Monday, October 31, 2016

"Ichabod's Head"

So much drama in one picture!
My former team teacher, Oni, visited recently to share one of our favorite Halloween stories with my current crop of first graders.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a riveting story.  It never fails to get the little ones deliciously frightened and humerously freaked out.

The suspense builds until the midnight ride across the bridge near the graveyard on the moonlit night.  The shadow of a figure behind Ichabod's broken-down horse, the intensity with which Ichabod strives to reach safety, the hooves clomping closer and closer until Ichabod turns to witness the horse rear up behind him and upon it...THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN!

A mad dash but it is too late!  In a swift motion the Headless Horseman catapults his pumpkin head toward a terrified Ichabod. An owl hoots.  The wind blows. The church bells ring.  Then, silence.

Notice the labels..."No Head" (very helpful)

In the aftermath the townsfolk are left with a mystery.  What happened to Ichabod?  All that remains is a shattered, smashed pumpkin at the foot of the bridge.

And if anyone knows the true story...they aren't telling (Yes, we are looking at you Brom!).

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Broadway Books Upper Class with Gregory Jbara

Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara and theater students from BCS448
I had an opportunity to hang with the big kids last week courtesy of Broadway Books Upper Class. This program extends the reach of Broadway Books First Class into the upper grades and kicked off its inaugural session with Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara. It seemed only fitting that he would be our initial guest because I credit him with lighting the fuse on our little rocket in the first place.

Broadway Books Upper Class started when Kori Rushton, a drama teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative and the Artistic Director of IRT Theater in Greenwich Village, approached me about expanding and adapting my guest artist series for older students. This new incarnation replaces the children's book read aloud with a series of in-depth questions about the life and loves of a theater professional. Guest artists are also invited to perform a monologue, song or scene for - or with - the students.

Gregory Jbara accepted the invitation to perform by bringing along a script from his long-running CBS hit Blue Bloods. He read a scene between his character, Garret Moore, and the New York Police Commissioner played by Tom Selleck with a delighted student.

Tony Award Winner Gregory Jbara reads a scene from Blue Bloods with a BCS drama student
As the scene unfolded I glanced around the room to take in the faces of this rapt audience. It was very interesting to view these high school students through my first grade teacher lens. I generally dwell in the 6-year-old mindset so it intrigued me to project the fresh, open personalities of my students forward into the angsty teenage years.

There was one young man who could not contain his excitement for Greg's visit or his sincere interest in theater. He was charming in his gratitude for this high profile visitor and expressed this in his words and demeanor.

Then, seated next to me there was a student trying hard not to appear engaged. He sat slouched with his hoodie pulled over his head and his chin resting on his fist. He appeared to be the high school student who is a bit too cool for all of this. Only his eyes gave him away. He watched and listened intently throughout the visit. He may have even smiled.

Next, there were the two students who seemed to really like each another. Perhaps they were dating.  They caught one another's eye throughout Greg's talk and there was an obvious connection between them. Their quiet smiles and meaningful looks gave an indication of shared expereince and I just knew they would be talking about this visit later.

And there was the confident student who had it all together. She appeared to be the respected leader of the class. Their voice. She kept things on track and ushered us into the Q&A portion of the morning.

Gregory Jbara answering questions in a blackbox theater room
The students attentively listened to Gregory Jbara as he responded to their thoughtfully prepared questions.
  • Has a moment of weakness ever affected your life?
  • Who was your first heartbreak?
  • When did you go though a big change in your life? What was the before and after?
  • What persuaded you to become an actor?
  • What was your favorite show you ever performed in?
  • Have you ever experienced any discrimination when auditioning for a role?
They asked 22 questions in all. With each answer we were treated to the inside scoop of the Broadway rehearsal process (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), the Tony Awards (Billy Elliott the Musical), the audition process (Victor/Victoria, Chicago), how a performer balances life and work (the challenges of saying, "No"), how decisions are weighed and made by a professional actor and what inspires someone to live a life upon the wicked stage.

We had our own little private Inside the Actors Studio conversation and it was riveting. I saw how adapting my Broadway Books series for older students allowed for deep conversations that wouldn't fly in first grade. This extension felt like the perfect compliment to BBFC.

The drama students are now going to create a monologue (or theater piece) to perform inspired by the answers Greg gave to their questions.

There are many take-aways from an experience like this and those lasting impressions depend on the individual. For me, what sticks is when Greg talked about positivity. He described himself as a positive person with childhood memories of being loved and supported. It speaks to me because I relate to it in a personal way.

My experiences and outlook mirror those he described. I believe Greg's upbringing allows him to be a man who can now extend himself to others by giving back to the community in ways such as Broadway Books First Class. And with that in mind, it pushes me further in trying to create a safe, loving environment for the students in my class, so they can become adults who pay it forward like Gregory Jbara.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Visit From Rosemarie Robotham

Author and Editor Rosemarie Robotham with a group of aspiring writers
Another school year is comfortably underway and my commitment to pursue the tenets of experiential education espoused by American philosopher John Dewey and the vision of Maxine Greene's aesthetic education continue to take root.

In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Helen Keller described learning in a hands-on Deweyan manner.  Outside the walls of a classroom she immersed herself in her lessons and the active interplay between student, teacher and environment was thrilling. She wrote that those experiences had a lasting impact.

My mission these days is for my students to have opportunities to construct ideas not just about the core curriculum but also about art, culture and compassion by doing as Helen did.  I want them to learn by getting out in their surroundings (New York City!) and by inviting that magic into our classroom.

This week we did just that.  We had the great good fortune to welcome author and editor Rosemarie Robotham into our classroom to share her insights on the writing process.

I've been following Rosemarie's blog, 37 Paddington, for years and I am continually impressed by her ability to string words and sentences together to create images at once beautifully complex and devastatingly simple.  Her writing is honest and raw, full of struggle and redemption but always moving forward and lifting her readers up.

She wanted to read the book Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco because it was a favorite and because it skillfully introduced one of the themes of her visit.

We wanted to impart to the children that writing is a process and to steer clear of judging themselves or their work.  In the book, Rosemarie pointed out that Mr. Falker had written on the blackboard "All children have gifts, some open them at different times".  Her masterful reading reinforced the message that everyone is a writer.  Writing is a way for all of us to express ourselves.

Rosemarie is good with words, written and spoken, so she deftly navigated the questions the children asked.  "How long did it take you to write that book?" Her reply, "Six months" was met with hoots and howls.  I wasn't sure if they thought that was an incredibly long time or an incredibly short time (or both) but they were impressed.

Best of all, they were encouraged and inspired. After many hugs she said goodbye and I walked her down to the lobby.  I told her how her writing had pushed me past the boundaries of my experience and helped me see new perspectives.

I told her how we read the poem Momma by Paulette Childress White - found in Mending the World: Stories of Family by Contemporary Black Writers and edited by Rosemarie - in both American Sign Language and English.  And how this complex poem about a mother talking care of her family but yearning to write made the children think of how Mother Earth takes care of all of us yet silently suffers.

These students are ready to tackle anything we set before them. So, the things we set before them must be exquisite.

Rosemarie was just that.

Shea's drawing of Rosemarie reading to the class


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