Tuesday, July 26, 2016

How The I Becomes the We

Cover Art: Olivia McGiff
Kim Weild, artistic director of Our Voices, pulled off an admirable accomplishment in orchestrating the completion of How the I Becomes the We under the constraints of an incredibly tight timeline.

The book is an eclectic collection of artwork, photography and children's writing designed to promote storytelling through writing, drawing and conversation. The components of narrative stories (e.g. setting, character and plot) are addressed individually, guiding children into the creative realm one sentence at a time. This structure is quite helpful for young children because narrative writing is the most challenging form of writing in lower elementary school.

The How the I Becomes the We project originated with Broadway Books First Class. I originally invited Kim to visit following her work as Associate Director on Amazing Grace the Musical. Her visionary leanings led to a three-day generative storytelling workshop developed in collaboration with a group of teaching artists (myself included).

Afterwards, Kim contacted designers and artists to illustrate the children's words and bring new dimension to their ideas.

Oni is depicted on the left signing while I am on the right holding a book

Illustration by Leontine Greenberg
How the I Becomes the We then morphed into a performance piece/children's show under Kim's direction.  It was performed in American Sign Language on The High Line as part of the Culture Shock Festival.

I was honored to take part in this project with such a talented group of performers (even though the long days of teaching and rehearsal left me exhausted and sick).

The Wolf Family on The High Line with Onudeah (Oni) Nicolarakis, Gary Wellbrock, Siena Rafter, John McGinty and Jon Riddleberger

Photo Credit: Nina Wurtzel
In the end I am left in awe of the creative, can-do spirit of the indefatigable Kim Weild who continues to push forward in her vision of equal access and opportunity.

I realize how lucky I am that for a brief time we got to walk hand-in-hand on that quest.  

Friday, July 22, 2016

Top Ten 2015 - 2016

A first grade top ten list of favorite books
The Top Ten list is actually a Top Eleven this year!

Our dynamic group of first grade children displayed an admirable love of books, both fiction and nonfiction, giving us educators great reason to celebrate. I am also thrilled that all twelve books read by the Broadway Books First Class visitors appeared on the children's lists, even if just four of them made it to the final count. That is a testament to the power of my fledgling program and motivation to continue this work in the coming years.

Students complied individual lists from the many books we read together during the 2015 - 2016 school year and a master list was constructed using a simple tally system to track the titles. Our final catalog contained favorites from years past, some novel additions and some surprises.

Number One
Naughty Mabel by Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott came out on top as the Number One choice this year.

We had the great privilege of listening to the book read aloud by its coauthor Devlin Elliott. His smooth delivery - full of joy and patience - provided the perfect welcome to usher the children into Mabel's rapscallion ways. Devlin appeared to get as much enjoyment from sharing the book as the delighted children took in watching.

Naughty Mabel has that magical blend of humor and heart present in the best children's books. Fantasia wrote her opinion about the book as such, "I love Naughty Mabel because Mabel is funny and cute! That's why I love Naughty Mabel."

It was wonderful to distribute signed copies of the book to the students during Devlin's visit and watch them giggle while turning the pages. In the end, love saves the day.

Photo Credit: Kim Weild

Number Two
Young Zeus by G. Brian Faras took the Number Two spot. This book actually topped the list in the past and it is great to see that it also resonates with another class.

The charm may rest in the fact that we share this book towards the end of our Greek mythology study. Suddenly, all of the gods and goddesses the students know so well are introduced as children.

Young Zeus along with his brothers and sisters are underdogs who must set the world right against all odds. They struggle with authority. They are siblings who fight with one another. They are playful, headstrong and uncertain.

As seen through this lens each first grade child can relate in a way that was simply not possible before. They see themselves and their struggles mirrored in the characters. Plus, there is an epic battle with a satisfactory conclusion and what child doesn't enjoy that?

Mylo writes, "I like the book Young Zeus because Zeus saves the day. Young Zeus is brave and nice to people and helps people."

Number Three
Let's Go, Pegasus! by Jean Marzollo appears for the fourth year on the Top Ten. What a great book!

I use it to kick off the study into Greek mythology because Medusa is such a thrilling character. In this version, she is playful and taunting while tempting Perseus to take a peek into her evil eyes.

Medusa inspires children into deliciously creative art projects and drawings. The tale of Medusa and Perseus is played out in the school yard and talked about in hushed whispers during choice time. The story ignites the imagination and this retelling by Jean Marzollo sets the stage beautifully for the 6-year-old crowd.

Miguel reading Let's Go, Pegasus!
Miguel writes, "I like Let's Go, Pegasus! because it's a cool book. Perseus tries to cut off Medusa's head and he tries to put Medusa's head in the bag!"

Dark, yes, but somehow endearing.

Number Four

There is definitely a "Whew!" factor surrounding the inclusion of Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark.

I worked for months with Broadway Books First Class visitor Oneika Phillips to find the right book to fit her theme of injury and healing.

It seems that our research and stubborn determination not to settle for anything less than perfection payed off.

Franklin encapsulates the message that, "Being brave means doing what you have to do, no matter how scared you feel".  It wasn't lost on the children as evidenced by Adonis who writes, "I like this book because he is brave".

Number Five
Interestingly, My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett came out as the Number Five pick on last year's list as well.

This is the only true chapter book on the list. It tells the story of Elmer Elevator, a clever young boy who travels to a far away island to rescue a baby dragon from his cruel captors.

We read one chapter every day, which took two weeks to complete. At the start of each new chapter we'd ask the children to recap what took place in the previous chapter so they all had an opportunity to play with summarizing and retelling. These are both areas in need of attention in first grade.

Sadly, we did not have an opportunity to read the other two books in the series but in my optimistic heart I envision boys and girls asking mommies and daddies to provide copies and assistance with the challenging words throughout the dog days of summer.

Aron writes, "I like the part when the alligators got in order then all the animals got together" and Gabby writes, "I love My Father's Dragon because it has a happy ending".

Number Six
The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers is such a gorgeous book I want to frame each and every illustration.

To top it off, it was read to us by Broadway royalty Alison Fraser!

It is a story about creating something extraordinary out of the ordinary. The lasting message pertains to beauty and innovation and how those ripples change lives forever.

Zuni writes, "I like The Night Gardener because I like how it is designed and I like that this tree is an owl. I like the part when the boy saw the tree."

Zuni's art inspired by the cover of The Night Gardener

Number Seven
Creepy Carrots! by Aaron Reynolds and Peter Brown makes its Top Ten debut this year and along with Naughty Mabel, Franklin Goes to the Hospital and The Night Gardener it was also a featured Broadway Books First Class book selection read by Gregory Jbara.

This book is cleverly illustrated in a film noir fashion with the orange carrots standing out against a black and white landscape.  It tells the hair-raising (or hare-raising) tale of Jasper Rabbit as he grapples with his paranoia. Are the carrots out to get him or is it simply his imagination?

The small details in the outstanding illustrations are both humorous and scary.  It is the perfect book to read to young children at Halloween but it really works at any time.

We created some of our own creepy carrots using construction paper and googly eyes. Adorable!

Samara writes, "I like the book Creepy Carrots because the carrots are funny. They have funny faces. I like when Jasper the rabbit eats a lot of carrots in the carrot field."

Jasper Rabbit and the Creepy Carrots

Number Eight
Todd Parr is a perennial favorite.  Otto has a Birthday Party is a book we read at every birthday celebration. Only when we read it we substitute the birthday boy or girl's name for Otto's.

These classroom traditions help build continuity and community.

Phillip writes, "I like this book because it is funny and it is fun and he is cute".

Number Nine
The last three books are all surprises.  I did not expect to see any of them on the Top Ten (or Top Eleven in this case) but yet, here they are!

The Stupids Take Off by Harry Allard and James Marshall derives its humor from the fact that the family's last name is Stupid. Therefore, they live in the Stupid house, ride a Stupid plane, etc. The name is also extremely fitting as they have an unusual (i.e. stupid) take on things with plenty of low-humor sight gags.

In first grade children love to tell on each other for using inappropriate language (e.g. "Komden just said the "S" word!") The "S" word in their minds is stupid, not the word your adult mind might expect. So, to see it repeated again and again in a book is very taboo and very, very thrilling for a child.

Number Ten
One Stormy Night by the prolific writer Joy Cowley truly came out of nowhere. Ms. Cowley has a million titles out there that aren't really high quality literature. Her books are generally short and serve a purpose, which is to engage emergent and beginning readers in the act of reading.

Still, we used this simple book as a mentor text in one of our writing units to show how an author makes use of features such as bold print, sound words and repetition.

There is an element of suspense that students found entertaining. It reminds me of that scary story that was popular when I was a boy wherein the monster slowly creeps closer and closer to your bedroom (i.e. Johnny, I'm on the first step! Johnny, I'm on the second step! etc.).

It looks as though this gem will remain in our lesson plans next year.

Ricky writes, "I like One Stormy Night because it has animals and rain. I like rain because rain helps plants and flowers".

Number Eleven
Completing the list is another unlikely choice - Dick and Jane and Vampires by Laura Marcesani.

It is a strange little book that inserts vampires into the traditional Dick and Jane stories of the 1930s.

This compilation of collected stories are only about a page or two long each so we would read it in-between lessons or just before the children lined up for lunch.

It is more proof that children are wildly humorous and up for a bit of fright. Mikayla writes, "I love Dick and Jane and Vampires because I like how they run away".

I will never tire of them.

Finally, George O'Connor and his Olympians Series deserves a mention. The graphic novels appeared on every list but because there are so many titles, one specific title did not gain enough votes to put it into the top.

Thank you to all the children's book authors and illustrators who make teaching and learning so much fun. Hats off to you all!

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Oneika Phillips

Sharing stories and feeling brave with Broadway dancer Oneika Phillips

Year One of Broadway Books First Class came to a close with a Whoosh!, a wave and a wee bit of wisdom courtesy of Broadway dancer Oneika Phillips.

This year my students met actors, singers, dancers, directors, producers, playwrights, choreographers and a drag legend. They explored the creative process of theater from audition to performance with lessons in teamwork, tenacity and a celebration of an individual's unique talents and gifts.

They learned firsthand how the child they are now sets the stage for the adult they will become.  Each boy and girl was shown that they have value through the generous embrace of the professional theater community in New York City.  It was a brilliant outpouring of love wrapped neatly around lessons involving the importance of books and the power of words.

Gregory Jbara (our first visitor) and Oneika Phillips (our last) were perfect book ends. Greg expressed how a lifelong theatrical spark was ignited in him when he was a boy. He shared his reminisces of that exuberant feeling of first realizing that an audience was applauding him.

Oneika focused on the work that goes into maintaining a life on the stage and how grit and determination play a role in keeping your body, heart and spirit strong.

Her visit began with a...


Our classroom door swung open and we all turned towards our exuberant visitor.  Immediately a wave of love, energy and kindness came washing over everyone. Oneika is an undeniable force.

Prior to her visit we had spent months deciding on the perfect book to match her theme. We happily agreed upon Franklin Goes to the Hospital by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark.  Oneika wanted to share her story of injury and recovery with the students to underscore the other side of performing. The importance of taking care of your body in order to do the things you love, which for her was dance.

Oneika Phillips as Anita in West Side Story

Oneika is an incredibly dynamic - and ridiculously flexible - dancer. One day in rehearsal she executed a dance move in which she basically kicked herself in the back of the head (can you imagine?). The incident ultimately lead to x-rays, surgery and physical therapy. She shared all of this with the children who, in turn, regaled her with stories of their own brushes with illness and injury. I learned a lot about the children that day.

We kept circling back to the morale of the book, which resonated with the students.
Just because you're afraid doesn't mean you aren't brave.  
Being brave means doing what you have to do, no matter how scared you feel.
Oneika's work ethic also extended into her preparation for her visit. She attended classes in American Sign Language so she could converse with the students in their first language. She happily engaged with them in ASL for introductions and allowed the students to guide the expansion of her vocabulary throughout the afternoon. Her dedication - and signing skills - were impressive!

Oneika Phillips and ASL interpreter Mary Grace Gallagher

As always, the students had some questions for our guest. We learned that her favorite Broadway experience was with the show Fela! because she was proud to bring African dance and culture to Broadway and that she loves to dance because it makes her heart happy. Dancing is joy shared with an audience.

Oneika then turned the tables and asked the kids some questions, like "What do you enjoy doing?"  Their replies included reading, playing basketball, dancing, jumping, playing, eating, climbing on stuff, math, gymnastics, dancing on poles, playing with younger siblings and fishing.  I must admit, the dancing on poles response got me curious but we didn't pursue it.

Our time together quickly drew to an end with gifts and hugs.

We gave Oneika a copy of Franklin Goes to the Hospital signed by the class and she signed copies of the book for each student (books courtesy of the "47" Alumni Association of the Deaf).

As we said goodbye I was struck once again by the willingness of folks in the professional theater community to give their time, energy and heart to a small group of first graders.

It is an outstanding testament to the character of those in the Broadway community and a wonderful promise of continuing success for the program.

Thank you Oneika and all of our Year One visitors!


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