perfect choice. Dickie recorded his wonderful ASL interpretation and I taught it to the in-person children, while my friend and coworker, Maria, taught the remote students.  

The class embraced this project with gusto. Every morning for weeks we spent time perfecting another line, adding the right facial expression to go with the movements, breaking down a complex sequence, or working on timing and fluency. At night, parents told me their kids reviewed it on their own with unbridled enthusiasm. The project brought excitement and purpose back into the stressful reality of our daily lives. It was something joyful we could create together.

Kori and Dickie enlisted the help of Gabriel Arellano for the LSM translation. Everyone (students included) met for a Zoom workshop with Gabriel to learn general information about LSM and, specifically, how to sign the Spanish verses of the song. 

Recording the song in four languages (English, Spanish, ASL, and LSM) was Kori's idea...and challenge. Miraculously, we pulled it off! Well, we did it with lots of work and lots of practice. As time went on I began to realize just how much I was asking of my students. It was a lot, but they were champs. That was never more apparent than when we started filming. 

Our Director, Alana Campbell (left), setting up a shot

Enter our indefatigable Director/Director of Photography, Alana Campbell. Alana is a documentary filmmaker who's worked at NBC Dateline, NBC News, National Geographic Channel, PBS, Oprah Winfrey Network, and more. She came up with the story or framework to contextualize the song. Her vision placed the lyrics as an ode, not only to lost loved ones, but also the loss of social interaction brought about because of COVID. 

In the video, students begin on Zoom, removed from one another physically. After months cooped up in their apartments they were feeling antsy and restless. The video strives to capture that forlorn period of time, as well as the thrill of being back together once again. As the camera moves back and a row of happy, smiling children stand alongside Dickie signing and dancing, it feels, to me, like an exhale. 

Take a look...

REMEMBER ME | ASL Cover from IRT Theater on Vimeo.

Now watch it again to see if you can spot the Curious George "Easter eggs" I've placed in the background.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Top Ten 2020 - 2021

It's been one hell of a year, but despite all of the COVID related hardships - and there were many - I found joy in teaching my incredible students. Together, we created an energized classroom community full of activity and purpose. We shared and created stories. We explored and questioned. We not only got through a difficult year, we prospered.

At the end of the school year, as in years past, I asked the children to think back to the stories that meant the most to them. Which children's books packed the biggest punch? Which ones left a lasting impact? It turns out our deep dive into Greek mythology ignited everyone's imaginations (three titles made our top ten list). And another strong showing were books showcasing characters who defied stereotypical gender roles (two titles made the cut) and similar books with strong messages about identity, self-love, and individuality. 

So, here it is. The first grade student picks for the TOP TEN children's books of the 2020 -2021 school year. 

Number One on our Top Ten list
 
#1. Nat's Cats written by two time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser. This came as no surprise because it's a great story about the merits of pet adoption, but it's also illustrated by the students themselves! 

Alison, who is a frequent guest artist with my Broadway Books First Class program, sent me the story because she thought the children might like it. I knew they would, so I invited Alison to read it to the class. I also suggested turning the story into a children's book and inviting the class to create the illustrations. Alison loved the idea, so we ran with it. 

After months of work, Nat's Cats made its way to print (via Shutterfly). We celebrated with a publishing party, which included a reading, book signing, and snacks. It was a tricky thing to pull off with COVID restrictions, but we did it and had the best time.  (A more in-depth post about the making of Nat's Cats is in the works.)

Greek mythology came in strong with the next three entries. 

#2.  Young Zeus by G. Brian Karas.

This is the origin story of Zeus (and his brothers and sisters) with lots of action and engaging illustrations to go with the exposition. It has monsters, Titans, Olympians, battles, bickering, tension, love, hope, despair, defeat, and triumph all mixed together for an oddly relatable tale. 

It isn't the first time this title has landed on an end-of-year top ten list and I'm sure it won't be the last.

#3. Why Spiders Spin: A Story of Arachne retold by Jamie and Scott Simons with illustrations by Deborah Winograd. 

Interactive read alouds are my stock-in-trade and when a story lifts off the page and gets on its feet we really soar! How fun it is for the children to act out the immovable arrogance of Arachne and the fiery wrath of Athena. The illustrations allow for lively debates about which tapestry was the finest and the plot leads to discussions about power and privilege. 

The description and imagery of Arachne's punishment is the stuff of legend - literally!

#4.  Let's Go, Pegasus! retold and illustrated by Jean Marzollo. 

This is the book that starts it all for us! The story that hooks my students into the Greek myths every time. Medusa is playful and terrifying as she taunts Perseus into gazing into her eyes (Spoiler: He doesn't.) This retelling ushers us into an exploration of perspective and starts us analyzing the ways stories change over time. We begin to compare different versions of this myth, which is an excellent way to explore power dynamics with a critical eye. Question everything, kids!

An added bonus is our introduction to Athena (here as a wise protector) and my current favorite God, Hermes. 



I've written about my love for this book in previous posts. It speaks to an aesthetic I cannot resist. There is a nostalgic feel that brings me comfort. It is easy to imagine myself as Morris, getting lost in words and images, appreciating and relishing time alone with books, and thinking of them as friends. 

But, why do the kids like it so much? I think the brilliant Academy Award Winning Short Film helps pull them into the story. I certainly appreciate that it is a visual treat without words, so it is easily accessible to all of my students. Ultimately though, I believe they like it for the same reasons I do. To think children miss the power of getting lost in a good book is to underestimate them. And I never want to do that.

#6.  The Sound of All Things written by Myron Ulberg with stunning illustrations by Ted Papoulas. 

It's easy to see why this book was selected. The book portrays the story of Myron's childhood growing up in Brooklyn with deaf parents. The author recounts how his father would ask him to describe, in fine detail, the sounds around them - like Coney Island's famed Cyclone or the explosive fireworks soaring from the pier on the Fourth of July - using American Sign Language. 

As educators, we strive to select books that mirror the lives of our students. We want them to be able to see themselves in the characters they read about. This can include race, culture, class, etc. The Sound of All Things does this because many of my students have parents or family members who are D/deaf and can relate to it on a personal level. 

#7.  Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman. 

This year I introduced a new study focusing on gender identity and expression. It was inspired by family circumstances within the student population, but is a topic that is worth exploring even without those connections. 

Sparkle Boy is about a young boy who likes sparkly, shimmery, glittery things. It causes a bit of a stir until his family comes to understand that freedom of expression should be accepted, respected, and even celebrated. 

I asked legendary drag performer and Tony Award nominated playwright, Charles Busch, to read it to the students. He was, of course, brilliant, and helped deliver the message that being true to yourself is the only way to find happiness and success.


Oh. My. Goodness! This book! It is so breathtakingly beautiful. Do yourself a favor and get this book. It is the story of a young boy named Finn who is mourning the loss of his beloved grandfather. When he dozes off, he enters a magical landscape where the ocean meets the sky and they are reunited. 

The Fan Brothers have moved into the top spot of my favorite children's book authors/illustrators. This book continues their streak of high-quality children's books and my students obviously get the appeal.

#9. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. 

This was another book in our study of gender identity and expression. It is the story of Julian who sees some beautiful mermaids on the subway and falls in love with their outfits. When he arrives home he finds a way to recreate the costume using his Abuela's curtains and a potted plant. This is a moment of tension when she finds him posing, but she is fully supportive and shows it by bringing him to the Coney Island mermaid parade.

The book and its sequel, Julian at the Wedding, showcase the importance of self-love and individuality. 

#10. Firenze's Light by Jessica Collaco.

A children's book about gratitude, compassion, and self-appreciation rounds out our Top Ten list. This is another instance where the read aloud added a touch of something special. 

I invited three-time Tony Award nominee, Mary Testa, to read it to my students (you can watch it by clicking here). Mary's inspired interpretation brought a deeper understanding of the message and encouraged the children to "let their lights shine". 

*Honorable mention goes to The Olympians series of graphic novels by George O'Connor


My first graders devoured these books and learned so much about Greek Mythology from them. Students even purchased the boxed sets and spent hours reading them. Many of the titles were represented on individual student lists, but, like the selection process for the Academy Awards, they canceled themselves out of the final cut because nobody could decide on an overall favorite. We all have our favorite god or goddess in the Olympic pantheon. 

Who is your favorite?

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