Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Return to Teaching Tolerance

I am back as a writer for Teaching Tolerance after a necessary hiatus due to the demands of completing my doctoral studies.  

My lastest post entitled Confronting Creepy Crawlies and Implicit Bias is reposted below.

If you ask elementary school teachers to explain their everyday duties to the uninitiated, you will get a fairly long list of responsibilities residing outside the realm of reading, writing and arithmetic. There exists an unwritten—yet expected—job description that simultaneously demands we assume the role of parent, social worker and medical provider.
One example: Many teachers are accustomed to putting on plastic gloves and maneuvering pencil erasers to check small heads for nits (louse eggs) and head lice. It is an “Eek!”-inducing affair that causes most of us to scratch at imaginary bugs for hours afterward. Yet, we brave the creepy crawlies in the best interest of the child. If we find nits, a letter is sent home informing the parents and providing instructions for how to get rid of them. If active lice are found amongst the hair follicles, the school nurse takes over and the child is sent home for treatment.
The cycle of screening and treatment usually continues for several weeks as the critters enjoy the hospitality of their young hosts and outbreaks remain a daily occurrence. The added concern of bedbugs permeates our diligent search for tiny insects.
It is no surprise, then, that this becomes a topic of discussion amongst teachers. It freaks us out. It makes us uncomfortable. It also provides a showcase for some of our implicit biases when we try to figure out how it all began.
Implicit bias, as described by Zaretta Hammond in “Is Implicit Bias Racist?,” are “the unconscious attitudes and beliefs that shape our behavior toward someone perceived as inferior or as a threatening outsider.” Teachers operate within unquestioned assumptions every day. We all do. In cases of lice and bedbugs, I started to notice how we perceived some students as “more likely” to introduce them into the classroom environment based on things like socio-economic status. In one instance, everyone figured it was the boy whose illiterate parents lived with him in a shelter, but we were surprised to learn that, no, it was the boy with educated parents living in a middle-class home. Digging deeper, I began to notice how these assumptions trickled down into other aspects of the day, from who got hugs to speculations about which parents read with their children.
Hammond offers tips to bring implicit bias to consciousness. These begin with checking our assumptions and looking for patterns of inequality, which have relevance in terms of lice. Our biases can influence our behavior in subtle ways, yet children perceive our unspoken attitudes even if we are not quite clear about them ourselves.
Thankfully, we can test ourselves for hidden biases surrounding stereotypes and prejudices. A little self-knowledge coupled with a smidge of education about the actual repercussions of nits, lice and bedbugs can help assuage potentially hurtful interactions stemming from unintended discrimination.
After doing a check for critters, if I find any, I always initiate a class discussion to gauge reaction and promote understanding. These talks not only help the students but also serve to reinforce an empathic, educated response from any adults in the room.
Next, a read aloud of David Shannon’s book Bugs in My Hair! allows us to approach the topic with humor. Never underestimate the value of an amusing illustration or characters whose over-the-top reactions allow readers to laugh and learn simultaneously.
Finally, we share some facts:
  • Anyone is susceptible.
  • Lice are annoying but ultimately harmless.
  • If an outbreak occurs, keep long hair pulled back, refrain from daily washing (lice do not like dirty hair or hair with product in it).
  • Treatment can be found with over-the-counter delousing shampoos and nit combs.
  • Wash clothing and bedding in hot water, vacuum rugs and place what you cannot wash or vacuum in plastic bags for two weeks to kill lice.
Most of all, lice are not a commentary on cleanliness, education or socio-economic status. They are simply a result of close interactions amongst children and an unfortunate reality in elementary school classrooms. We may not be able to change that, but we can certainly change how we respond.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

American Sign Language and English Storybook Fundraiser

                                                         Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel Photography

An American Sign Language and English illustrated print & e-book is in the works and we need your help.  An INDIEGOGO fundraising campaign is underway with lots of perks for showing your support, including your name in the book as a special thank you (the deadline for this is April 1, 2016).

The stories were created in a collaborative storytelling workshop with first, second and third graders from PS347 The American Sign Language and English Lower School and Our Voices.  For three days teaching artists, performers, documentarians and teachers worked together to ignite students' imaginations, to validate their creativity and to show them, through action, how much their ideas matter.

The free workshop was only the first of three components of the collaboration.  The second is the creation an original piece - inspired by the students' stories - to be performed on the High Line in NYC on April 23rd.  The third is to create both a companion print book and e-book (with ASL embedded in the storytelling), filled with student stories illustrated by professional theater designers and Deaf artists.

Our hope is students will see how a seed of an idea can grow into something magnificent, take on multiple forms and return home richer for the experience of collaboration.

Thank you for reading and for your consideration.  Your support is greatly appreciated.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Alison Fraser!

First Graders surrounding Broadway royalty Alison Fraser
"I'm so happy, happy, happy I could cry"  
I am an unabashed theater fan. I've spent many hours watching performers strut their stuff upon the wicked stage and never more so than with the spectacularly talented Alison Fraser.

It began with her Tony Award nominated performance in the addicting Romance/Romance and was followed quickly by another Tony Award nominated showing in The Secret Garden.

Through the years I came to regard her as a friend - long before we actually met - while sitting out there in the dark watching one brilliant performance after another in Gunmetal Blues, Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, The Divine Sister, A Charity Case, Gypsy, Love TherapyFirst Daughter Suite, plus cabaret and concert performances.

So, when Alison accepted my invitation to join Broadway Books First Class I was thrilled.

The search for the perfect children's book began. I discussed possibilities with Kirsten Hall at Catbird Agency and she recommended a newly published title promising to become a classic. The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers (Terry and Eric) recalls the enchanting magic found in The Secret Garden and encapsulates an inspiring theme.  Each of us can create something extraordinary and the beauty we create can, in turn, change people forever.  We are all agents of the unforgettable when we share our gifts.

The class spent the week prior to Alison's visit talking about her work.  This included...
  • Playing her ode to fortitude "Hold On" from The Secret Garden while my team teacher Oni beautifully interpreted it in American Sign Language. 
  • A couple of six-year-olds adorably reenacting the meeting of Pepi and Alfred strolling down the Alserstrasse in Romance/Romance. 
  • A little Polka lesson.
When the time finally arrived Alison gleefully entered the classroom as "I'll Always Remember the Song" played in the background.

Alison Fraser with ASL interpreter Mary Grace Gallagher
Introductions were made and Alison settled into the reading. As a teacher this provided a fantastic opportunity to sit back and watch the children's reactions and comments, reflect upon what they noticed and become wowed once again by their brilliant little minds. As a theater lover it was a front row seat to the best show in town watching Alison take the story to unexpected places with her skillful interpretation.

A sweet drawing of Alison
and Mary Grace reading to the class
We followed the reading with a series of questions.  We learned that Alison wanted to become an actress to tell stories and that she used to sing along with her record albums growing up (the kids weren't particularly familiar with vinyl).  Her favorite roles on Broadway were in the shows Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden.

Next, we gave her a copy of The Night Gardener (signed by all of the children). Then, she graciously accepted a child's request and sang "If I Had a Fine White Horse" from The Secret Garden while handing out pieces of ribbon and wrapping from her gift.

As a last surprise, she distributed copies of the book to each child courtesy of The Louis Valentino Jr. Memorial Fund and autographed each one!  Her written message encouraged the children to keep reading, which is the whole point of Broadway Books First Class.

All in all it was another very successful visit by an incredibly talented, generous and beautiful performer.

Thank you Alison Fraser! You added a great deal of positivity to our little corner of the universe and we are so grateful.


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