Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Grown Up Christmas List

Jolly Old Saint Nicholas came bearing gifts a tad early this year in the guise of Kim Weild from Other Voices.

Kim (and her producing partner Jill Bernard) invited me to join an exquisite lineup of Broadway performers for a special fundraiser called Broadway Holiday.

My role would be providing American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation for the sweet and selfless holiday song My Grown Up Christmas List.

To be invited to frolic on the playground with the big kids brought a bit of excitement tinged with "OH MY GOD!" nervousness.  If I was going to do this I couldn't mess it up, so I enlisted the ASL interpreting talents of my lovely team teacher, Oni. Interpreting is not just providing a word-for-word translation of the lyrics.  Rather, it is digging deeply into the message the words evoke and presenting them with clarity and truth.

We worked for hours to perfect this one little song.  The most challenging section was pondering how to put forth the imagery and meaning for the lyrics, "What is this illusion called the innocence of youth? Maybe only in our blind belief can we ever find the truth!" When I arrived at rehearsal the day before the event we still hadn't settled on a satisfactory interpretation.

At rehearsal I met the exquisite Elizabeth Ward Land.  She started singing "Do you remember me..." and my heart literally started going pitter-pat.  Luckily, I had a job to do so there was no time to stand there with my mouth hanging open in awe of her talent.  Check out her website or listen here to see what I mean.  The voice of an angel!

Afterwards we chatted about mutual friends, Broadway shows, passion, education, and music.  She really is extraordinary.

The night of the performance she brought me a signed copy of her CD First Harvest (I am currently obsessed with Flies on the Butter) and we went over some last minute ideas.

My Grown Up Christmas List with Elizabeth Ward Land

All in all I was quite pleased.  I think I could have done a better job but given that we put it together in just a few days it went rather well.  Above all, I am so grateful for the opportunity to play once again on the stage for a meaningful cause.  The irony of it all is not lost on me.  I gave up performing to teach and then teaching brought me back to performing (the event came about because of Broadway Books First Class).

Thank you to Kim, Jill, Oni, and Elizabeth for making it happen and thanks to Mark for being there to celebrate the moment with me.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Eden Duncan-Smith

My Broadway Baby (and former first grade student) Eden Duncan-Smith returns
to inspire my current crop of first graders.

Where do you start?  
How do you separate the present from the past?
With bits of memories scattered here and there,
I look around and don't know where to start.*

I feel a little like that right now - Where DO I start? How can one post capture the layered emotions of a dazzling homecoming, a full circle moment celebrating positivity in education and spirit?  I suppose like any good musical theater aficionado I should "start at the very beginning, a very good place to start".

Eden Duncan-Smith's Broadway Books First Class visit had the school community abuzz with excitement. This was because Eden attended our school from kindergarten through fifth grade and was a student of mine when she was in first grade ten years ago.  When the thought of this project came about I immediately thought of Eden who entered into her first Broadway show, Fences, while with us. Soon afterwards, she went on to star as Young Nala in the spectacular broadway extravaganza Disney's Lion King.  Last year she starred as orphan Isabella in the movie Annie (2014) with other movie roles sprinkled throughout 2015.

Thankfully, Eden is very enthusiastic about giving back to the community and supporting literacy/arts programs in schools.  Her loving mom, Nicole, encourages Eden's acts of kindness and helped coordinate this visit.

I loved showing my current class of first graders pictures of Eden from when she was in first grade.  I also had a copy of a "small moment" story written by a young(er) Eden about the time she attended a pageant.  Sharing these visual memories was a powerful way to build connections between Eden and the children.  We wanted to send a strong message that they can ALL achieve astounding things in any field if they can dream it and work to make it happen.

The notion of working towards a goal became an underlying theme. Students asked Eden how she juggles going to school with her hectic professional life.  In short, it ain't easy!  It requires dedication and tenacity.  They also wanted to know about The Lion King and, of course, Annie!

We watched snippets of the movie before Eden's visit and you can bet your bottom dollar these little Annie fans wanted to hear all about it.  Eden graciously answered questions and even sang a bit of that heartbreaking ode to optimism Maybe.  That, in turn, prompted the students to spontaneously break out into a chorus of It's a Hard Knock Life.

Eden read Annie: A True Family alongside our exquisite American Sign Language interpreter Mary Grace Gallagher (although Eden signs herself). The children were excited to see that Eden was pictured in the book. Afterwards our Parent Coordinator, Terry,  had a little surprise from our Parent Association.  Terry happily handed out copies of the book and Eden wrote a personal message for each student.

After many hugs and smiles it was time to say goodbye - for now. To borrow (yet another) lyric from a Broadway musical, this visit was measured in love.

*Lyrics from Where do you Start? by Alan and Marilyn Bergman

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Broadway Holiday

My little literacy and arts program Broadway Books First Class kicklined onto the stage less than 3 months ago but oh, what a merry string of events has unfolded in that short span of time.

Word of mouth and the kindness of new friends brought me in touch with Other Voices, an organization "founded by Kim Weild and Jill Bernard to create new, bold and innovative works of art that bridge socio-economic and cultural divides".

Inspired by Broadway Books First Class, Kim and Jill had the idea to create a show and companion book based on the stories of my students (and others) at PS347 The American Sign Language and English Lower School.

Other Voices will conduct a series of Winter Workshops with the children in February and the show will be performed at The High Line in April 2016.

In order to raise money to support a companion book they put together Broadway Holiday, an evening of "singing, signing and celebration" featuring Broadway performers from Spring Awakening, Beautiful, Amazing Grace, Cabaret and more. The event takes place this Thursday night, December 17 at 9:30 PM.  The book is a beautiful take-away for the students serving as a reminder that their creative voices matter.

So, if you are in New York City and looking to show some love for this project please swing by 42West.  It promises to be a spectacular evening.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Charles Busch

First Graders with the incomparable Charles Busch
At first glance it may seem as though inviting drag legend Charles Busch - who penned Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, Psycho Beach Party and Die, Mommie, Die! - to spend an afternoon with my first grade students was an odd choice.  But, thank goodness for second glances and looking beyond the surface to the man behind the flawless makeup.  In that lucid realm, it becomes immediately apparent that Charles Busch is an inspired addition to Broadway Books First Class.

Besides, what is more quintessentially New York than showcasing a performer who created a path in the rough-and-tumble world of theater by surrounding himself with kindred spirits while relying on his talent and determination.  Cooperation and perseverance are qualities educators nurture in school-aged children.

My team teacher Oni and I couldn't wait to introduce the children to Charles and his work.  So, one morning a week before his visit we projected a photograph of him onto our SmartBoard.  We first discussed Charles as a writer and made connections to the writing we do every day.  We discussed scripts and did a little role playing with two characters I created. The boys and girls slipped between the characters without regard for gender. Boys happily played the girl part and vice versa.

Actor, playwright and
drag legend Charles Busch
Next, we told the children that Charles often performs in his own shows playing the woman's role.  To provide the visual we unveiled a very glamours shot of Charles in costume and prepared for their reaction.

Here was a moment when you realize, once again, that prejudice against those outside of our everyday purview must be carefully taught.  After an initial reaction of awesome wonder their shock melted away.  The first comment when asked what they thought about his alter ego was to point out that he had a digraph in his first AND last name.

Over the next several days the kids came up with some questions for Mr. Busch.

Did you like to act and write when you were little?
What kinds of books do you like to read?
How are your acting and writing connected?
How often do you dress like a girl and how do you do it?

He answered all of these with a striking honesty that showed a vulnerability and a willingness to step outside of his comfort zone to open up to a group of children.  During his time with us he shared that he  had a "rather lonely childhood and always felt different from the other kids".  (I wonder how many of the students in our class also feel different, lonely, or outside the boundaries of what is typical.)  Charles said he found his voice in theater surrounded by others who had similar experiences growing up.

It's a good thing for all of us that he did!  His reading of The Spider and the Fly was a joy to behold. I couldn't help but feel I had a front row seat to a standing room only performance right there in my own classroom.

Todd Parr, one of my favorite children's book authors, often ends his books by writing, "The world is a better place because of you".  As I said goodbye to Charles that afternoon those words danced around my mind.  The world is indeed a better place because of Mr. Charles Busch.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Hollie Wright

Joyous Broadway dancer Hollie Wright (seated) with our first grade students.
Notice the girls on the right signing the letters "H" and "W" for her name.
Curtain Up!  Light the Lights!  And...

Five, Six, Seven, Eight...

Children and movement - they seem to go hand-in-hand.  Little bodies squirm, wiggle and fidget.  How wonderful it is to direct that energy into a form of creative expression.

Our second Broadway Books First Class visitor gave us the incentive to do just that!

We set the stage for Hollie Wright's visit by taking our first grade class to Lincoln Center to see Ballet Hispanico perform dynamic choreography to the music of Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and Xavier Cugat.  The dancers celebrated the captivating aesthetics of Hispanic culture in solo, paired and group numbers utilizing space and time to great advantage.  This performance generated questions for Hollie including, "Do you dance alone or with someone?" and "What kinds of dancing do you do?"

We also read books about dancers - check out the soaring Firebird by Misty Copeland - and began a Latin Dance class ourselves through New York City's Town Hall.

Hollie brought Pointe shoes
The books brought another question to mind, "Why do dancers dance in pointe shoes?"  In general, dancing shoes were an area of curiosity so I asked Hollie if she could bring along some shoes for the kids to explore.

She happily complied by bringing ballet slippers, Pointe shoes, character shoes and tap shoes.  She even gave a command performance by tapping splendidly on our tile floor and later, leading the students in a series of stretches.

But, before all that happened she read.  We chose Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen (interesting side note: Hollie understudied Debbie Allen's daughter Vivian Nixon in Hot Feet on Broadway).

Hollie gathered the children around her on the rug and read the story of Sassy who dreams of becoming a dancer.  Throughout the reading Hollie paused to ask and answer questions, show pictures and comment on the story.

Hollie reading Dancing in the Wings with ASL interpretation by Mary Grace Gallagher

Like Gregory Jbara before her, we noticed Hollie knew how to gauge the reading to keep little bodies with short attention spans engaged.  After the reading I commented on this only to find out she has a degree in education and is experienced in teaching young children.

She has been dancing since Age 2 and has been taught by the best (Maurice Hines!).  She also enjoys a long association with The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School. She is in demand but for a while she chose to spend time with us.

I am thankful I met this bighearted performer that hot summer night this August outside the theater of her Broadway show Amazing Grace. Her visit was inspiring.  Who knows?  We may have a future dancer in our midst!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reviving Miss Nancy

Miss Nancy of Romper Room
Ah, education!

Your pendulum swings with such force from one "fresh" ideology to another but the only things that are new again are the superficial wrapping and arbitrary labels.

This past go 'round was particularly ugly.  The last few years have been virtually joyless, abusive and heartbreaking for teachers. Thankfully, that is changing.  At least in my little corner of the world.

Our school is returning to the Teachers College Columbia University Reading and Writing Project for literacy development.  Their curriculum actually teaches children how to read and write in a developmentally appropriate manner.  

It is such a pleasure to receive educational guidance from folks who know how children learn. This is a great departure from curricula developed by test makers posing as educators.  We'll be dealing with the damage they caused for many, many years (I am looking at you Pearson!)

The one drawback is the way the literacy coaches from the Reading and Writing Project teach and interact with students.  They all seem to be emulating the over-the-top style of 1960s Romper Room television hosts welcoming children or peering through the Magic Mirror.

I am not sure why the coaches all seem programmed with a robotic Stepford Wives computer chip of congeniality but I'll take maniacal smiles over disapproving scowls any day.

Don't be surprised if you walk by my room one day and catch me muttering,

Romper, stomper, bomper boo.
Tell me, tell me, tell me, do. 
Magic Mirror, tell me today,
Did all my friends have fun at play?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Featured In...

Author Lenore Skenazy (pictured) wrote a lovely column this week about Broadway Books First Class for the newspaper Chelsea Now.

The article entitled His 'First Class' Idea: Bring Broadway to School is a fancy schmancy, bring-a-smile-to-my-face, piece that covers what transpired in our classroom during Gregory Jbara's visit.

Lenore captures a child's perspective on adult themes - I refer to this as poetic language in children - when a student refers to a graveyard as "the deadness".  Appropriate imagery with All Hallows' Eve just around the corner.

She deftly manages connections (between people, between time, and between situations) throughout the piece.  It is deeply gratifying to have Lenore's perspective and support on this new project.

Please check it out by clicking here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Gregory Jbara

Tony Award Winning actors do not generally pop into first grade classrooms to read to the children.  However, that is changing thanks to my new literacy and arts project entitled Broadway Books First Class.

The tone of generosity and kindness was set this past week with a visit from Broadway veteran Gregory Jbara who took a break from shooting his hit television series Blue Bloods to read the children's book Creepy Carrots.

Anticipation for Greg's visit began two weeks ago as we slowly introduced the project and his work each morning.  We asked our students, "What do you know about live theater?" and inevitably, "How is it different from going to the movies?" Students shared and questioned, they talked with one another to deepen their collective and individual understanding and after several days of discussion and watching Greg in action - via the Internet and DVDs - formulated a few questions of their own.

"Do you dance on TV?"
"How did you get the job to act?"
"How do you make movies?"
"How did you make Tangled?"
"Did you always want to be an actor?"
"What was your favorite role? Why?"

By the time he walked through our door the children were bursting with excitement to meet Gregory Jbara.  In an unassuming and relaxed manner he introduced himself to each student by bending down and shaking each little hand.

After their "Oohhs" and "Ahhs" quieted he settled into a fun reading of the film noir influenced Creepy Carrots.

Gregory Jbara reading Creepy Carrots with sign language interpretation by Mary Grace Gallagher.

It became immediately evident to the educators in the room (my principal Dave and team teacher Oni) that Mr. Jbara knew his way around a reading.  He masterfully took the students on a journey while sprinkling the reading with those teacher staples of think-alouds and purposeful questioning.  His reading instantly became a model for fluency and prosody (another classroom reading goal).

Our students sat engaged and watchful throughout the reading and shared the unexpected, joyful twist of the final pages with our famous visitor.

The questions followed, and as I watched the children process his answers I became immediately impressed by their understanding of a world outside their experience.  For example, after describing the audition process and how directors/producers select just one performer for a role a student asked, "But what happens if you are both great?"

We discussed his thoughts about Billy Elliot the Musical (naturally) but our 6-year-old audience was particularly interested in his voice work for the Disney movie Tangled.  They even learned a new word - ruffian!

As the visit came to a close we presented him with a hardcover copy of Creepy Carrots that we all signed and a note of thanks. But honestly, how can we give enough thanks to this big-hearted man for sharing his time and talent with us?

He even stayed after the reading for almost an hour to talk with columnist/author Lenore Skenazy about his involvement with Broadway Books First Class (he was the first performer to say, "I'm interested") and his wonderful career. It is very telling of his genuine, down-to-earth character that he thanked ME for this opportunity!

Each student received a copy of Creepy Carrots courtesy of our PTA

I cannot imagine a better performer to kick off this project than Gregory Jbara.  The bar has been set high but with Broadway dancer Hollie Wright and Tony nominated playwright Charles Busch visiting next month I have no doubt the momentum will keep building.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

First Impressions

The school year is underway and we are off to a wonderful start. Each year I wonder about the dynamic of the class.  How will the class inhale and exhale as we find new life together?  What adjectives will describe the interplay of our shared experience?

The gestalt is more than my individual interactions with each student.  Individually they bustle about with their own stories but when a group of children are asked to coexist in one space it isn't always easy to predict the outcome.  In years past we've characterized a class as "deep thinkers" "learners who need a lot of visual support and repetition" "inquisitive and high energy" and "fun and best suited to learning through exploratory play or games".

Our feeling this year - after only 6 days together - is that the makeup of our class is strongly defined by the sweet nature of our students and their desire to be good.  This means they clearly want to please us even as they push boundaries a bit.  I remember wanting to please my teachers too.  I wanted that recognition of a job well done or acknowledgement of my effort.   I saw this as what was meant by being fair. My intrinsic motivation was somehow intertwined with the extrinsic.

The goodness of our children can be seen in the way a little boy enters the room and after putting his things away, sits on the rug to wait for the morning to begin.  How another boy carefully arranges the superhero book bin so all the covers are facing out.  We see it when 2 girls decide they shouldn't sit together because they distract one another or when another child picks up a crumpled piece of paper that has been sitting under a table and throws it in the garbage.

Our first impressions will change and grow throughout the year but I do believe we are off to a good start.  I see that my smiles, words of encouragement, subtle forms of acknowledgement and fairness will impact these children perhaps more than they have other classes.

I will be careful to remember the impact of my role as their teacher. Teachers - and all adults - can make a situation fun or a horror show depending on our reaction to a given situation.  We can choose to become upset and dismissive or understanding and laugh off the inevitable mess children create.  I choose to laugh.  The trick is to follow through on these good intentions even when I am exhausted or sick or stressed out.

First impressions!  I wonder how we - the teachers - did.  How will this class characterize or define us?

Saturday, September 19, 2015


The website for my new literacy project Broadway Books First Class is now LIVE!

Building a website is a breeze these days.  I am grateful for the hours I spent creating this blog. Follow Your Bliss gave me a strong background in the finer points of editing, placement and design.

It also helped that I had a clear vision for the Broadway Books First Class site.  I knew what I wanted to include and how I wanted it to look before I started.

I am excited to build content with each visit to showcase the fact that educators can fight against the lack of funding for the arts in small ways.  We can make a difference.  All it takes is an idea and the right people will find you.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Road to Adorable

The curtain opens to reveal a very theatrical book hoofing it to promote literacy.
Artist: Heather DiDomenico
I am always interested in how an idea develops and changes over time to become something tangible and complete.  The creative process seems somehow magical when it is removed from our personal experience but becomes demystified when seen as a step-by-step journey.

As I wrote my dissertation I imaged all of the other doctoral students out there breezing along with the luxury of uninterrupted time and boundless energy.  It was only in discussion with others that I realized research and writing is not "easy" for anyone.  Creativity takes planning.  Planning takes time. Time allows for error.  Error eventually produces results.

The creative process is a process.  Although moments of inspiration and creativity appear along the way it all begins with a vision.  The vision is then shaped and worked on until a (hopefully) satisfying result is produced.

And sometimes the vision needs a little help from others before it can manifest. This was certainly true when I had the notion to create an image for my new literacy project called Broadway Books First Class.  I saw the image very clearly in my mind but lacked the artistic ability to execute it.

I sent out a few feelers to some talented individuals but did not find a match until my mom suggested asking my young niece, Heather, to create the image.  Heather was agreeable so I gave her a detailed account of what I wanted.

However, she was unfamiliar with my references - "The hat should be on an angle like Liza's in Cabaret when she is singing Mein Heir" "The book should look somewhat like a dancer in motion from A Chorus Line" "I want a cane and top hat similar to that of Fred Astaire" "Bold, dark lines like the Broadway poster for Beauty and the Beast"

Heather's First Sketch
To her credit this did not deter her.  She did her research and sent me a rough sketch almost immediately. We had some back and forth to adjust things (e.g. getting rid of the floorboards, adding detail to the curtains, changing the lettering).

The final result is a dream.  She created an adorable image that makes me want to cuddle up with a book and become lost in the entertainment it offers.  From the expressive "Spongebob" style eyes to the banana-shaped mouth the image is absolute perfection.

So, meet the face of Broadway Books First Class.

Thank you Heather!!!!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Defending the Early Years

CCSS 1.OA.D.8:
"Determine the unknown whole
number in an addition or subtraction
equation relating to three whole numbers."
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) provide fodder for debate amongst educators, researchers, administrators and the political machine that drives the incessant cycle of instruction and assessment.

We all go 'round and 'round but what are the main concerns?

This week I read an article released by the folks at Defending the Early Years (DEY) detailing Constance Kamii's critical examination of the K-3 CCSS for math. The piece clarified some of the issues.

The article states that DEY is "an organization of early childhood professionals dedicated to speaking out with well-reasoned arguments against inappropriate standards, assessments, and classroom practices.  We are concerned about the rising emphasis on academic skills in early childhood today.  Increasing teacher-directed instruction is leading to the erosion of play-based, experiential learning that we know children need from decades of theory and research in cognitive and developmental psychology and neuroscience" (Emphasis is mine)

The issue Kamii has with the CCSS seems to rest with the fact that educators are now being forced to replace child-centered experiential learning - through play and inquiry - with developmentally inappropriate instruction. This is huge. In essence, she argues we are teaching skills in first grade that children will master without instruction in second grade (and so on).  Why the rush? Why are we wasting the child's time? More importantly, is the sacrifice worth the price when you consider what is lost?

As an educator, I am not resistant to the CCSS. My experience with implementation has been mostly positive.  The majority of my first grade students - with the exception of my English language learners - excel at math. They enjoy tackling the challenging material and using different strategies to solve complex word problems and equations.  I had trouble understanding the hubbub and derision surrounding the practical application and value of the CCSS.

The take away from Kamii's article seems to be a matter of could vs. should.  Just because children are capable of doing the work, is it in the child's best interest to do so?  Is the "forced" and "inappropriate" learning merely surface level "verbalisms" lacking depth of understanding?  I cannot answer that or fight the machine to alter that expectation.

What I can do is remain diligent and strive to achieve a well-rounded curriculum for my students while operating within the confines of the CCSS.  One that includes time for the arts and allows for child-centered learning through blocks, dramatic play and student-led social interactions.

As the CCSS are tweaked (or eventually thrown out) I can provide children with daily, meaningful learning experiences.  Teachers can still make a difference.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Les enfants à Paris

"Paris Plages" transforming Paris
into a series of themed beaches
New York City encourages children to take a cultural bite out of The Big Apple but offerings in The City of Lights (La Ville-Lumiére) shine just as brightly. 

I was first struck by this as I strolled along the right bank of the Seine River and stumbled upon the inviting golden sand and blue umbrellas of the annual summer event, Paris Plages (Paris Beach). 

Children can frolic in the floating pool while enjoying live music or lounge on a beach chair with a book from the mobile library. We also witnessed bike safety lessons for the wee ones, pet stations/stops and booths selling food, beverages and trinkets.  

Later, I entered the Place du Carrousel located near the open end of the courtyard of the Musée du Louvre.  Nestled within the covered arches before the Rue de Rivoli were framed posters promoting "Les Ateliers Enfants".

This program resembles those of my beloved Met Museum with tours and activities to spark an interest in French culture, art and history.

La Petite Academie, Paris
At every turn I saw child-centered activities peeking out from windows and doorways (La Petite Academie, P'tit Vélib') or advertised on billboards (Les Minions!, Vice-Versa - the French title for Pixar's Inside Out - and the newly released Le Petit Prince).

It made me think that early childhood educators in Paris had it pretty good too.

When I returned home I discovered a blog posting about taking a group of children to visit museums and landmarks in Paris.  The photographs of children eating lunch and posing in front of The Eiffel Tower and the Louvre is reminiscent of the class pictures I took of my students outside The Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The post even includes some children's drawings.

I may have found my Parisian counterpart and definitely see new experiences unfolding in my future. There must be openings at the Institut National de Jeunes Sourds de Paris.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

New York City is our Classroom

New York City!

I cannot imagine a better place to teach.  The Big Apple offers school children culture, history and a sense of wonder.

It breaths life into the words we read in books and helps children connect to the lessons in tangible ways through visual, tactile and kinesthetic modalities.

NYC lets kids get their hands dirty.  She encourages them to question and explore and offers a great many oohs and ahhs.

New York City is a great teacher.

This year we expanded the walls of our classroom with trips to Liberty Island and The Statue of Liberty, Governor's Island Learning Garden, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rockefeller CenterTop of the Rock, The Fire Zone, The New Victory Theater, Children's Museum of the Arts, Central Park, The Staten Island Ferry,  Green Meadow Farm Festival of Cultures and Lincoln Center.

Students gathering greens at Governor's Island Learning Garden
During our travels the children learned about nutrition, gardening, healthy habits, history, art, design, color, shape, geography, world cultures, perspective, transportation modes, performance styles, mythology, respect, rules, cooperation, fire safety, creativity, plants, life cycles and themselves.

Thankfully our principal is very supportive of field trips for the elementary grades and recognizes their value. For many of our students class trips are the only opportunity they have to experience first-hand the treasures that NYC has to offer.  That is true for me as well.  I had never visited Liberty Island before this year!

Next year we will continue to open our doors to venture out while continuing to invite New York into our classrooms through children's book author visits, theatrical performances and Broadway Books First Class.

With all this it is easy to sing out, "I love New York!"

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Rose

The One Hundred and Fourth Annual Commencement ceremony for our graduating Eighth Grade students included a recently added tradition called Presentation of Roses.

Each graduate stands on the stage and presents a rose to an adult they deem deserving of thanks and recognition for the love, support, and guidance they've provided.

The decision does not come without a lot of contemplative handwringing.

Last year, I was honored by my tearful little cupcake who was filled with such emotion that she could not finish explaining why she chose me.  This angelic child found a way to touch my heart one last time before she flew off into the world.

This year the scene unfolded a little differently but I equally moved.

First, there is a little backstory.

In 2012, the graduating Eight Grade class asked me to be their keynote speaker.  I prepared a brief speech outlining some life lessons based on Curious George.  As I spoke I tossed out a little stuffed George every once in a while just to make sure they were paying attention.

This year one of the 2015 graduates quietly asked if I had any of those stuffed Curious George toys left. The message was clear.  This really cool eighth grader wanted a Curious George stuffed animal. Adorable!  So, I brought one to the commencement ceremony to give to him afterwards.

It turns out that when it came time for the presentation of the roses he called my name.

On stage he handed me the rose and I handed him the stuffed George.  When we quickly hugged he said, "I love you man!"

These fabulous kids, they are killing me!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Catching Up With...Michael

Class Pictures
Top Left: Preschool 2000-2001 - Michael is on the far right in a white shirt
Top Right: Preschool 2001-2002 - Michael is top row, third from left
Bottom Left: Kindergarten 2002-2003 - Michael is top row, second from left
Bottom Right: First Grade 2003-2004 - Michael is center row, third from right

It is rare that an elementary school teacher has the opportunity to work with the same student for four years, but I did.  I had the happy privilege of steering Michael through two years of preschool, then kindergarten and first grade.

I first saw Michael when he was just three-years-old.  He was standing in the school lobby next to his stunningly beautiful mother and was clearly not at all happy about having to hold her hand.  He looked ornery and angry as he kicked at her ankles with his little feet.

I thought, "This boy is a handful".

Luckily, I like kids who are handfuls.  Instead of being deterred by his antics, I found him incredibly endearing.  He was just too cute to pull off that temper tantrum.  By the time we were introduced he was all smiles and over-the-top charm.  He even pronounced my name as "Gawy".  Somehow that just upped my fatherly instincts to protect and nurture this child.

Michael in Pre-K sporting
blonde hair
I have so many vivid memories of Michael as a preschool student but the story I am most fond of telling is the one about his nap time routine.

He slept with his head inside the pillow case and was not easy to wake up.

My co-workers Maggie and Marilla would often look to me to do the job.

It routinely went something like this...

Me: Michael, it's time to get up.
Michael: (silence)
Me: (gently shaking him) Michael, wake up.
Michael: (pokes his head out from the pillowcase, yells and slaps me hard across the face)

We all found it endlessly amusing and it only endeared him to me more.

Later, after four years as his teacher, his mom and I joked that I should just stay with him until he graduated.  She promised that she would keep in touch and one of these days I would attend his high school graduation and we would all share a very emotional moment together.

Through the years Michael would stop by for a visit. It is wonderful to see this little boy grow into a funny, kind, and stalwart young man.

In May 2009 and March 2012

This past June Michael graduated from high school.  He sent me a message the night before to invite me but although I wanted to attend I had another batch of children that needed me and I just couldn't work it out.

Michael started Brooklyn College this summer and is working at Potbelly Sandwich Shop.  He says he is "struggling to do school and work at the same time".  As a Child of Deaf Adults (CODA) he is interested in majoring in American Sign Language and wants to do something related to sign as a career.

He added, "I remember how great a teacher you were.  You always connected with students with your high energy, passion and your sense of humor".

And then he slapped me hard across the face.

Monday, July 20, 2015


I've had playful, theoretical Medusa vs. Cyclops challenges in the past but never the cage fight, badass, WWE SmackDown! aesthetic of the images Oni put together this year.

And bless the children.  The more graphic the art, the more invested they become.

This year we posed the above question in two different forums. First, to our class and then to the school community.

The majority of our first graders held the opinion that the cyclops would win...

" I think the cyclops would will win because he can feel around and if he feels Medusa's hair he can punch her.
That's why I think the cyclops is going to win. "

" I think the cyclops is going to win becasue he would eat Medusa's head off and she would be dead."
(Check out the cool speech bubbles - "Get out of my cave!!!")
Generally their take was Medusa is tiny and cyclops is big.  He could therefore "smash" her.

One girl posed a question I had never considered.  She asked, "What would happen if one of the snakes on Medusa's head looked at her and turned to stone? Would she turn to stone too since it is part of her?" Good question, discuss...

We also put up a SmackDown! bulletin board outside our classroom and invited students, teachers, paraprofessionals, parents, and administrators to vote.  The majority vote school-wide was overwhelmingly in favor of Medusa coming out the victor.  I'd have to agree.  Medusa is much more strategic than the impulsive cyclops.

Below is a cool student tribute to Medusa.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Top Ten 2014 - 2015

A sample Top Ten list from a First Grade student
The Top Ten posts are my favorite to write because they serve as a time capsule showcasing the uniqueness of a particular class.  The books and the children's writing bring back memories of our time together and the dynamic moments we shared.

This year, as in years past, our students created individual top ten lists (see above) from the many books we read together.  Each book was then voted on by the whole class until we settled on just ten.

Number One
Number One: Washington Irving's The Headless Horseman (adapted by Natalie Standiford) topped the list this year.

Our class was so enraptured by the dark mystery of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that they created their own version.

It is a testament to the staying power of the story that it survived in the children's minds and hearts throughout the year.

It was as popular in June as it was in October and remained the number one selection for independent reading.  Luckily, this year I bought an extra copy so it cut down on the quarreling.

Marilyn wrote, "I think my favorite book is The Headless Horseman because the character Icabod is funny.  And I like scary stories. That's why I like The Headless Horseman".

Number Two
Number Two: Otto Has a Birthday Party by Todd Parr.

This book was read at every single birthday celebration this year.  Over time the boys and girls began to substitute their names for Otto's as in "Today is Gabriel's birthday, and he is going to make his cake all by himself" (That conceit became a little more complicated when a girl read the book and had to remember to change all the pronouns).

Speaking of Gabriel, he wrote...

"My favorite book is Otto has a birthday party because it was funny when Otto put a cootie bug and mud for frosting. I hope you loved my opinion writing." 

Number Three
Number Three: I used to take issue with Teachers Pay Teachers. I was of the opinion that teachers should share ideas freely and the thought of making a buck off of one another just did not sit right with me.

My feelings about the site changed this year when I discovered that there are many fantastic free resources.  Plus, the items that require payment are absolutely worth the small fee.

It was on Teachers Pay Teachers that I found a free reader's theater script for The Stinky Cheese Man.  I used it during small group work with children who needed to develop fluency. What fun!

They happily performed the "fairly stupid tale" for the rest of the class and learned some interesting vocabulary along the way.

Number Four
Number Four: Usually when we do a read aloud I sit next to Oni (my co-teacher) and voice while she signs.  However, we changed things up a bit when we read A Night in Santa's Great Big Bag by Kristin Kladstrup and Tim Jessell.

Oni projected the story onto our large SMART Board and stood in the front of the class to sign the book while I sat in the back and quietly voiced for those who needed it.  The large visual display made an impact on the students who interacted with the text in a way we hadn't seen before.  It drew them in and they didn't forget it.

Number Five
Number Five: This was a new one for me.  I had never heard of My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett until Oni introduced it to me with fond reminiscence of her childhood.

It turns out there are three books in the trilogy (My Father's Dragon, Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland).

We read all of the chapter books to a rapt audience over several weeks.  I don't think the children were ever so attentive as they were during those readings.

Number Six
Number Six: Greek Mythology makes its first appearance on the list at Number Six.

Let's Go, Pegasus! by Jean Marzollo retells one version of the story of Perseus and Medusa (we highlight that these are old stories and as it gets passed down through the generations some details change).

This is the myth that launches us into an in-depth study of Greek mythology because the story is chock full of intrigue and action.

Variations of Medusa's head by Elyssa
Elyssa wrote, "My favorite book is Let's Go, Pegasus! because I like the colorful pictures.  And the story. And it's interesting."

This knowledge is put to good use when we visit The Metropolitan Museum of Art to view and sketch the exquisite Perseus with the Head of Medusa by Antonio Canova and the equally stunning Andromeda and the Sea Monster by Domenico Guidi.

Andromeda and the Sea Monster at The Met

Number Seven
Number Seven: Oinky! Oink! Oink!

That means Happy Pig Day!

This charming book by Mo Willems was another reader's theater script I downloaded from Teachers Pay Teachers.  Honestly, I do not know what could make someone smile more than a bunch of pigs together celebrating the joy of simply being a pig.

The Elephant & Piggie books are a great resource for teaching about character and the use of speech bubbles. With a limited range of words they are easily accessible and non-intimidating for beginning readers.

Number Eight
Number Eight: Exclamation Mark! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld is a bright, happy book centering on the journey of self acceptance.

Although it certainly works on that deeper level, it is also perfect for teaching young children the proper usage of an exclamation point...and a question mark.

The authors make their point in simple, clear terms that are extremely engaging.  A touch of humor is never a bad idea in a children's book!

Number Nine: The Chef and the Baker by Clayton Suttles with art by Nate Suttles and Christy Sexton is an as-of-yet unpublished children's book that I was fortunate enough to get my hands on this year.

Number Nine
This is the story of a chef and a baker (naturally) who are angsting over the imminent arrival of an intimidating food critic.  The conflict arises when they must decide whether to bake or to "chef".  Which delicious delicacy will the food critic prefer?

With humor and dazzling illustrations the message becomes clear - it is best to work together even though it can sometimes get messy.

It is a perfect lesson for children in First Grade to learn and that message carried over into our dramatic play area where they created a menu I simply couldn't resist.

Why was I cast as the flamboyant food critic?  Hmmm....

Anny wrote, "My favorite part of the story is when the chef and the baker  try to make the best food in the whole world!

Number Ten
Number Ten: I have a friend - and former college professor - who always tells me, "Don't forget about the goddesses!"

Well, Marilyn will be happy to see that Aphrodite: Goddess of Love by George O'Connor has made the Top Ten.  This is the first year that a goddess from the Olympians series has made the list but the gods weren't far behind.

Boys and girls were equally attracted to the story of Aphrodite but one little girl had more questions for the talented Mr. O'Connor.

Cydney wrote, "I like Aphrodite because she is beautiful.  And it is cool that she was born in the sea.  Is Zeus her father? Why does Ares love Aphrodite?"

I adore when they want to know more!

Congratulations to the authors and illustrators who worked to create the wonderful books in our Top Ten this year.  We appreciate all of you!


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