Saturday, March 31, 2007

Theatreworks USA

While I am on the subject of live theater in New York City let me relate another experience that is worth exploring. There was a great meeting of passions when Curious George the Movie hit theaters in February 2006. Of course I had to take my students to see this when it played in a Union Square movie house within walking distance from our school.

Seating arrangements were a challenge since I had to position myself so that my deaf students could watch me as I interpreted the dialogue into American Sign Language in the darkness. But because the story was familiar and the visuals were rich the children had no issue with following the plot. The movie was very moving and funny. That adorable little monkey cracks me up. And although the day was a success, in terms of providing a rich experience for our students outside of the classroom, I felt that the logistics of providing ease of communication could have been improved. Too bad there was not a live stage version of The Adventures of Curious George so we could hire interpreters and enjoy another performance to its fullest like we had with Peter Pan.

Then I found one....

Theatreworks USA was performing Curious George at beautiful Town Hall in midtown Manhattan and get were cheaper for this show than they were for the movie! Group rates are only $7.00 per person with an order of 15 tickets or more. They were very accommodating with my request for interpreters. They sent me a copy of the script beforehand and when we arrived they had reserved a section of seats for us. The show itself was very well done. Everyone enjoyed the experience and it added another dimension to the students learning.

This year Theatreworks USA has a slate of 19 shows including Charlotte's Web, Seussical and The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. If you are a teacher looking to enrich the lives of your students through live theater, look them up. If you are a parent who would like to expose your child to reasonably priced theater (individual tickets are only $10) check them out as well. I am certainly glad I did.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Donors Choose

Teachers Ask. You Choose. Students Learn.

Peter Pan starring Cathy Rigby was coming to The Theater at Madison Square Garden. I got a flyer in my mailbox at school stating that they had discounted tickets for school groups. LIVE THEATER at discounted prices! As a former theatre major myself I got very excited at the thought of bringing my first grade students to see the magic. But even at discounted rates I could not foot the bill myself or expect that my students could either. What to do?

This is when I remembered a visit we had at Fordham University by a representative from Donors Choose. This is an organization that allows teachers with a dream (of trumpets for their music program, of live theater, of books for their classrooms, etc) to find a generous angel(s) who can make that dream come true. Donors can opt to fund a portion of this dream or all of it. So I posted my request on their website and found four angels that came through with 100% funding. In thanks, each one received a very touching Thank You note from me and from the students. Donors Choose provides a camera and we took pictures throughout the day which were also sent along. The students drew pictures of their experience as well. Some of them are pictured below.

Notice the magic of Peter Pan "flying" with the aid of a cable

There we are in the audience

This was in December 2005 and for the remainder of the school year the students referred back to this experience. We parlayed it into math lessons (graphing our favorite characters) writing (shared stories, letters to the characters, descriptions, creating a play), reading (there are many versions of this story) and Art. They are now in second grade and bring it up in different ways in my interactions with them. It is my hope that what they experienced that day will stay with them - even if it is just a good feeling about live theater. All this was made possible through Donors Choose, where your contribution is tax deductible. So, if you find yourself with a spare bit of change and are wondering what to do with it, have a look at Donors Choose. You can make a difference!

...thank you to my special angels who continue to grace my life.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The "A-ha" Moment

It is always my intention, and hopefully my practice, to celebrate the things my students can do instead of focusing on the things they can't. I refuse to adhere to a deficient model of education that implies a child is somehow always lacking. This philosophy establishes a no win situation - at some time, in some way we all come up short. Instead I try to concentrate on the process of ongoing development. If a child enters first grade with the knowledge of how to hold a book upright, I applaud that. I know what the next step is and how to help support student learning. I enjoy watching the students grow. and it amazes me how fast they learn. Blaming the child and shaking my head when they fail to identify the letter 'b' is not helping anyone.

This week New York City public school teachers are given the opportunity to meet with the parents and caregivers of the students they teach. This is a time when we discuss student progress, interests, share information to strengthen the home/school connection and determine goals. This is also when we hand the parents their child's report card. In first grade the academic subjects are rated on a scale of 1-4. A 1 means "far below grade-level standards" and a 4 means "exceeds grade-level standards".

Imagine with me for a moment that you are Johnny's mom and you come in to meet with his teacher. You know that Johnny is involved with his school work, he is creative and funny, artistic maybe, excels at telling stories, has a keen eye for noticing detail and always tries his best. You are proud of your boy. You should be. Then you sit down and are handed a report card that is riddled with 1s. Every subject...1. What would you be thinking? Probably you begin to question your judgement. You are disappointed and saddened to see this. What did you do wrong? As a teacher I HATE when this happens. Those 1s splashed across the page do not reflect the growth Johnny has made in such a short time. They do not clearly tell the story of his amazing progress, from perhaps writing scribbles and random strings of letters to detailed drawings with labels. This may not be up to standards but it must be celebrated.

With this in mind I want to share an uplifting, goose bump inducing story that occurred just a few days ago. My co-teacher Lauren (pictured above) has been instructing one of our deaf students each morning in what is labeled "Academic Intervention Services". This is targeted instruction for students in areas where they may be struggling. Since September his expressive and receptive language have improved dramatically and we are bridging that with literacy.

One of our reading goals for him is to extend his sight word knowledge beyond identification of names. Every day Lauren plays games with him using a deck of index cards that they created. On one side is a word (for example 'YOU') and on the other there is a picture of the student signing the word. The theory behind this is that through this explicit instruction in making connections between this arbitrary labeling - for language is arbitary, a rose by any other name and all that - the child would realize that the words he is seeing on the paper have meaning.
Well, the "A-ha" moment happened this week during one of our read-alouds. When the word 'you' was signed this boy stood up and fingerspelled the word. For the uninitiated, this is using the alphabet sign for each letter to spell a word. This is the equivalent of a hearing child saying each letter; y-o-u. Lauren and I were both very excited to see him make this connection. We celebrated it with smiles and signing 'wow'. Our support seemed to drive him on because he stepped up to the word wall (pictured) and began pointing to word after word and fingerspelling it and reading it by signing each word. This is an amazing leap. This is a milestone, a watershed moment in reading development.

A moment like this could never be reflected in the 'standards' given on the report card. This child would still be labeled a 1 "far below grade-level standards". Without benefit of the limited space for comments on his report card or face to face interactions with his parents to detail this achievement who would know? My point is this: Children are so much more than test scores. Let's remember to celebrate that.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Quality Conversations: Listening to the Ideas of Young Children

I have been extremely lucky in my teaching life to be surrounded by passionate, caring and motivated professionals. One such person is Lisa Burman. Lisa is our A.U.S.S.I.E literacy coach but that title conveys only a small part of her contribution. She facilitates learning for the teachers at our school through modeling lessons, conferences, professional development workshops and conversations. She has been instrumental in helping to foster an understanding of the Reggio Emilia approach to teaching and how this philosophy can meet the challenges of students in an urban setting. Her encouragement and support allow each of us to proceed with confidence, and when we are unclear in our planning she is on hand to guide us back to lucid thought. In addition to her work with us and in giving presentations at conferences such as the International Reading Association, she has found time to pen a book. The working title is Quality Conversations: Listening to the Ideas of Young Learners. It will be published by Redleaf Press (A division of Resources for Child Caring) later this year. As I write this she is hard at work weaving her magic but I could not suppress my excitement for her and feel the need to mention it here. Below is a brief description of this important work.

At the core of Quality Conversations, is the belief that each child is filled with potential for learning and thinking, is capable and competent. Their ideas show intelligence and logic as they make new connections and build emerging theories about how the world works. Conversations offer a window into this thinking, but one which, traditionally, schools and early childhood settings often fail to capture and value. In these days of "back to basics" activism and growing high stakes testing (which most often leads to narrow teaching to the test), it is essential to advocate for the kind of early childhood environments where children's ideas are valued, where they are listened to, not only heard, and where teachers are skilled and empowered to facilitate and guide learning, not just teach a predetermined curriculum of facts.

Relationships are at the heart of quality learning and teaching and the role of the teacher is critical in facilitating learning. Teachers first and foremost must have skills in careful listening. Quality Conversations will explore the role of teacher as listener, facilitator, documenter and interpreter of children's ideas and conversations. Examples of systems and strategies for documenting conversations, interpreting them in collaborative settings in order to learn from differing perspectives and to guide planning will be detailed. The documentation process offers powerful ways to make learning visible to families and wider community members, and Quality Conversations will include ways to use documentation to communicate with families.

As our government insists on more legislation in support of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) teachers and administrators are feeling tremendous pressure to produce. However, what is being cherished is rote memorization and surface understanding of concepts. Many schools are preparing students to pass the test, but once that obligation is completed where does that leave the students? Lisa's book supports the notion that children are more than a test score. Of course, this level of inquiry demands ongoing, qualitative research. It is exactly this kind of thoughtful pedagogy that falls by the side of the road when educators are only thought qualified in light of quantitative results. In the work that Lisa is doing she is striking a balance that allows the children to remain at the heart of education - where they should be!

Good luck Lisa and congratulations!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Children's Books

Children's literature has become a huge market and everyone is jumping on board. You no longer have to dedicate your life to authoring in a specific genre as did Margaret and H.A. Rey. They are the husband and wife team who are responsible for my all time favorite children's book:

It has become chic if you are a celebrity to write a children's book. The results have been mixed but there are certainly some celebrity authors who are doing a bang up job. Most notably are those authored by Jamie Lee Curtis, Madonna, Julie Andrews and as I recently discovered, Jason Alexander.

I found this out in our school library which is very well stocked and exquisitely run (thanks Sara!). I take my class there every Tuesday morning for a lesson on information technology and library skills. Afterwards the students browse the shelves and labeled book bins for interesting books. When they select their books they are free to sit on the small rocking chairs, low benches, rugs or large stuffed bears and read. It was during this time that I joined one of my students in reading a book she had chosen. I had no knowledge of this book so I became enraptured by the unfolding story. It is a tale of questioning and belief. The message is that we can choose to believe in magic and things we cannot see with our eyes or prove with tangible evidence. We have to ask ourselves if we are willing to trade our dreams for a prescribed reality. Perhaps we are in charge of creating our own reality (and not in an 'out of touch with reality' way but in a 'glass is half full' sort of way). I loved this book with its positive message and gorgeous illustrations.

Here is a description which I lifted from

When Gaby overhears some older kids on the playground saying that the tooth fairy is just make-believe, he goes straight to his father to find out the truth. The enchanting tale his dad tells him of a time long ago when mysterious and magical creatures lived on the earth will delight and entertain children and adults alike. For any child who has ever wondered about the existence of the tooth fairy, this original and reassuring story will satisfy their curiosity and give them the power to believe magical things can happen!

On the back cover there is an authors note with information for ordering the Tooth Fairy Envelopes used by the characters in the story. A photo of one is shown on the left. The website for ordering and more information is They are really beautiful and not too expensive, so perhaps it can become part of your family's tradition to place a baby tooth into this envelope for the tooth fairy as it has for Jason Alexander and his family. And perhaps when the time comes for you to explain about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, sandman or leprechauns you can hearken back to this tale and give your children the choice to believe with their hearts and not always with their heads. As the author states, "I believe that if you take care of the heart, the head will be just fine".

Friday, March 16, 2007

"I Spilled Myself"

By now we have all been well initiated into the idea that "kids say the darnedest things". This has been perpetuated by the countless emails that are endlessly forwarded and highlighted in movies like Kindergarten Cop. We all chuckle when kids innocently mention the naughty bits or blurt out intimate details of their parents private lives. (I am here to tell you that sitting in a parent teacher conference after knowing such information adds new shades of color to the meeting.) But in focusing on this aspect of children as they learn what is appropriate in polite society and work out the rules of social discourse we lose track of the poetry in their language.

The other day I had a little six year old girl in my class turn to me during Reading Workshop with a surprised expression on her face. In her small, angelic voice she said, "Gary, I spilled myself". While she waited for me to take action I was lost in thought. I was so impressed by what she has just said. It was so much more poetic than saying "I just peed in my chair". Have I ever said anything so descriptive, that caught the moment so clearly? I spilled myself. That about says everything you need to know.

It has been days since this happened and I am still thinking about it. And I am on the lookout for this sort of rich language in use. How many golden nuggets do I hear each day, how many do you hear from the children in your lives and never take heed? Well, I want to know. So start tuning in.

I also wonder why it is that all children seem capable of producing this spontaneous, poetic language while it is a foreign domain for adults. I have a theory. As adults we have a vast store of clich├ęs from which to draw and do not need to think of new ways to express ourselves. Everything we want to say has probably already been said. And it is difficult for new sayings to catch on. For years I walked around with a tidbit that I would use to wrap-up conversations. I would (and still do) say "Six days does not a week make". My friend Joy would tease me that I made it up and I would fight her on that point. This has gone on for years and just when I started to believe that it WAS actually my own personal saying I attended the Broadway revival of Barefoot in the Park and realized that I was not the author of that phrase, Neil Simon was.

I was saved however by a dream that brought on a new phrase. It is "I was blowing on a tea string". This is said in instances where you come to realize that you are believing or hoping in vain. This is stressing the useless nature of your actions. So far this saying has not caught on. I am also wondering if I heard it before I fell asleep one evening and am now claiming it for my own.

At any rate, I do not think that I will ever achieve the kind of poetry that is "I spilled myself". All I can do is remain receptive to the configuration of words around me and document them. Wouldn't it be cool to get a forwarded email some day whose topic is the poetry of young children? If I keep my eyes and ears tuned in I may just be the originator of it. I will keep you posted...

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Writing Process

The house is never as clean as when I have a paper due. I sit down to write and I notice that there is a speck of dust lingering at the corner of my desk. This must be dealt with immediately. Next thing I know, the floors get mopped, the windows are washed, cabinets are rearranged and the bathroom is scoured. This is saying something because I HATE to clean the bathroom.

I have noticed this pattern over the years and have berated myself at the level of procrastination and the endless techniques I employ to avoid simply sitting down and writing. The thing is, when I do actually get to the writing task I become so immersed in it that I do not want to stop. One masterful sentence leads to another and I am suddenly transported to my brilliant 'Charles Dickens' like state, at least that's how it feels at the time. So, the question remains...Why does it take me so long to arrive at that point?

I have pondered this issue with several friends of mine. One is my BFF Joy. She has written a novel, a memoir, a screenplay, numerous short stories and has had her poetry published. Words flow out of her in a seemingly effortless fashion. She has written one of my favorite short stories ever, by anyone. It's called The Old Woman in the Woods. A moving story of loss and missed opportunities.

The other is a brilliant lyricist/composer and a dear friend, Winston. Winston's writing runs the gamut from bitingly sarcastic and witty to heartbreakingly touching. A great talent. He actually makes his living doing this so his deadlines must be met.

What we have come up with is that the dusting, mopping, washing, rearranging and scouring all serve a purpose. They are part of the writing process. Win points out that doing those things are just as important as actually sitting down in front of the computer or piano. As we dust, we are composing. As we mop, we are formulating ideas. As we wash, we are playing with language. As we scour, we are editing and revising. All of this together makes the 'writing' blossom. It is why we are able to get lost in the act of writing because by the time we sit down to do it we are pulling from all of these other areas. It's a messy business this writing process.

Joy, Winston and myself are all adults. But, children and young folk go through the same process I am sure. So, Parents and caregivers take note. When your child is seemingly avoiding doing their homework they just may be processing it. Allow them time to work their magic. Creativity can not be forced. I give this advice to settle your minds. However, if they are avoiding math homework all bets are off. I have nothing to say on that topic, there is a reason I teach first grade.

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Good Teacher Never Stops Learning

Back in 2002 I saw a posting in The New York Teacher with the above caption and it caught my eye. I went on to read a bit further...25 full tuition scholarships were available through the Fordham University Graduate School of Education and the Hello Friend/Ennis William Cosby Foundation. If you met the qualifications (and I did, YIPPEE!) you could apply for an 18 credit sequence of six courses that would ‘expand your range of strategies used to teach reading and writing to young children with learning differences’. It targeted young readers at risk, students who may be struggling to overcome dyslexia.

I knew this program was for me. I was 100% sure that I was a perfect candidate, a sure match, an ideal applicant, a true contender. Well, you get the idea. And I was! I attended one of the open houses and met Dr. Joanna Uhry. She answered my questions and provided me with an application. That summer I attended the 31st Annual Summer Literacy Institute. The theme was Equity and Excellence in Early Literacy Education.

In January 2004 I gave a speech at my graduation ceremony. That's me on the left getting my certificate. By this time I had become a mentor to the next cohort of Cosby Scholars. The following year I entered the doctoral program in Language, Literacy and Learning and this past September I began teaching one of those six aforementioned courses for Cohort 7.

I mention this for two reasons.

First: This is an example of the blessings that seem to rain down upon us when we are following our bliss. One amazing experience led to another for me. And I am very grateful.

Second: Fordham and the Hello Friend Foundation are currently holding an ‘Open House’ at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus, 113 West 60th Street for Cohort 8. The remaining dates are: March 22nd, March 29th, April 12th, April 19th and May 10th at 6:00 p.m. For more information or to confirm attendance call Dr. Joanna Uhry at (212)636-6449 or visit

This program changed not only my teaching life but my life in amazing ways. I am a better teacher because of the skills I learned in the program. If you meet the qualifications (a current, certified New York City K-2 teacher eager to learn) do yourself a favor and stop by. I’ll be there as well. Follow your bliss indeed.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Classroom as a Living Room

I am fortunate enough to work in a school in Manhattan that trusts and respects teachers. The Department of Education and the current government seem to think that we need to be monitored and closely watched or we will (heaven forbid) use our own judgments in selecting the ways the students before us learn best. Politicians and policy makers who have never stepped foot in a classroom are telling me that they know more about the 13 students in my class than I do. Well, I guess that makes sense, I only spend seven hours a day, five days a week with them. There are now scripted programs being pushed that promote teacher as technician…each classroom teaching the same thing, in the same way, at the same time regardless of student learning. If little Suzy does not quite get on board, well something must be wrong with her! The era of ‘blame the child’ is a little too precious.

But, all is not lost. Take heart.

Our school has been fostering the Reggio Emilia approach to education for the last six years. This approach which began in Italy has a deep rooted respect for children. Their interests, concerns and talents are springboards into exploration and learning. One aspect of this approach is a focus on environment. Natural light, uncluttered workspaces, organized materials available for projects, mirrors and reflected light, students work displayed prominently and an emphasis on the process rather than the product are all components. To this end, I have spent much time arranging the classroom so that students feel welcomed and respected. It is a process in itself and together we make changes to fit our circumstances. I think it has been successful.
I was chatting with a teacher friend recently and the topic of classroom environment came up. I had been in his classroom and felt overwhelmed and uneasy. I had to say something, subtly of course. Well, maybe not so subtle because he got defensive and said he could never get behind “The classroom as a living room”. Maybe children do learn better when they have teachers who follow scripts or cluttered, unorganized classrooms. I only have a group of first graders who know more about Greek Mythology than most high schoolers, but who am I?

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What is "Following Your Bliss?"

The title of my new blog was coined by the wonderful teacher/author Joseph Campbell. After being introduced to his work by my friend Joy, I became fascinated with this simple statement. Over the years my understanding of its meaning is still developing but I do believe that I have come to the realization that Joseph Campbell was talking about passion.

Passion which emanates from the soul.

Passion that is individual and organic.

Passion gently guiding us as we watch doors open and opportunities arise in seemingly effortless ways.

By following your bliss you are engaged in the PROCESS of happiness. The journey as it unfolds is the bliss, not some future goal. It is living each day in a state of rightness.

So, there are those of you who say “Goody for you! Life is easy.” But finding and subsequently following your bliss does not mean that you sail through life. It is not an easy ride (make no mistake).

For me, my bliss is teaching.

Each day I have some moment with my students that quite literally makes me smile. I am where I should be, doing what I love. Following my bliss.


Related Posts with Thumbnails