Monday, August 28, 2023

The Science of Reading

The Science of Reading is an educational finding, based on research, which attempts to unravel how humans become literate. Many school districts in the nation are currently embracing the findings and implementing them into elementary school classrooms. The basic premise is that educational institutions have gotten reading instruction all wrong and an update in the operating system is necessary and overdue. 

All of this is beautifully presented in a podcast entitled Sold a Story by Emily Hanford. I listened to all 6 episodes yesterday on my drive from Rochester, NY to Trenton, NJ. It is an engaging investigation into reading theory, history, and implementation. It should be required listening for educators, especially those who have not gotten this information in their training programs.

As a reading specialist, I already knew most of the information. Yet, there were some surprises (I'll get to that in a minute). I've lived through a range of the educational approaches about reading presented in this podcast. I remember phonics-based instruction as a child with worksheets asking me to circle the long vowel in a series of words. I also remember my confusion because I was never told what that meant. What made a vowel long or short? A bit of explicit instruction would have been helpful and my early experience influences my teaching today because I know what it is to be the child who benefits from explicit instruction. 

Over the years, the pendulum has swung between phonics-based instruction to wholistic methods and back again. Things shift as we learn more and, it seems to me, they shift because people simply want something different. We also cannot ignore the influence of financial greed and political gain in how schools are run. All of this is covered in Sold a Story.

The bottom line is many schools are now throwing out the work of Marie Clay, Lucy Calkins and Fountas & Pinnell to focus on phonics. In my training and work with hearing students, I've always incorporated phonics instruction and was surprised to learn -  in the podcast - that Marie Clay's Reading Recovery and Fountas & Pinnell's Leveled Literacy Intervention considered it optional.  That was never how I implemented their work. For this, I give thanks to my mentor, Dr. Joanna Uhry, who taught me the value of matching my instruction to meet the needs of the children rather than providing a one-size-fits-all approach. 

This "new" direction, propelled by the science of reading, comes with questions. Questions regarding assessment and instruction that administrators and coaches, who know much less than I do, are undoubtedly going to struggle to answer. I just hope we do better for our struggling readers and can one day celebrate an America with higher literacy rates because to paraphrase Whoopi in Ghost, we in danger girl.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

David Staller's Visit Transcends Words

David Staller with Kindergarten and Second Grade Students

Wordless Picture Books have long resided in the "Never Have I Ever" category of read-alouds for my Broadway Books First Class program. They are books for young readers that depart from a traditionally written narrative. There may be words, but they tend to be labels or short utterances made by the characters. The primary feature of this genre is that the stories unfold through the illustrations. They require the reader to tell the story visually, noticing small details that propel the story forward. 

Wordless Picture Books are fantastic for young children and children with language delays because they meet the reader at their level of understanding. They also encourage interaction with the text in a fluid manner. The eyes are free to land on details at will, allowing the story to take shape with each new observation. They are also wonderful for parents who struggle with literacy (or language) and feel self-conscious about reading to or with their children. Wordless Picture Books eliminate some of the trepidation these adults face in a parent/child dyad surrounding a shared literacy experience.  As a teacher, I've encouraged many parents to share a book with their child by simply talking about the pictures. This builds positive experiences around reading for the child and keeps them coming back for more. 

However, although there are powerful advantages to Wordless Picture Books, they also present some challenges when utilized in the classroom. In order to present these books to an audience of children, the reader must know the material really well. They must be comfortable leading a discussion because a traditional reading (reading the print) will get you nowhere fast. So, I customarily keep wordless picture books for my teaching, not for a guest reader. 

Then, I fell in love with the wordless picture book Spencer's New Pet by Jessie Sima and really wanted to include it as a Broadway Books book selection. The illustrations feel as though you are watching an old-timey black-and-white movie reel about a boy and his pet balloon (the red balloon dog is the only splash of color in the book). It is a charming, quirky story with a surprise ending that I knew the children would love as much as I did. 

The trick was matching the book with a reader who was up to the demanding task. I needed a guest artist who was willing to do a bit of homework by studying the illustrations closely and plotting out where to stop, what to discuss, and how to engage the children. I needed a guest artist who was comfortable leading a thoughtful discussion. Someone who could constantly read the room to check for understanding and engagement. A person who was used to steering the ship with confidence and enthusiasm. Someone who has pacing and humor and an eye for detail. 

David Staller was that person! David is the founding artistic director of Gingold Theatrical Group, which presents and promotes the work of activist playwright George Bernard Shaw. He is a director and actor - someone quite used to playing nicely in the sandbox with others. He was a guest artist once before in 2019, so I knew he was great with children. His interactions with the students shine with joy and a go-with-the-flow attitude that suggests he is fully present. I knew Spencer's New Pet was a good fit for David, but what would he think?

I sent him a YouTube video showcasing the book and he immediately said yes. He invited me to swing by his Gingold Theatrical offices in midtown Manhattan because I wanted to discuss the challenges of the genre and give him a copy of the book. It was there that he pointed out something in the book that I did not notice. The boy is reading Pygmalion to his new pet! Given David's connection to Shaw (he is the only person to produce and direct all 65 of Shaw's plays, including Pygmalion) this was an astounding sign of kismet. It is also a very clever foreshadowing of upcoming events in the book. 

David Staller directs a scene from Spencer's New Pet

Preparations complete (his with the book, mine teaching the students all about David's work) we happily welcomed David into the classroom. With each turn of the page, I marveled at how beautifully David led the reading. The way he provided just enough information to allow the children to understand the story, while simultaneously sharing their thoughts, their noticing and wonderings, and their enthusiasm was masterful. He crafted suspense by highlighting the many dangers lurking throughout the book, including the myriad, threatening ways Spencer's new pet balloon pup could pop. Until, finally...POP! and we were left to uncover what had just happened (no spoilers here). 

To help the students understand the job of a director, he directed them in a "scene" from the book. It was a great way to get them up and moving. 

This was followed by a book signing with each child taking home a hard copy of the book with a personal message from David. It is another wonderful addition to their personal libraries and provides encouragement for parents to sit and engage in language and story with their children.

In the end, the smiles and hugs let David know that his effort was well received and appreciated. He even took home a new pet of his own - a red balloon dog! 

In fact, we all got a new pet!

New pets inspired by Jessie Sima's picture book, Spencer's New Pet

*Thank you, David Staller, for sharing your brilliance with us once again. We look forward to your next visit.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Sharing Big Moments with Broadway's Daniel Jenkins

Daniel Jenkins visits with Kindergarten and Second Grade students 
(Photo credit: Eileen Lograno)

Something extraordinary happened today and in my excitement I wanted to call my mom to tell her all about it. Sadly, I knew I couldn't, but I could imagine the conversation. She would understand what it means to me to have Daniel Jenkins, the original Huck Finn in Big River, ask me to sing with him. 

It all happened during his visit to my kindergarten classroom as a guest artist with Broadway Books First Class. The fact that Daniel Jenkins was even visiting was enough to set my pulse racing. It's because some of us forge deep connections to certain Broadway shows. We've played the album nonstop, sang every song, know every lyric, sat in the audience to watch it more than once, and bought tickets for our family and friends so they could share our enthusiasm. 

Daniel Jenkins signed my cast album
Big River was one of those shows for me and Daniel Jenkins was my Huck. His voice, his energy, his twang, his humor, and his overall performance were something I dreamed of emulating. 

There have been other favorite shows and other guest artists who've visited with the program that've had me walking on air. There was Alison Fraser (Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden), Douglas Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel), David Staller (Evita), Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), Kecia Lewis (Once on This Island), Stockard Channing (Grease), and Annie Golden (Hair), but never has one of these incredible performers asked me to duet with them. It was nothing I ever considered doing either. 

Until today. 

Today, Daniel Jenkins surprised me after a student asked, "Can you sing for us?" He turned to me and told me to move my chair a little closer to him. He said I would be singing with him. He chose "Worlds Apart" from Big River.  As I scooted closer, I thought I heard him whisper to the ASL interpreter, "He can sing, right?" 

He began, "I see the same stars through my window..." and then I joined him. He was also signing as he sang, so I locked eyes with him and we told the story of two people finding a connection despite their differences. I wasn't sure how I was doing, but it didn't really matter. I was sharing a moment of importance (to me) that came about because of an act of kindness from someone I have admired for over 30 years. When we finished, I gave him a hug, as the children clapped and cheered, and then I dramatically fell off my chair in disbelief at what had just occurred. 

I'm about to fall off my chair after singing with Tony Award nominee Daniel Jenkins

Daniel's visit this week seemed to have even more weight to it because entering a school these days is an act of courage. The horrific murders of 2 teachers and 19 children in a fourth-grade classroom in Texas has left me despondent. The anguish of the parents and families of the victims hurts my soul. In this fragile state, Daniel Jenkins offered up some joy, a little island to find peace within a wild, untamed ocean. 

His book selection seemed timely as well. Although, a children's book promoting the themes of friendship and acceptance is always a strong selection. 

Daniel Jenkins reading Big Al
(Photo Credit: Dawn Klein)
Daniel chose to read the book Big Al by Andrew Clements and Yoshi. It tells the story of a large, scary looking fish who is lonely because his appearance frightens the other fish. 

Big Al tries everything to hide parts of himself and alter his looks, but nothing works. It isn't until all of the little fish are caught in a fisherman's net and Big Al saves the day that they all realize he is more than meets the eye. It is a heartwarming tale with beautiful illustrations. 

As Daniel read, I looked around the classroom to witness how the story was registering with the children. This energetic bunch was suddenly quiet. All eyes on Daniel and ASL interpreter, Lynnette Taylor, in an impressive show of what can only be called, "rapt attention." 

It dawned on me that this visit was full of "big" moments - both literal and figurative. Here was a guest artist with Broadway credits in Big River (the original production in 1985 and the Deaf West revival in 2003) and Big (in 1996, based on the popular Tom Hanks movie). He read a children's book called Big Al, gave me a very big moment (see above), and shared some truly big life lessons in his responses to the children's questions.

A student askes, "Why did you want to perform on Broadway?"
(Photo Credit: Dawn Klein)

When asked why he wanted to be on Broadway, he responded by telling us about the joys and advantages of playing with people who help you grow. The lesson was one that applies to many situations, but his point was that surrounding yourself with others who are passionate about what they are doing presents opportunities for us to learn and pushes us to improve. Indeed!

We wrapped up the Q&A and Daniel put his considerable ASL and fingerspelling skills to use by signing books for all of the students. With messages of "Peace" he engaged with each child, giving them a moment to be seen and feel valued. 

Daniel signs the first letter in this students name
(Photo credit: Eileen Lograno)

A writer from Broadway World was supposed to attend this guest artist visit for an article about the program. He had to cancel at the last minute and I am sorry he missed a golden opportunity to put some positivity into our grieving country. I'm sorry my mom isn't alive to pick up the phone so I can tell her all about it. A friend told me she's an angel looking out for me now. If that's the case, she did some sweet work with this visit. 

We all lift our hands in gratitude to applaud Daniel Jenkins - thank you!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

"God Willin' and the Crick Don't Rise"

In the haze of memory, it seems melancholy and joy swirl and blend in unpredictable ways. One moment a memory makes you smile and the next it leaves you feeling lost and alone. You want to remember and forget all at once. None of it makes sense. Such is grief. You can't go over it, you just need to go through it. 

It's said that scents or smells can bring you back to a time and place. The same can be said for language. A turn of phrase, an oft-repeated saying, or a colloquialism lovingly brings to mind the person who said it. And with those few familiar words, we are transported back in time to feel the feels associated with it.

My mom (pictured above as a little girl) had a slight lilting accent born of West Virginia and Ohio. I used to tell her she sounded like Dolly Parton sometimes when she'd leave me voice messages. Although, it seemed much less prominent in person - except when she'd say "warsh" instead of "wash" and things like "prit' near" or "I reckon." 

I've adopted some of my favorites into my vernacular. There is "God willin' and the crick don't rise" and "I see said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw" - the latter took me a minute to grasp the first time I heard it. These are clever turns of phrase that are deceptively meaningful. Or they mean nothing at all. That's the beauty.

Then, there was the time we drove through a small town in West Virginia and she said it was a "poke-and-plum" town. What? She explained, "You poke your head out the window and you're plumb through town." I found that endlessly amusing. 

She described her time in the Marines as "Hurry up and wait." I hadn't heard that expression before, but I hear it all the time now. 

There are words we just didn't use in New York that I'd hear when we visited Ohio. Words like davenport (couch), pop (soda), and bawling (crying).  

Nobody close to me uses these words and phrases anymore. I miss hearing them. My mom used to say that information died with the folks who remembered them. She said she'd reached a point where she couldn't ask anyone things about the past anymore. 

In what turned out to be the last time I saw my mom, I recorded a conversation wherein she talked about her grandparents in West Virginia, her childhood, meeting my dad, and the early days of their marriage. Her story in her voice. I'm so glad to have it. I reckon it was prit' near perfect. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Danny Burstein Takes Us on an Adventure

Danny Burstein with the kindergarten and second grade students of PS347 on February 7, 2022

Tony Award Winner Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge) stepped into my classroom on a cold Monday morning in February and his warmth radiated throughout the room. I watched the kindergarten and second grade children applaud as he entered and I playfully asked them, "Who is this?!" They enthusiastically replied, "Danny Burstein!" To them, he was already a friend.

We'd been studying his career for weeks. Show by show, character by character, theme by theme...we watched, learned, and questioned. Children in both grades became immersed and engaged in different aspects of his work. The kindergarten students were fascinated by the energy and vibrancy of the Can-Can from Moulin Rouge, while the second graders probed deeper into the why's behind his career choices. I smiled at the thought of what they'd take away from the morning. How would it affect them? What memories would stay? And I remembered a somewhat similar experience from my childhood.
Danny Burstein in First Grade
When I was a young lad in school all of the students were called to gather in the auditorium to watch a performance by a troupe of modern-day minstrels. It was unannounced. There was no fanfare or preparation. I didn't know what we were seeing, but our attention was directed to the stage as the house lights dimmed. Soon after the curtain opened, I heard the lilting melody of Try to Remember for the first time. 

The opening notes were like a siren song calling my spirit closer. I was lost and nothing else around me mattered. The lyrics, the music, the mood, the insight, the longing, the loss, the hope, and the beauty of this song spoke to the deepest parts of me. This was live theater?! Holy Shit! 

I was hooked! It was a transcendent moment that has stayed with me. I still think Try to Remember is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. It is all mine. I've established a firmly rooted sense of connection. I'm so glad I went to school that day. I can't imagine missing that unexpected performance of The Fantasticks. 

That intangible sense that there are feelings and connections bigger than I could possibly fathom and can never properly articulate is one of the driving forces behind Broadway Books First Class. It's a delicious sense of wonder and possibility. It can not be manufactured, but it can be cultivated by presenting opportunities for students to feel the pull of the extraordinary. The kind of magic that can be found in a performance or in the pages of a book. We never know what small moment or passage may reach out and touch the heart of a child. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have the support of so many members of the Broadway community to help me realize this impossible dream. 

Of course, Danny Burstein delivered beautifully. Everyone told me that he is one of the nicest people in show biz and this "boy from the Bronx" proved that this is indeed true. His energy, warmth, and humor were on display in every interaction.

First, in his reading of the the imaginative children's book classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Talk about wonder and possibility! Harold takes us on an adventure unbounded by the physical. Clever word play is combined with simple line drawings to usher children into Harold's unfolding adventure. Page-by-page we were drawn into the story by Danny's invitations to sample a bit of Harold's world. "What's your favorite kind of pie?" he asked when Harold left us with 9 varieties to choose from. Together, Danny and Harold ushered us into a world wherein we could go anywhere and do anything. 

Danny Burstein reads Harold and the Purple Crayon alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

Danny chose this book because it was one he read to his own children. I love when guest artists suggest favorite books they have a deep connection to for reasons that are rooted in loving memories. Children feel and feed off of that joy. I see it every time I read my beloved Curious George. They want to ride on the waves of our enthusiasm. It helps them build their own connections and I envision them one day sharing it with their own children. The story goes on.

Danny signs books
The fact that each child took home a copy of the book with a personalized message from Danny only strengthens the bond to the book and the experience. 

And what an experience! Our students had a front row seat to an exclusive interview and performance by an a man with seven Tony Award nominations (winning in 2021 for Moulin Rouge). He shared his long-held passion for performing and his desire to keep challenging himself with different roles. For example, deciding to move on from his celebrated role as the Latin lover Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone (his first Tony nomination) to successfully explore vastly different characters in other plays and musicals (including Golden Boy, South Pacific, FolliesFiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.)  

Prompted by the students, Danny sang us a bit of If I Were a Rich Man from his 2016 Tony nominated performance in Fiddler on the Roof.  He set up the song by giving the children a bit of background. We'd previously studied the big themes of the show when Jessica Hecht visited. She played Golde to his Tevye on Broadway. It was thrilling having them both visit us just a few months apart. Danny gave us more insights into the show from his (and Tevye's) perspective. 

Danny Burstein singing IF I WERE A RICH MAN alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil (pictured here signing "if")

Again and again I find that the best way to build understanding and connections between ourselves and the things we love is through relationships. This is true in facilitating an understanding of the nuances between characters in shows, between the issues presented in them, and it is also true in the impact the visits have upon the students. It is such an incredible privilege to welcome Broadway guest artists into the classroom. The impact and magic of the visits are not lost on the children. These are moments, I believe, that will shape their lives. 

For a little over an hour my students had the golden opportunity to connect with Danny Burstein. And for that, we are all grateful.

I Love You
"Thank you and for the book and your voice is nice and the song."

Photos: Eileen Lograno, Dawn Klein, and Gary Wellbrock. 
Photo of Danny in First Grade provided courtesy of Danny Burstein


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