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. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Après Sa Mort

There was a black rotary phone sitting on the corner table in "the big room" just outside my bedroom. I heard it ringing as sat on my bed listening to music.


"Hi, is Beverly home?"

I put the phone down and shouted, "Ma! Phone!"

Mom came and I handed her the receiver before going back into my bedroom. I turned the music down and could hear a seriousness in her voice as she spoke, asking questions and seemingly grappling with whatever was being said on the other end of the phone. 

I grew concerned, so I stepped back into the big room and quietly watched her. She looked at me and through me as her eyes filled with tears. After a moment, she hung up the phone. Then, she wailed. An uncontrollable tidal wave of emotion rolled up from her center and exploded into the air. 

"I don't have a mother!" 

This is what I recall her crying, although I am not one hundred percent sure my memory can be trusted. I just know that, in that moment, she was struck a sudden and unexpected blow from this phone call telling her that her mom had passed. The impact, which was deep and lasting, brought an almost unbearable hurt. How does one go on after such a loss? 

I hugged mom as she crumpled into the small chair beside the phone. I was with her when she got the devastating news, but the memories of their history and love was something I couldn't understand. It was theirs alone. I couldn't really share it. All I could do was try to comfort MY mom as she forged ahead with the funeral plans. An only child shouldering the burden without siblings for support. 

In a dizzying flurry of emotions and activity, I thought, "This is it". The end. Everything from here on out, for mom, will be after her mother's death. My grandma would never see my mom get older, old. She'd never see us grow up. She'd never know what we became. The moment she passed things froze, in a way. 

And now that is how I see my own life in relation to the unexpected news of my mom's passing. I gave it a fancy French translation - après sa mort - because learning French is one of the things I've thrown myself into after her death. I've also started taking guitar lessons. I spend a great deal of time with both endeavors lately. These are things mom doesn't know. Or at least, they are things I can't pick up the phone to talk to her about. 

Life is still a lot less joyful and I struggle to make peace with the realization of who I am now. Lonelier. Sadder. Disconnected. Broken. It's all after her death. It sucks, but I've come to learn that there's no easy way through this. We must feel all the feels because pretending everything is alright just delays the healing. And I know I'm healing. I'm just not healed.  


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