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


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