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.


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