Saturday, December 7, 2019

Dear Theodosia

My kindergarten students have entered into an exciting partnership with Brooklyn Collaborative on creating a student ASL recording of Dear Theodosia from the musical HAMILTON. We've been rehearsing a section of the song - seen beautifully interpreted by Brandon Kazen-Maddox in the above recording - containing these lyrics;

You will come of age with our young nation
We'll bleed and fight for you, we'll make it right for you
if we lay a strong enough foundation
We'll pass it on to you, we'll give the world to you
And you'll blow us all away
Someday, someday
Yeah, you'll blow us all away
Someday, someday

It is incredible to witness how quickly my young students pick it up and infuse it with feeling and emotion. I look forward to sharing the finished product when it is ready.

Sunday, October 6, 2019


Every page is an opportunity to get to know our students

Little hands slide across white paper, black lines creating images that provide insight into the child's thoughts. What is going on in their lives that is yearning to be expressed in these drawings? How is this sustained concentration serving the child's need to communicate?

My kindergarten students are active, emotional, and exceedingly dramatic with short attention spans that are easily influenced by pangs of hunger, bouts of sleepiness, and intermittent moodiness. These adorable tykes are just five-years-old after all (some are still only four). But, there are two things that capture their attention - listening to stories read aloud in spoken English and American Sign Language, and independent writing.

This class loves to write!

I walk around the classroom with my team teacher, Sarah, and am fascinated by their drawings. I'm interested, of course, from a literacy perspective and in facilitating their development along the writing continuum. Yet, I'm equally fascinated by the inner workings of their stories. Every page is an opportunity to learn more about each one of them. What is happening in their lives? How are they processing the many things that are out of their control? Can they tell me about the pictures? Do they have the language skills to do this or must I carefully navigate and scaffold my questions to bridge that divide?

Here are a few examples...

"That's me moving into my new house."

This is a joyful example of what is either real or imagined for a young boy who has had to deal with some unfortunate challenges. His vibrant smile and animated tone as he explained how his whole family was moving into a new house brought hope. I saw in this unfinished drawing that his mind is grappling with things far more immediate than letters and numbers. Teachers are called on to do more than simply impart information. We are caretakers, advocates, and champions. We are here for him.

"Mommy has a baby inside"

This girl's drawings depict the very imminent arrival of a new sibling. The smiles and hearts let me know it is a happy occasion for her family. The "baby inside" (not sure why there are two in this drawing) is an adorable representation. I remember creating similar drawings when I was 7-years-old and my mom was pregnant with my sister, Jennifer.

A flower monster

I sat next to this child and asked about his drawing. He told me, "It's a flower monster." How deliciously complicated, I thought. Juxtaposing the gentleness of flowers with the scariness of a monster seemed brilliant. He is certainly not the first person to invent such a thing, but the vibrancy in the expression cannot be denied. And he made it into a book! That'd be a cool children's book - the fragrant, misunderstood monster dropping petals and drooping every so often.

There are many, many more to share and more are created every day. And I am honored to have the opportunity to sit next to these children and say, "Tell me about your drawing".

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Fan Brothers

Cover art for Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers

I am continually gobsmacked by the breathtaking beauty that is the art of The Fan Brothers. It boggles my mind that these two can continue to create visual masterpieces book after book. When I was young I used to hang album covers on my bedroom walls, now I'm inclined to hang their gorgeous book covers. Luckily, there are classroom displays!

It isn't only the illustrations that appeal to me - it's the stories they tell as well. Ocean Meets Sky takes on the heavy topic of losing a loved one. The writing is tender and as embracing as the magical illustrations. Together they let the reader - both young and old - know that the world is full of possibilities. There is magic to be found in our dreams and that magic can sooth and comfort us.

Our loved ones are never really very far away (illustration from Ocean Meets Sky)

I am so excited to include Ocean Meets Sky in my Broadway Books First Class program this year. In fact, this is the third title by The Fan Brothers showcased in the program. In Year One I selected The Night Gardener to be read aloud by two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser.

The Night Gardener by The Fan Brothers
The Night Gardener was the first of their books to catch my attention. Once again, it is the play of light that whisks us away to an ethereal landscape wherein loss and loneliness (it takes place in and around an orphanage) is supplanted by hope and possibility.

This is a gentle mystery that finds its answer in the quiet of the night, underneath the omnipresent moon.  It's a celebration of altering one's perspective and seeing the magic in bringing people together. This wonderous book had me seeing figures in all of the trees as I walked along the towpath with my Saint Bernards. Like Ocean Meets Sky, it stays with you.

The early cover of The Darkest Dark 
I'm told there is a glow-in-the-dark edition
The following year the moon was back with The Darkest Dark (illustrated by The Fan Brothers and written by Astronaut Chris Hadfield). I was lucky enough to have three-time Tony Award Nominee Mary Testa read this book aloud to my first graders.

It a story of a boy who overcomes his fear of the dark to travel into space. Well, when he grows up. There are dynamic illustrations draped in shadows with that pervasive blue reserved for dark moonlight nights. It is the play of light in all of their books that I find so intriguing. It embodies the feel of William Blake's illuminated printing technique (for me, anyway). The images glow from underneath, almost as if they are being viewed on a light table...truly fascinating.

A page from The Darkest Dark illustrated by The Fan Brothers

Last month The Fan Brothers and Beth Ferry came out with The Scarecrow. It is a story of an unlikely friendship (follow the link to read some of the glowing reviews). I ordered my copy today and have a strong feeling it is going to be an October pick for Year Six of my program.

High-quality picture books are essential for early childhood educators. It is how we invite children into the world of imagination and words. We can discuss sensitive themes, develop receptive and expressive language, and stir up excitement and awe.

Books provide wonder that is quite impossible to capture the same way using any other medium. They say so much, yet leave so much unsaid. There is room to rummage around and connect in deeply personal ways. The Fan Brothers are at the top of their game and I look forward to seeing where they'll take me - and my students - next.

An evocative illustration from The Scarecrow 
Check out prints by Terry Fan and Eric Fan by clicking the links on their names.  Also, follow Terry and Eric on Instagram and find them on Facebook.  Purchase their books on Amazon or in any bookstore and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Year 24!

I am energized and excited. I'm entering my 24th year as an educator! I'll be teaching kindergarten in a new room - well, I spent 5 years in this room, but that was years ago - with a new team teacher and a class of fantastic, adorable, fun students. Lucky me!

I've spent the past few days moving in and setting up. Here is pictorial documentation of the process.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019
The move from my old classroom on the first floor to my new room on the second.

Monday, September 3, 2019
Making a bit of progress. You can see more of the floor.

Monday, September 3, 2019
Playing around with spacing, trying to decide on a floor plan.

Monday, September 3, 2019
The day is over. One final pic before leaving. We've decided on the layout.

Tuesday, September 4, 2019
Making progress, but realizing we have way too much stuff.

Tuesday, September 4, 2019
"By George, I think we've got it." We've created some little nooks for reading, a space for blocks that is out of the way of traffic and can therefore stay up for days and days, and a magnificent library. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2019
One final shot before walking out the door. Tomorrow this room will be alive with the energy of little children.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Wesley Taylor

Wesley Taylor with some PreK and Second Grade students

As a young performer I believed the path to finding work in the theatre involved standing in an audition room singing 16 bars, doing a monologue, or reading sides. Later I learned - from friends like Molly Shannon and Charles Busch - that the traditional route of waiting for someone to cast you doesn't work for everyone. Sometimes you have to create your own opportunities. You gotta hustle a bit.

This enterprising spirit is very much alive in Wesley Taylor.

Wesley Taylor and Alison Fraser in
He first came to my attention with the web series It Could Be Worse (now available on Hulu). Wesley created, cowrote, and starred in this comedy, which was inspired by real stories from his life as an actor.

It also starred brilliant two-time Tony Award nominee, Alison Fraser. The cameo roles on the series showcased a who's who of Broadway names. It's nice to have talented, famous friends who can help you realize your vision.

Several years later I went to see SpongeBob SquarePants at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. My focus that evening was on cast member Oneika Phillips. Oneika had been a guest artist with Broadway Books First Class and I was there to show my love and support. The show was a joyous, high-speed adventure set in the underwater world of Bikini Bottom. The characters were larger than life, full of emotion and inner conflict. As I watched I was especially taken with Sheldon Plankton. He was deliciously diabolical. The actor playing him milked the role for every humorous drop of deplorable depravity. He seemed to be having so much fun the audience could not resit falling in love.

I read the Playbill when I got home and learned that the role was played by Wesley Taylor. It was then that I knew I wanted him to be a guest artist in my program. And thanks to Oneika, he accepted my invitation.

It took a bit of searching to find the perfect children's book for him to read. I wanted something to mirror Wesley's childlike energy, his charming arrogance, his gigantic heart, and his sweet vulnerability. I found it in You Are Not My Friend, But I Miss You by Daniel Kirk. It is the story of an adorable, pouty sock monkey with a red ball, who learns an important lesson about friendship. Wesley's main audience for the reading would be a group of preschool children, so this picture book was perfect. The message about sharing was one I could revisit again and again. And because each child would take home a copy of the book autographed by Wesley, I knew their parents would appreciate the message as well.

As I always do when preparing for a guest artist, I asked Wesley for a photograph of himself as a child. He did one better - he shared a video! It seems he's always had a bit of a performer in him. In fact, later when the children asked why he wanted to be an actor he told them, "Well, as you can see from that video. I had a lot of energy. I had so much energy I didn't quite know what to do with all of this energy. And when I was about your age I realized that I loved being in front of people. I loved getting attention - like this! I still love it. I loved making people laugh. I loved singing and dancing and being silly in front of people."

He realized he wanted to be like the people he saw in the movies. He told them that as he grew he wanted to get better so he went to college, he learned and he practiced. A few children raised their hands to show that they wanted to be actors when they got older. It's heartening to think they might one day look back on this morning with Wesley with warm remembrance from their own Broadway dressing room. It could happen!

Wesley Taylor reading alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

We talked a lot about SpongeBob - he even performed a bit of Plankton's speed rap - but, the children were also interested in The Addams Family. This musical was Wesley's second major role on Broadway (the first was Rock of Ages, which he says is his favorite because it represented the achievement of a dream). I know children enjoy a dark, eerie, silly storyline, so the plot of The Addams Family had lots to hold their attention.

Wesley autographed books for every child and then sat down on the floor to talk with some of the preschool students. They immediately tackled him.

Wesley Taylor tackled by the preschool kids

Before saying goodbye Wesley was interviewed by Lindsey Christ from NY1 about Broadway Books First Class and how he came to be a guest artist. Wesley gave a terrific interview and Lindsey crafted a fantastic segment about the program, but for some reason Wesley's interview was not included. There is a shot of him signing books though.

Wesley went into rehearsals the next day for the Duncan Sheik musical Alice by Heart at MCC Theater. And has since completed Season 3 of his web series Indoor Boys. See, Wesley knows how to hustle.

Friday, August 30, 2019

Remembering an Inspiration

On site at PS163 supervising tutoring sessions with struggling first grade students

I saw the headline in The New York Teacher - A GOOD TEACHER NEVER STOPS LEARNING. It went on, "If you are a current, certified New York City teacher eager to expand your range of strategies used to teach reading and writing to young children with learning differences, come to Fordham to learn more about this funded program." These words caught my attention and I attended one of the Open Houses in February 2002 to learn more.

It was there that I first met Dr. Joanna Uhry. She was an established literacy expert, dedicated educator, published author, tireless researcher, and respected authority on dyslexia. I didn't know it at the time, but this brilliant woman would also become my champion, my mentor, and my friend.

Together at a poster session for doctoral students
We clicked immediately. I think she admired my enthusiasm and energy. I know I admired her expertise and calm demeanor. She would often look at me with an amused smile and a bit of a twinkle in her eye. I would look up to her in awe.

Dr. Uhry accepted me into the scholarship program. It offered two summer literacy institutes, classes in language and literacy development, assessment, and supervised one-to-one tutoring in an after school program. I became a licensed reading specialist due, in part, to the courses offered there. It was time to move on.

However, Dr. Uhry had other ideas. She thought I should enter the doctoral program. It wasn't something I had thought much about before she brought it up and I didn't know if I was up to the challenge. For one, I couldn't afford it. Dr. Uhry had that covered. She offered me a position as an adjunct professor. It would cover the tuition fees. I'd teach one course a semester and take one course a semester. She would guide and direct me through the daunting process of becoming Dr. Gary Wellbrock.

And she did just that! She was with me every step of the way. She served as the chair of my dissertation committee, meeting with me every week during the final months leading up to my defense. Her feedback along the way was impeccable and encouraging. Her interest in deaf education was motivating. I loved teaching this esteemed educator about my students, American Sign Language, and Deaf culture. Somehow, she made me feel as though we were on equal footing.

In 2015, I graduated. We had spent 12 years together, seeing one another at least once a week (for many years it was at least twice a week).

I adored her.

Today I received news of her passing. It hurts. It's a tremendous loss.

Dr. Uhry shaped the path of my life and I am proud to be part of her legacy. I suppose now the best way to honor her is to emulate her generosity. Strive to be a champion for other teachers and carry on in a way that would make her proud. And take comfort in the knowledge that when I do, I can imagine her looking at me with that friendly, amused smile.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Julee Cerda

Julee Cerda with PreK and Second Grade students

Julee Cerda made her Broadway debut in the 2018 Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God. She was part of director Kenny Leon's vision to imbue the show with a diverse cast and showcase multiple perspectives. The tagline for this show was "Are you listening?" Its aim, it seemed to me, was to encourage dialogue over sensitive issues surrounding culture, race, (dis)ability, and privilege. The extraordinary cast included my friend and former team teacher, Lauren Ridloff.

I've had the great good fortune to welcome most of the cast (with the exception of Anthony Edwards) into the classroom as guest artists with Broadway Books First Class to extend the conversation started by the show. At school, the children were given a front row seat as they questioned role models (both Deaf and hearing) to better understand themselves and their possibilities.

Children's books are at the center of the visits. It is through them we explore themes, celebrate words, and get to know one another. Julee Cerda chose to read The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein.

Julee Cerda reads THE MISSING PIECE alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

The Missing Piece - as described on the book jacket - is a "fable that gently probes the nature of quest and fulfillment". It is one of Julee's favorites because of the wonderful, simplistic illustrations and the life lessons contained within its pages. Her joy with the material was evident as she sang the oft-repeated refrain...
Oh, I'm lookin' for my missin' piece
I'm lookin' for my missin' piece
Hi-dee-ho, here I go, 
Lookin' for my missin' piece
At one point in the story the main character finds its missing piece. It fills the triangle-shaped hole where its mouth is (think Pac-Man). It then tries to sing again but the words are now mumbled and difficult to understand. Julee imitated that muffled, incoherent song to the great amusement of the children. In fact, when asked at the end of the school year about their favorite memories, this moment stood out.

Their connection with this small, seemingly insignificant moment brought to mind a quote by Robert Lawson, "No one can possibly tell what tiny detail of a drawing or what seemingly trivial phrase in a story will be the spark that sets off a great flash in the mind of some child, a flash that will leave a glow there until the day he dies."

What are the artistic sparks that ignite a great flash and create a lasting glow?

The message of the book is fairly straightforward, but still leaves some room for interpretation. One take away is that our search for fulfillment brings us closer to ourselves than actually finding the answers we seek. Happiness lies in the quest itself. That is the place where truth and beauty reside. Or perhaps it's telling us we do not need any one else to make us whole - we are fine just the way we are.

Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim writes in his book, The Uses of Enchantment, that when it comes to fairy tales, its best to let children make meaning for themselves. Otherwise, the stories lose their hold and their power is diminished. I ascribe to that same caution with this modern day fiction. The children can tease the message out for themselves (or not). The good thing is The Missing Piece, like fairy tales, will be there for them as they grow because each child received a copy - signed by Julee - to take home. It is in rereading that they will notice new things and develop new understandings. All as it should be.

Julee Cerda signs a book for a delighted student

The children got to know Julee throughout the visit. When she first sat down she shared that she was very shy when she was a young child. In fact, she would sometimes freeze when someone started talking to her. She didn't find her voice - literally and figuratively - until "much later".  We also learned that she loves acting in comedies because there is an atmosphere of fun that permeates the cast, crew and audience. This revelation led to a few knock-knock and "Why did the..." jokes. They may not all have been winners, but we enjoyed them just the same. A palpable joy filled the room bringing silly smiles to all our faces. That's the power of comedy, folks!

We ended our conversation as it began, with Children of a Lesser God. The students wanted to know more about her character and the fight for social justice. Intertwined with this was a bit of deaf history and advocacy. Issues that touched the lives of the children and their parents. It was interesting to see the small faces become suddenly serious as they sought answers and asked "Why?" Whey were teachers of the deaf traditionally hearing in the past? Why did Lauren's character, Sarah, have to scream on stage? Why did she fight for justice? These questions bring understanding and insight. If Kenny Leon's mission as the director of the play was to encourage conversation, I'd say that mission was accomplished during Julee's visit.

Students ask Julee Cerda a series of questions

A big thank you to Julee for spending the morning with us. We are excited to see where your talent takes you next - hopefully you'll come back to see us again.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Richie Jackson

Richie Jackson visiting with PreK and Second Grade students
"Sometimes it takes just ONE." 
from One by Kathryn Otoshi
Richie Jackson is ONE who makes a difference. His careful nurturing of the collective human spirit and, what I see as a determination to fold the world into his loving embrace, makes me want to up my game. He appears very comfortable with who he is and honest about how he got there. Richie leaves me wondering what more I can do, both privately and publicly, to be a better role model, stand up for others, and be unapologetically me.

It is no surprise that his response, when asked which book he wanted to read during his Broadway Books First Class visit, was One by Kathryn Otoshi. It is a book that literally shouts, "Everyone COUNTS!" That is the message Richie brought with him on a crisp February morning when he visited with our deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing students in preschool and second grade.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
A student introduces himself  to Richie Jackson by fingerspelling his name

Richie and I go way back - over 30 years! We met when we were both students at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. I remember him as a blonde, floppy-haired, young man full of energy and movement with a great, big, welcoming smile. He seemed to know everyone, was universally liked, and could answer all of my questions about school, the city, and Broadway. I often felt like a small fish in a big pond at NYU, but Richie had - and still has - a way of making those around him feel valued. He takes you in, he listens, and he shows his heart. He was a very good fellow for me to know.

Since those early years he's continued his work in the theater. In fact, Richie was nominated for a Tony Award this year for producing the Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein's TORCH SONG, which starred another Broadway Books First Class guest artist, Michael Urie. Richie's mom took him to see the original production in the early 80s and it left an indelible imprint on him. It's amazing to think that he brought it back to the same Broadway house over 30 years later.

Richie Jackson reads ONE by Kathryn Otoshi alongside ASL interpreter Cathy Markland

I wanted Richie to share time with the students and was so happy when he accepted my invitation to be a guest artist. After introductions, which included Richie sharing photographs of himself at Age 4 and Age 7, we dove, quite naturally, into a discussion about fear and expectation. There are things children worry about. Things that have to do with growing up and getting older. Things that cannot be controlled. But, Richie told them, when/if they do happen you realize it wasn't really something to worry about in the first place. I think we've all experienced this. As FDR said in his First Inaugural Address, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself". It's better to place our energies into something more productive, if we can.

It was a perfect introduction to the reading because ONE tells the story of Blue. And Blue has some worries. Richie began...
"Blue was a quiet color. He enjoyed looking up at the sky, floating on the waves, and on days he felt daring - splashing in rain puddles" 
The problem is, there's a bully in this story. I don't want to give it all away but issues are cleverly resolved and we learn a lesson about fear, anger, and acceptance. A lesson that ends with these words, "Sometimes it just takes One".  It invites children to be that one - to step up, conquer fear, and move forward.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
The students ask, "What does a producer do?"

After the reading, the children asked Richie a few questions about being a producer. In addition to Broadway, Richie produced the movie Shortbus and the television series Nurse Jackie. He explained the role of a producer to us. A producer chooses what play or show to do, hires actors, raises money, and figures out how to bring in an audience. He likened the working parts to the operation of a school. The principal is the producer, the teacher is the director, and the students are like the actors. In both situations everyone works together towards a common goal. As the light bulb of understanding went on, a second grader suggested we make the school into a Broadway show.

Richie shared a bit of his story concerning how he became a producer. I love when our guest artists break down the mystery and let the children see the journey before the arrival - the fact that it is a process of amassing understanding and becoming educated in a field. That the hard work unfolds on a daily basis, while keeping your eye on your goals and dreams. Richie started out answering phones for a production company representing Cats and Starlight Express. Over time he created opportunities for himself and became a success because he laid a firm foundation.

Richie Jackson signs copies of ONE for each student

As we were about to move into a bit of gift giving one student raised her hand. She had a question she really wanted to ask because it surrounds an issue she is grappling with in her family. She asked Richie, "How did you become gay?" Now, she knew a little bit about Richie's personal life because we talked about the fact that he has a husband and two children. Richie responded to her saying, "I knew I was gay from as young as I could remember. I knew in my heart that I was gay and I was so happy and it made me feel so special. I never thought I was anything else." She took it in and thoughtfully replied, "So, you were being yourself." Yes, indeed!

With that we gave Richie a few presents - a copy of ONE signed by all of the children and a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt. And, in turn, he signed copies of the book for each child. A wave of acceptance and love washed over us all that morning. As one girl wrote in her thank you note...
"Thank you for reading the book. It showed me a great life lesson."

Thank you cards for Richie Jackson

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From David Staller

David Staller visits with our PreK and Second Grade students

"No! No, No, No, No, No! Oh, No! Ugh!"

That was my over-the-top reaction when I was told Broadway Books First Class guest artist David Staller was in my classroom. It wasn't that I wasn't thrilled to have him there. I was. It's just that I was down the hall, standing outside the preschool bathroom waiting on my students and unable to make the proper fuss. Welcoming a guest is a big deal. There is fanfare and applause when a guest arrives. David was being robbed of the entrance he deserved.

I anxiously encouraged the children not to dawdle and we made our way back. Upon turning into the doorway of our room I was immediately charmed. Here was David Staller - the celebrated founding artistic director of New York's Gingold Theatrical Group (GTG) and premier interpreter of the works of George Bernard Shaw - sitting crossed-legged on the floor chatting with ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne! The bright yellow socks visibly peeking out from beneath his pant legs seemed to reflect the glow and warmth of the man himself. His beautiful, open smile welcomed US into the space and set the tone. All was going to unfold exactly as it should.

"Pink cat ears help any social situation"
(Caption by David Staller; Photo by Eileen Lograno)

I joined David and Stephanie on the floor as the preschool children settled in to face us. And then right on cue, the second graders arrived. At this point the children typically introduce themselves, but David had another surprise in store for us. He used ASL (without voice) to say HI, MY NAME IS DAVID. He even has a sign name! The children were visibly impressed, but one child could be heard over the others saying, "I'm so confused. Is he deaf?" Without missing a beat David responded (in sign) NO, I'M HEARING.

He also shared that he was a very shy, nonverbal child. He said a feeling of invisibility sometimes came upon him in his early years. Later in his life he understood and could articulate the importance of being seen and heard. Then he paused and deliberately looked at each child. His purpose shone through - he wanted them to know he saw them. He told us that as he grew older he decided it was time to take off that cloak of invisibility (nod to Harry Potter) and be seen. It was that determination, coupled with fortitude, that brought him into the wonderful world of theater.

Students introduce themselves using ASL

We shared a photograph of David from when he was 4-years-old to highlight not only the fact that, like all adults, he was once a child - a notion young ones always find shocking - but to put a spotlight on possibility. Who would have thought the quiet, curly haired boy in the picture would go on to become a celebrated artist? Yet, it happened. And the children in the room could likewise create their own life stories.
"Everything is wonderful if you enjoy it and you feel creative and you can communicate and you can collaborate and you can be a part of other people being happy and making other people happy." David Staller
David made a bold move when he was just 15-years-old. He left Chicago and traveled to Manhattan to join the prestigious Joffrey Ballet Company. From there he went on to study the cello and perform with one of the greatest cellists of the 20th century, Mstislav Rostropovich. He later tackled Broadway as a singer and actor in the original Broadway production of Evita with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin. Roles in Cabaret and Hello, Dolly! followed, as well as parts in various off-Broadway and regional theater productions. Our cozy chat helped set the stage for his reading.

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
David Staller reads THE BEAR AND THE PIANO alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne.

I asked David to read The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield. It is a beautiful story about a bear cub who discovers a piano in the forest. He learns to play it and by the time he grows into a big, strong, grizzly his friends have gathered many nights to hear his magical melodies. Eventually, the bear is discovered and whisked away to share his gifts with the world. But applause and adoration are meaningless without friends. He missed home. So, he returns. There is a bit of worry. Had he been forgotten? Of course not! He is greeted with love and welcomed home by his proud friends in an emotional reunion.

It's emotional for me too. I think anyone who leaves the comfort of home to pursue a dream can relate to this story. It also has the added bonus of showing Broadway in the illustrations. The children always take joy in making that connection to our guest artists. Note - This book was also read aloud in the second year of the program by the magnificent Elizabeth Ward Land.

Throughout the reading David stopped to clarify, ask questions, and interact with the students. And as always, I was taken with the beautiful ASL interpretation by Stephanie Feyne, who can often be found interpreting for Broadway shows and Shakespeare in the Park. Together, David and Stephanie made their own magic.

A second grade student asks David a question about Gingold Theatrical Company and directing

As we arrived at the question and answer portion of the visit we realized many of our questions had already been answered quite naturally throughout the morning. When asked why he formed Gingold Theatrical Group his answer reflected his previous responses and mirrored the message of the book...
"I started my own theater company to present plays that would encourage everybody to find their voice...We need to be strong together and to support each other." 
Our visit was brought to a close with a show of gratitude. We gave him a copy of the book signed by all of the children and he then signed copies of the book to give to each student.

Books were provided by the generous donors at DONORSCHOOSE.ORG

David really understood what I hope to achieve with this program and supported it wholeheartedly in word and deed. His visit was a wonderful way to end Year Four of the program. As I look ahead to working with kindergarteners next school year, I embrace David's message of support and community. I look forward to what Year Five will bring.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Sweet Appreciation

A sweet smattering of appreciation

As another school year comes to a close I give thanks to the many families who've allowed me the honor of teaching their children. This was a difficult year in some ways, but one thing always brought me joy - the children.

I am excited to announce that I will be moving up with some of them in September! A place has been made for me to return to kindergarten and I couldn't be happier.

In the meanwhile, there are songs to be sung, books to be read, words to be written, and people (and puppies) to be loved. Summer is the great refresher. A welcome respite from the constant, unforgiving pace of the school year. I relish the fact that it's just beginning...

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From John McGinty

John McGinty sharing the power of story with some PreK and Second Grade students
"The arts, it has been said, cannot change the world, but they may change human beings who might change the world." Maxine Greene
John McGinty knows the value of the Arts in education. He is a long-standing advocate of #deaftalent with a career goal of bringing the classics to life, from #deafhamlet to #deafhunchback. His journey as an actor brought him two Broadway shows in the last year - Children of a Lesser God (2018) and King Lear (2019).  It's an impressive resume that has deep roots in building visibility, promoting diversity, and supporting positive role models. I am honored that he took the time to visit with the children of Broadway Books First Class one morning before a matinee performance of King Lear.

I first met John and learned of our shared passion for the Arts in education when we conducted a series of educational workshops led by Kim Weild (artistic director of Our Voices Theater) in 2016. Those sessions led to the creation of a children's book entitled How the I Becomes the We and an American Sign Language (ASL) performance of the piece on the High Line. John also returned in 2018 to oversee the ASL interpretation of songs when Ali Stroker (recent Tony Award Winner for playing Ado Annie in Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA!) and I conducted our Theatre Lab for Grades 3-5.

Each child in attendance received a copy of the book thanks to the generous donors at

This year John came to visit with students in PreK and Second Grade. I asked him to read one of my all-time favorite children's books, The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce. It depicts the story of a man who nurtures - and is nurtured by - books. It's for anyone who has ever become lost in the printed word or reveled in stories that invite us to adventure. I wanted John to read this book for several reasons. One happens to be because John is Deaf. The images in this book (e.g. flying books) are complimented by ASL and Morris' oft-repeated phrase, "Everyone's story matters" is one John supports.

Another exciting aspect of his visit is his current tenure in King Lear. Shakespeare, as I learned while preparing for his visit, is VERY interesting to second graders.

I attended a matinee performance of this revival, which stars Glenda Jackson in the title role. There is some other nontraditional casting as well, including Jayne Houdyshell as the Earl of Gloucester, Ruth Wilson in dual roles as Cordelia and the Fool, and Russell Harvard (who is deaf) as the Duke of Cornwall. ASL is incorporated into the staging and played prominently in some scenes. All of this was interesting to the students, but what made them sit up were the unfortunate gory bits.

In preparing for John's visit I touched upon the Earl of Gloucester's fate at the hands of the Duke of Cornwall (i.e. his eyes are ripped from their sockets). That bit of stage trickery became our first question for John. The children wanted to know, "How did they stab Gloucester's eyes out?" Well, we had their attention! John explained it in detail, but without giving anything away here, I was pleased that he also stressed the fact that it was carefully choreographed. He told us that if anyone felt the least bit uncomfortable things immediately stopped.

The students also wanted to know how King Lear got so rich in the first place (John delivered a fantastic history lesson here on how the monarchy amassed wealth back in the day) and why everyone dies in the play (that's tragedy, folks).

John McGinty in the hot seat answering student questions

It was interesting to witness the pull of Shakespeare. I teach Greek Mythology to my first graders, but John's visit makes me ponder how to incorporate Shakespeare into our curriculum for second through fifth grades. We would definitely benefit from a theatre program.
"The Arts are an essential element of education, just like reading, writing, and, dance, painting, and theatre arts are all keys that unlock profound human understanding and accomplishment." William Bennett, Former US Secretary of Education
Other questions were more of a personal nature. They asked, "Why did you want to be on Broadway?" John told us that he has always had a passion for performing and when the opportunity to go to Broadway presented itself, he grabbed it. Then he turned the tables and asked the children about their passions and what they wanted to do when they grew up. Some said they wanted to be on Broadway or direct a Broadway show. Another said, "I want to draw hearts" and still another told us he wants to work at McDonald's for the french fries.

John McGinty signs a book for this Pre-K student

Before John had to make his way to the theater - he had two shows that day, each show lasting 3 hours and 30 minutes - he made sure to sign books and have one to one time with each student. John helped me realize the best of what this program can be. I am so thankful.
"Art has the role in education of helping children become like themselves instead of more like everyone else." Sydney Gurewitz Clemens

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Winding Down

Thumbs up for summer vacation
This difficult school year is coming to an end in 6 weeks and I couldn't be happier. I've been teaching 23 years - this has been the most unfulfilling experience to date. If they were all like this I would have walked away long ago.

The educational system is flawed. That is nothing new. Teachers are undervalued and disrespected politically, culturally, and administratively. However, we show up every day because of the relationships we foster with one another and because we believe the work we are doing with the children outweighs all the negativity.

Those moments of purpose provide the fuel to keep our engines running. The fuel I was given this year was compromised. Fighting negativity takes a toll. I look forward to viewing it in my rearview mirror.

There were some good things. Broadway Books First Class continued the mission of celebrating literacy and the Arts (although not to its full potential). My students are clever, engaging, eager, joyful, inquisitive, insightful, funny, charming, and sweet. Although I didn't get to utilize all of my skills as a reading specialist and use my knowledge of ASL to bridge language and print, I was able to facilitate and guide their learning in developmentally appropriate ways.

As the school year winds down I am becoming more zen about the experience. What has it taught me? I'm starting to redirect the anger and disappointment and trying to forgive those who caused it or made it so difficult. I was told yesterday to "Let it go" and forgive. It's simple, but good advice. Forgiveness is always healing. However, I think it is also easier to forgive after the fact. It's hard to forgive while still experiencing the pain.

I look forward to a summer of healing and rejuvenation. I've never counted down the days, but this year it's nice to know I can walk away in 26 days.

Year 24, please be good to me!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Christine Pedi

Making silly faces with Christine "Lady of 1,000 voices" Pedi

Christine Pedi dwells in a land heretofore uncharted in the short history of my literacy and Arts program - she accepted a face-to-face invitation to visit my classroom without knowing anything about me. To my knowledge, there were no mentions or words of support from others who've participated. This tactic of cold calling previously bombed with the other performers I've approached - Sarah Jessica Parker, Cherry Jones, Marlee Matlin, and Matthew Broderick - but, I stand undeterred for the greater good. The Divine Ms. P. proves tenacity pays off!

In early October 2018 I saw Christine perform in NEWSical the Musical on Theatre Row. I've long admired her work, but this was the first time I saw her live and in person.

Christine holds a special place in my heart because the last memory I have of my dear friend, James, was giggling over Christine's parody of Telephone (over the telephone! James was watching in New York and I was watching simultaneously in Florida). In the video, Christine switches the roles of Lady Gaga and Beyonce with Liza Minelli and Carol Channing. It was just the inspired silliness James enjoyed and although he sadly and unexpectedly passed soon after, his laughter that day is what I remember. Art lifts us, heals us, and brings us together.

Christine's energy, irreverence, and humor were all on full display as I watched her on stage. After the show I asked her about visiting my classroom to read and she was immediately on board. It turns out she was meeting with popular - and prolific - children's book author Tomie dePaola in the coming days, so the timing of my request was serendipitous. She suggested Tomie's book Oliver Button is a Sissy, which is a beautiful story about an artistic little boy "who won't give up on the dreams that make him unique".

Christine Pedi reads OH, THE PLACES YOU'LL GO! by Dr. Seuss

Christine also suggested her all-time favorite children's book Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss. This classic picture book with its sage life advice has many, many fans - including former Broadway Books First Class guest artist Michael Urie, who also places it at the top of his favorites list. Ultimately, we decided on the latter choice (although I believe Oliver Button is a fantastic choice for the program).

I wondered, "Would she read the book using the warm, motherly voice of Julie Andrews or Angela Lansbury?" I could only hope!

Christine is known as "The lady of 1,000 voices" due to her incredible ability to step into character as Ethel Merman, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and other well-known divas. This was first showcased in the legendary Off-Broadway revue Forbidden Broadway (and later in Forbidden Hollywood).

In preparation for her visit I showed the children Christine's Hello Dolly auditions video (I stopped it before "Patti LuPone" dropped the F bomb). As we watched I realized we were laughing for different reasons. I was chuckling because of Christine's spot-on interpretations of each performer. The children were laughing because she was wearing funny wigs, talking in different voices, and being silly. They were unfamiliar with Liza, Bernadette, Patti, etc. Although they did know Oprah and remarked afterwards that she was their favorite.

I also thought about the fact that some of the children are hard of hearing. How could we maximize the impact of the various impersonations for them? It turns out that augmentative technology, visuals, and an offer to feel her throat as she spoke did the trick. When the children asked her to do a voice, she entertained them Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts from Beauty and the Beast and with various character voices, such as a witch, a little baby, a toothless old man, a snake, and a chicken. She told us that in order to do character voices she thinks about the energy of the person or the animal. They responded with their own versions including a heart girl, a frog, and an Italian-accented Mario. That's a lot of frenetic energy pulsing through a classroom!

Christine as Holly Blue Agate on STEVEN UNIVERSE

A voice the children were familiar with was Holly Blue Agate on the popular animated show Steven Universe. We took a moment to watch a clip from the hit Cartoon Network program, which was a good idea. It quieted all of the voices and led into Christine's other work. After all, she is much more than those myriad voices.

She has performed in three Broadway shows; Little Me, Talk Radio, and Chicago. During our Q&A she told us that Chicago was her favorite because, "It has been running for 22 years. It has some of the best music I've ever heard in my life. And it's funny and it's intelligent at the same time. That's why I like the Dr. Seuss book because it's very fun and it's joyful and it's colorful, but it's very smart. And I like things that can do both." She told us she saw the show 16 times! This meant she was in it for two weeks before she performed the show more than she saw the show. To which a child stood up and asked,

"Was Broadway your passion?"

I loved the essence of this impromptu question because it showed a depth of understanding about what drives performers like Christine. There is a calling that cannot be ignored. It is thrilling to me that the students are gaining an understanding of this and beginning to think about their own path in life. As Joseph Campbell stated, it is important to follow your bliss.

Students ask questions about Christine's many voices and her life in the theatre

It seems that the question also brought us back full circle to the overarching lesson of the book she just read. One that tells us the path of life isn't always easy, but the path is ours and with determination we will get through.

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)


Christine signs a book for this very grateful birthday unicorn

*You can learn more about the fabulous Christine Pedi by clicking here.

**Photo credit: Eileen Lograno and Yours Truly.


Related Posts with Thumbnails