Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Après Sa Mort

There was a black rotary phone sitting on the corner table in "the big room" just outside my bedroom. I heard it ringing as sat on my bed listening to music.


"Hi, is Beverly home?"

I put the phone down and shouted, "Ma! Phone!"

Mom came and I handed her the receiver before going back into my bedroom. I turned the music down and could hear a seriousness in her voice as she spoke, asking questions and seemingly grappling with whatever was being said on the other end of the phone. 

I grew concerned, so I stepped back into the big room and quietly watched her. She looked at me and through me as her eyes filled with tears. After a moment, she hung up the phone. Then, she wailed. An uncontrollable tidal wave of emotion rolled up from her center and exploded into the air. 

"I don't have a mother!" 

This is what I recall her crying, although I am not one hundred percent sure my memory can be trusted. I just know that, in that moment, she was struck a sudden and unexpected blow from this phone call telling her that her mom had passed. The impact, which was deep and lasting, brought an almost unbearable hurt. How does one go on after such a loss? 

I hugged mom as she crumpled into the small chair beside the phone. I was with her when she got the devastating news, but the memories of their history and love was something I couldn't understand. It was theirs alone. I couldn't really share it. All I could do was try to comfort MY mom as she forged ahead with the funeral plans. An only child shouldering the burden without siblings for support. 

In a dizzying flurry of emotions and activity, I thought, "This is it". The end. Everything from here on out, for mom, will be after her mother's death. My grandma would never see my mom get older, old. She'd never see us grow up. She'd never know what we became. The moment she passed things froze, in a way. 

And now that is how I see my own life in relation to the unexpected news of my mom's passing. I gave it a fancy French translation - après sa mort - because learning French is one of the things I've thrown myself into after her death. I've also started taking guitar lessons. I spend a great deal of time with both endeavors lately. These are things mom doesn't know. Or at least, they are things I can't pick up the phone to talk to her about. 

Life is still a lot less joyful and I struggle to make peace with the realization of who I am now. Lonelier. Sadder. Disconnected. Broken. It's all after her death. It sucks, but I've come to learn that there's no easy way through this. We must feel all the feels because pretending everything is alright just delays the healing. And I know I'm healing. I'm just not healed.  

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Siena Rafter

Siena Rafter's sweet face hidden amongst our kindergarteners

American Sign Language!

I just love it. The hand movements that convey meaning through space, the facial expressions that hold important grammatical information, the sentence structure - different from English - that sits comfortably now within my body, the way it allows one to say so much with just one sign, and the mesmerizing sense of awe I feel when I see someone who's mastered it.

This love and respect for a language I continue to gain competence with is one reason I was so thrilled to welcome Siena Rafter into my classroom. Siena shares my passion for ASL. She is not a native signer, but has taken to ASL with a fierce dedication to live within it. She is a strong advocate for equal access in communication and supports the Deaf community. Given all of this, I was excited to welcome her into my classroom to serve as a role model for my students. 

Siena's ties to Broadway and the performing arts are closely connected with ASL. She was Assistant Director to Tony Award Winner Kenny Leon for the Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God in 2018. She was also part of the ASL team for Glenda Jackson's 2019 Broadway revival of King Lear. 

I cheered her stage performance in a dazzling production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2018, which incorporated ASL into the staging. And I performed alongside her in 2016 on the historic High Line in a show inspired by my Broadway Books First Class program entitled How the I Becomes the We. In fact, that is where we met and I knew she was someone special from our first hello. I'll never forget my introduction to this confident young woman with a megawatt smile, who was eating a sweet pepper like most of us eat an apple. 

Siena's visit with my kindergarten students took place on an October morning in 2019. During the visit she shared her love of language and literacy. And she spoke about the joy she's found in bridging ASL with the performing arts. Students were full of questions. Siena's answers led the children to see the possibilities that lie in belief and that a dream only remains a dream if you don't work towards realizing it. Dreams can become truth through planning and perseverance. 

I shared a photograph of Siena as a young child, the same age as my students. The photo demystifies the guest artist. It helps students connect the dots between themselves and the person before them. It reminds me of the quote by American civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, "You can't be what you can't see." Role models are so important and I was thrilled to share Siena's light with my young charges.  

She read a wonderful chapter book designed especially for young readers, Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin. I selected this title because illustrator Brian Selznick (Wonderstruck, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Marvels) has ties to the Deaf community and knows and appreciates sign language. And author David Serlin works at The University of California, San Diego with Deaf author, researcher, and powerhouse, Carol Padden. This visit, in all its layers, was a celebration of ASL and Deaf pride.

alongside ASL interpreter Rachel Grudberg

Baby Monkey, Private Eye is an engaging series of mysteries wrapped around irresistibly cute illustrations. It is a cleverly written pattern book consisting of only about 52 words. Pattern books foster confidence and joy associated with reading, which makes children want to read them again and again. During the read aloud, Siena encouraged students to participate and join in on the oft-repeated phrases...

Baby Monkey looks for clues.
Baby Monkey writes notes.
Baby Monkey eats a snack.
Baby Monkey puts on his pants. 
Now Baby Monkey is ready! 
Baby Monkey solves the case! 

After the reading, each student also got to take home their own personalized hardcover copy of the book. In anticipation of this event,  I even had the added bonus of receiving a promotional poster for the book signed by Brian Selznick and David Serlin.  

Siena asks a student her name (in ASL)

Keep your eyes open for more from Siena in the years to come. And do yourself a favor, check out Baby Monkey, Private Eye for your beginning readers. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Shards of Joy

My happiness was shattered on March 26, 2020. That was the day my Mom passed unexpectedly. The days since have been filled with sorrow, tears, and grieving. Memories of her swirl in my mind as I sleep, and when they do it causes me to wake up smiling. 

My happiness is buried somewhere in there, in the remembering. I'm broken, but not too broken to appreciate who she was, how she nurtured and supported me, and her unconditional love, which is, above all, the thing that will help mend me. 


I'm finding it is the things I love that comfort me and give me hope. In comfort, there is a way back to peace and a sense of wholeness. School has started, kinda. The craziness of my personal struggles, mixed with the craziness of our societal struggles dealing with a global pandemic, cannot take away the joy I feel when I see the picture above. A child reading Curious George! It seems simple, but there's so much power in the image. I am so grateful to her mom for sharing it with me. She knows. She knows I need the boost. And it helps.

I'm looking forward to starting another school year because, despite the craziness, I know that children, teaching, ASL, books, Curious George, smiles, laughter, and youthful energy will bring me back to me again. It's a happiness my Mom would want for me. That I know with great certainty to be true.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Back to School(ish)

Anxiety mounts as the countdown brings us closer to the start of another school year. This one, my 25th, is like no other. It is filled with questions ranging from the school calendar (there isn't one), to safety protocols, student rosters, learning models, curriculum, and the coordination of all these elements. There are so many unknowns. 

Thankfully, this past week we had some answers. It seems a strike, which has been weighing heavily on my mind, has been averted. The NYC DOE, mayor's office, and the UFT came to an agreement that would provide some safety measures for students and staff. I still report in-person at my school on September 8, 2020, but students (originally scheduled to start on September 10) won't begin classes now until September 21. That will give schools time to get their act together, I hope. 

My school selected the A, B, C, D plan encompassing blended and fully remote learning. This means, as far as I understand, that I have some students on my first grade roster that I will never see. Children whose parents opted for fully remote learning (Group D) will work with a fully remote teacher (not me and not yet assigned). I'm not sure how that plays out for my Deaf and hard of hearing students. I suppose a sign language interpreter will work alongside the teacher to facilitate communication. It's not ideal (especially when I can provide instruction in the child's first language of ASL), but these are extraordinary times. 

The rest of the class - my blended learning students - are split into A, B, and C groups. I see just one group a day in our socially distant, mask-wearing, classroom. Let's see how long first graders can follow those rules. That means I see them only once or twice a week. The other days they work with a "blended remote teacher." Confused? It'll be a lot to coordinate. 

There are so many challenges, yet, I feel more than ready to tackle them. Remote learning, which I did with my class from March - June, was difficult and (mostly) unfulfilling. I kept reminding myself that we were all doing our best in a horrible situation, it is temporary, etc. 

I want to go back to my classroom. I want to build a community of learners (no matter how small each day), and I want to feel the joy that teaching brings me. Alas, I don't want to die for it and I have my fingers crossed that all will go well, but it's a risk. A risk I have no power to avoid or refuse.

Details continue to be worked out. I'm very anxious. I am skeptical. But, I am also determined to be the person my students need me to be right now. Given all the pain I've encountered this year, I believe getting back to what I love will also help heal my sorrow a bit. At least, I hope so. 

Back to school 2020. This is one like no other. Wish us luck. 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

A Broadway Books First Class Visit from Elizabeth Ward Land

Photo by Mike Thomas
Elizabeth Ward Land sets off sparks of joy in kindergarten

What is your destiny?

While I believe in the power of free will in determining our path in this world, there is something to be said for the undeniable influence of natural abilities, personal interests, and early childhood experiences.

It seems that Elizabeth Ward Land was destined for a life laboriously and luxuriously steeped in music. Music was a language spoken in her home. Her mother and grandmother taught piano and little Liz spent many hours practicing and perfecting her musical faculty under her mom's expert tutelage. I have an idealized vision of her as a young girl happily bopping down the hallway of her Denver home with quarter notes dancing around her head.

Photo by Mike Thomas
Sharing childhood photos of Elizabeth Ward Land with my kindergarten students

Her musicianship expanded when she was in 4th grade. It was then that she took up the only instrument still available in the music department of her elementary school, the oboe. Later, she learned to play the guitar, the ukulele (she says, "A little for novelty"), and even percussion. The latter was for a 2014 Barrington Stage production of Southern Comfort, which transferred to The Public Theater in 2016.

It seems inevitable, given her musical gifts, training, and commitment, that she'd become the outstanding artist she is today. She's performed in six Broadway shows, numerous national tours, and many sold out concerts. Her latest offering is a tribute show she created called Still Within the Sound of My Voice: The Songs of Linda Ronstadt for which she delivered an award winning performance.

It also seems inevitable, given my love of theater, that our paths would eventually intersect. It may have happened as early as her debut on the Great White Way in City of Angels when she was 28 years old. I lived just around the corner from the Virginia Theatre (now the August Wilson Theatre) and headed over there one evening to catch a performance. I'm not sure she was in it the night I attended - where is that Playbill? - but, it's possible.

However, I know I saw her years later in The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was hopelessly enamored and a bit obsessed with this thrilling musical centered around the French Revolution. It played for over 2 years on Broadway in 3 different versions. Elizabeth Ward Land was in every one and I was there in the audience laughing, crying, and clapping for every iteration. I went alone, with friends, and often second-acted it (with permission from the ushers). I remember her on stage belting it out next to Madame Guillotine and acting it up next to a dashing Douglas Sills.

I never suspected that one day I'd share a stage with her to provide the ASL interpretation of her heartwarming version of "My Grown-Up Christmas List." Or that she'd visit my classroom to read a book and sing a song to my students - not just once, but twice!

Photo by Mike Thomas
by David Litchfield alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne

The first time she visited she read an endearing book called The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield.  I thought it paralleled her own early journey in a way. It is the story of a musically gifted bear who leaves home in order to share his music with the world. He gains great success, but learns the cities he visits are vast and lonely places without his old friends. He finds, in the end, that there is nothing better than sharing music with those you love.

The first time I read this book I thought back to my early days in New York as a young actor. I remember being torn between pursuing a dream and missing my family, my home. I know this is a rite of passage for dreamers who follow their bliss. Yet, when the journey begins, it is charged with the irresistible pull of possibility.

Elizabeth Ward Land also understands this and reminisces in her tribute to Linda Ronstadt...

"I remember when I first moved to New York, marveling at how many people there were everywhere I turned, so crowded, yet so anonymous. I would walk around getting to know the city. I'd look up at the apartments. The windows lit up. I'd wonder about the lives that were happening behind those windows. Who were all these people? What did they do? Which of them would I get to know? Who would I work with? Who would I love?"

For her second classroom visit I asked Liz to read the sequel, The Bear, the Piano, the Dog, and the Fiddle. In this children's book, Bear is back on stage making music with his friends. However, the lesson about the importance of friendship comes from a fiddle playing dog.

I loved my front row seat watching Liz tell this story alongside ASL interpreter Stephanie Feyne. The children's eyes darting back and forth between David Litchfield's luminous illustrations and the artistry of Stephanie's interpretation as Liz read. Words and hands creating images to whisk these kindergarteners away into a new place of wonder. Magical, indeed!

Photo by Mike Thomas
Getting to know Elizabeth Ward Land with a Q&A session

And the magic continued during our Q&A session with Liz accepting the children's request for a song. She sang a bit of "A Change in Me" from her CD First Harvest. That voice! It swirls and soars and reaches right into your heart. It vibrates at a frequency that is honest, open, and undeniably moving. It's powerful, yet finds the quiet places within you and settles in to provide comfort you didn't even realize you needed. It's an energizing meditation.

So, we return to the question of destiny. When you receive a gift like hers, one that is nurtured and honed, is it possible or irresponsible not to share it with others? Does one in that situation kinda sorta have a moral obligation? Whatever the answer, I'm honored Elizabeth Ward Land continues to say, "Yes" to sharing her time and talent with my students.

Photo by Mike Thomas
A child fingerspells his name during the book signing

The visit concluded with the distribution of books. Every child enjoyed some one-on-one time with Liz as she autographed copies for them to take home. I have been able to give away almost 1,000 books through my Broadway Books First Class program. For some students, these are the only books in their home libraries and they proudly display them on their bookshelves. And there you have my destiny. Although I sometimes wish I were a great musical talent, I cannot deny my calling. Like Liz's voice, I find comfort in teaching. It's where my heart feels most at home.

We all have our gifts and they are calling us to our destinies. What are yours? Where are you headed? As Joseph Campbell wrote in Pathways to Bliss, "What I've told my students is this: Follow your bliss."

Friday, June 26, 2020


Happy 80th Birthday Flowers

I wrapped up Year 24 of teaching with a Zoom conference with my kindergarten students and their parents.

I'm told that the shared COVID health crisis experience strengthened the bond between all of us and it is a time we will all look back on with a unified pride. Hmmmm.....I'm not sure I needed a pandemic to take this class into my heart.

I actually feel cheated out of my time with them. There aren't many things that bring me more inner peace and happiness than spending time in the classroom teaching young children. That was taken from me 3 months ago.

We (me, my team teacher, Sarah, the students, and parents) made the most of remote learning. Some students thrived, others floundered, yet we figured it out together.


It's my mom's birthday. She would have turned 80 today. She came to me again in a dream last night. I awoke at 3:30 in the morning, smiling from the pure joy of talking with her. It felt good to talk to her. She seemed happy. She said she's sorry she cannot visit more often, but she said she has to wait until the "edvetesments" are completed before she can gain more independence. I never heard of that word. I wrote it down and googled it. It's a mystery. It was kind of her to visit me on her birthday.


I begin something new. My students and their parents allowed me to remain focused on things other than grief these past 3 months. I realize more than ever that my passion, my bliss is teaching.  In the midst of unbearable sorrow, the smiles of my students, their stories, their enthusiasm, and their empathy sustained me. But, I also know I need some quiet time. Time to sit alone and get lost in thought. To grieve.


I sat on my front lawn and watched the clouds go by.


I saw a hummingbird for the first time this year.


A bright red cardinal sat on the fence in my backyard when I was talking on the phone to my sister. She tells me they are a sign that our departed loved ones are near. It's sweet. I know my mom is close by.


A beautiful bouquet of flowers arrived from my friend, Maria, with a card which read, "Dear Gary, Thinking of you and sending you love. She is with you always. Happy Birthday in heaven Beverly!"


It kinda sucked and it was kinda amazing.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Tips From My Mom #18

I never thought I'd be without my mom. I mean, I feared it, but never actually thought it would happen. What would life be without her? That was too much to contemplate, so I stubbornly and arrogantly ignored the thought.

And then, suddenly, it happened.

True to her fashion, she went without fuss. She slipped away quietly while lying on the couch watching television. Dad, sitting next to her in his recliner, didn't notice a stir or a gasp. When the movie they were watching ended he said, "Well, that was a good one, huh Bev?"

Mom did not answer. And from that moment on his world changed forever.

It's been 30 days without her and the loss is devastating. Yet somehow, she's with me.

The morning I learned the news I literally walked into a wall after I hung up the phone. I wandered around the quiet house from one room to another, walking up the stairs and down without direction. I was numb, in shock, full of everything and nothing. After a while, I tried to get some sleep. Tossing and turning in bed, newly scared of everything, I heard her voice in my mind. She said, "Don't be scared, baby. I am here with you. Get some rest." I felt comforted and calm. I did what she asked.

Later, there were dreams. Conversations with Ma. I asked her, "Where did you go?" In my slumber she told me, "I didn't go anywhere. I'm right here." I pushed back because I knew she went away. Although she was right in front of me I asked, "Where are you now?" She told me she was just napping, that she was tired.

My little sister, Jennifer, had a similar dream. In her dream Ma was packing to go somewhere. Jennifer anxiously asked her where she was going, why she was leaving. She told me Ma said, "I'm not leaving. I'm here."

We believe her.

All my life I've worn my mother's love like a shield against the scary things in this world. I believe she continues to love and protect us all.

Through my grieving and mourning I realize that Ma has showered me with enough love to last me the rest of my life. Even if she isn't a phone call away, she will forever be a brilliant light in my life: my mom, my best friend, my champion. Every child should be so blessed. She did so much for all of us, no wonder she was tired. And still, somehow, she continues to assure us that she's still with us. She hasn't left. Not really.

Ma, I love you.

See you in my dreams.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Remote Learning

Taking care of the little ones.
We are here for you.
"You do what you have to do, I guess."

This is a reflective statement my mom uses when thinking back to the early years of her marriage. She was just 23 with three young children (my older brother, Wally, my twin brother, Larry, and me) dealing with financial struggles in a new home far away from everything and everyone she knew.

I'd ask, "How'd you handle it all?"

"You do what you have to do, I guess. And then you wonder later how you did it."

I feel a little bit like that right now with the upheaval casued by the Coronavirus. Last week I was teaching in a classroom in Manhattan. This week I'm starting remote teaching from my home 55 miles away (from my classroom), connecting with students who are now scattered across the country.

It's been a challenging, stressful week planning a huge shift in pedagogical methodology. Online classes for kindergartners?! What the hell does that look like? My colleagues and I rolled up our sleeves and immersed ourselves in learning about the various platforms and technology to do this. A week ago I knew nothing about Google classrooms, Zoom, or the many, many, websites and resources seemingly popping up everyday to support our work.

The shift has forced us to be creative. Creativity is something I embrace and the possibilities for what this could be is inspiring me and many of my coworkers. It has solidified us as a community of educators, sharing ideas and solving problems.

Teachers are teaming up to provide ASL versions of read alouds and lessons. My student teacher has adjusted her role a bit to provide support in ways I hadn't considered before. We dive into it all on Monday morning. We have a plan and a platform and hope that we'll figure the rest out as we go.

There is a great deal of talk out there about what this means for the future of education. As state tests are suspended and teacher evaluations are on hold, can we rethink the limits of our current modus operandi? Will the focus on connection, well-being, and individuation to help us reimagine our schools?

However we proceed, for the moment parents and teachers must work together more than ever before. I'm counting on them to help my class of 5-year-olds thrive in this crazy time. We are all going to do what we have to do, I guess.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Hamilton's "Dear Theodosia" in ASL

The video for Dear Theodosia is ready to share!

It's the vision of Kori Rushton, an educator at Brooklyn Collaborative and the producing artistic director of IRT Theater. Kori brought all of the elements together: she chose the song, assembled the creative team, and handled all of the scheduling details.

The result is a beautiful version of the song in ASL performed by Kori's high school students, my kindergarten students, and Gabriel Silva. The students learned the sign language using an interpretation by Brandon Kazen-Maddox. I worked with my young students a bit every morning to piece the verse together. Brandon was there on the day of the shoot to support the students and model for them in person.

I am very honored to have been involved in this collaboration. I know it meant a lot to my students who are a mix of deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing children with deaf parents. The work supports Kori's passion for celebrating #deaftalent.

Planning is already underway for the next one! Enjoy...

Saturday, February 29, 2020


We had a sweet, playful, and engaging visit with children's book author/illustrator Max Amato yesterday. Max is a young artist whose very first children's book, PERFECT, caught the eye of one of my students. This little boy brought the book in to share with the class and it was a smashing success. I was so taken with their reaction that I emailed Max to invite him to visit with our kindergarten and first grade students. Happily, he accepted!

I couldn't wait to tell the students about his response. They cheered and jumped up and down when I shared the news. Once again, I thought how wonderful it is to teach in New York City. Opportunities like these seem more available here.

Max Amato meets the student who brought PERFECT to our attention

Max read his book alongside an ASL interpreter as the children giggled and supplied a charming running commentary. The kindergarten students knew the book, but the first graders were seeing it for the first time. PERFECT is a mostly visual experience about an eraser who wants everything "perfect" and his fun-loving nemesis, pencil.

In the end, the pair learns to work together to create adventure. Max told us that as a child he wanted everything perfect and learned to embrace imperfection. PERFECT was inspired by his letting go. It is a journey that I understand all too well, although I still want things to be perfect.

Max Amato used pencil and eraser to create artwork before our very eyes!

After the reading, Max put a blank piece of paper under our document camera and slowly used a pencil to cover the entire page. He then asked the children what images they wanted to see. Then, he created them using an eraser. And yes, there was applause when he was finished!

The children went off to their tables armed with their own paper, pencils, and erasers to make their own art. As they did, Max autographed books for everyone.

Max Amato signs books for the students

The room was filled with energy and movement - just how I like it. Children were happily invested in their creations. It's a simple way to create art. One that is accessible to everyone. It's messy and smudgy and imperfect, but somehow absolutely perfect. I guess that's the point.

I loved looking around the room to see the children working, hands and faces covered in dark pencil smudges. And then noticing others quietly reading their books, pointing to the words, deep in concentration.

Photo: Sarah Piracha
A child quietly reads his copy of PERFECT. I love this picture so much!

Max's visit has encouraged more children to bring in books to share! Every morning someone is pulling a book out of his or her backpack to read to the class. It's very motivating. Who knows, there may be another gem waiting to be discovered.

Photo: Maria Edwards
The whole crew with children's book author/illustrator Max Amato
*Thank you to the PS347 Parent Association whose generous support made this author visit possible.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From Kenny Leon

Photo: Eileen Lograno
Tony Award Winner Kenny Leon with kindergarten and first grade students

In Kenny Leon's Tony Award acceptance speech for Best Direction of a Play he said, "I'm looking forward to the day when every child in America can have a little piece of theatre in their daily educational lives."

Although I gave a cheer back in 2014 when I heard those words, I had no idea that the folks in my life would one day connect us in a one degree of separation sorta way or that Kenny would personally bring a "little piece of theatre" to my own classroom.

Well, actually I knew a little bit because Kenny had already directed my former first grade student, Eden Duncan-Smith, in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson's Fences. That play won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and I was filled with pride to see Eden join the creative team on stage to accept the award.

Then, in 2018 he brought my team teacher of 9 years, Lauren Ridloff, to Broadway in Children of a Lesser God. That opportunity landed Lauren a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress, which led to roles in The Walking Dead and Marvel's upcoming feature, The Eternals. It was Lauren who introduced me to Kenny and put in a good word for Broadway Books First Class. And I was thrilled to welcome him as my latest guest artist.

I did my homework in preparation for his visit. I read his memoir Take You Wherever You Go and admired how he used theater to bring diverse groups of people together. His work is, and has been, filled with purpose and includes an impressive list of Broadway credits: A Raisin in the Sun, Gem of the Ocean, American Son, Holler If Ya Hear Me, and A Soldier's Play (among others). At a recent preshow talk for a matinee of A Soldier's Play the dramaturg said that Kenny Leon was the go-to guy for directing thought-provoking plays about African Americans on Broadway.

I was psyched for Kenny to pass along some of his passion and insight to my students. I wanted them to feel the strength of his dedication, understand his message, and feel his compassion. As I shared his work with the children in the weeks leading up to his visit, we developed a list of questions.

The students connected in a very personal way when I told them Kenny studied American Sign Language (ASL). They were curious as to why he wanted to learn ASL and how he learned it. This question held immediate importance for the children because, for most of them, ASL is their first language. Kenny's desire to learn more about their language, their culture, and their experience made them want to learn more about him. They were impressed to discover he even had a name sign - a name sign is given by someone who is Deaf and is an important part of Deaf culture.

The students also wanted to know more about his job as a director. And they wanted to know which of his many theatrical experiences was the most special. He told us it was working with Lauren because she was initially his sign language teacher when he was preparing Children of a Lesser God and then she became an actor in that play. He shared that he loves the Deaf community and is, "Really, really, really excited to be here in this class with you today. You have made my day." What a show of respect and generosity from this beautifully affable gentleman!

Kenny Leon reads Hey Black Child by Useni Eugene Perkins alongside ASL interpreter Rick Rubin

I selected the children's book Hey Black Child by Useni Eugene Perkins and Bryan Collier for Kenny to read. This book has parallels to his directorial work in its themes. Bryan Collier expanded on the text by infusing his beautiful illustrations with pictorial commentary on African American history, struggle, empowerment, and pride.

Kenny, in his reading, made wonderful use of the oft-repeated refrain, Hey Black Child. He would read it and wait a beat, silently encouraging the children to echo those words - the momentum building with each stanza. In the illustrator's note in the back of the book Bryan Collier writes, "Hey Black Child is an ode to young black children that inspires and celebrates their lives. The children throughout discover their own worth and ability to the magical words of Useni Eugene Perkins." Kenny Leon's sonorous, expressive voice provided an exquisite reading which honored the poem, the illustrations, and the intention behind the work.

Photo: Eileen Lograno
A student fingerspells her name for Kenny

For almost 40 minutes Kenny charmed and inspired us before tackling a large stack of books awaiting his signature. Students now had an opportunity for some one-on-one time with him as he inscribed a personal message (such as, YOU CAN DO ANYTHING!) for each child. This is a wonderful time in the visits for me because I can relax a bit. The room is abuzz with excitement as children write thank you cards, read their autographed books, and connect personally with the guest artist.

It is also a time when I get to express my gratitude. I often think these visits are like planting seeds from unmarked envelopes. We know something will grow from it, but can't be sure exactly what it will be. One child may be inspired to become involved in theater, another may feel empowered to share their gifts with others, and still another may remember a feeling of simply being seen. To feel acknowledged and valued cannot be underestimated. Kenny Leon made sure that no matter what grows from their time with him, each child knows that, for them, anything is possible.

Students share a laugh while making thank you cards

Thursday, January 2, 2020

A Broadway Books First Class Visit From John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon

Photo Credit: Eileen Lograno
Guest artists John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon visit with kindergarten students to read their book INGREDIENTS FOR A WITCH


Screeches bounded forth from 20 kindergarteners - and several adults - at the prodding of John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon as they read aloud from their Halloween themed children's book INGREDIENTS FOR A WITCH.

There is a misconception that deaf/hard of hearing children are silent, quiet individuals. Anyone passing by our classroom as the sound of cackling, witchy laughter rattled the windows could attest to the fact that this is not the case. The mood was loud, joyous, and festive as we traveled into Halloween Hills with John and Jason's enchanting characters: Witch Betty, Boney Jones, and Pumpkin. There is nothing quite like the palpable energy surrounding a good story - especially one with skeletons, witches, talking cats, and magic spells.

The lure of storytelling cannot be denied. It has roots in tales told throughout the ages around a communal hearth and has morphed through time to reflect societal advances. Stories continue to capture the imagination with digital technology, virtual reality, and other interactive enticements. However, nothing beats a master storyteller playing to a specific audience, skillfully drawing them in and guiding them through the ups and downs of the hero's journey. And we had not one, but two such storytellers visit us in early October.

John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon read INGREDIENTS FOR A WITH alongside ASL interpreter Lewis Merkin (notice Lewis is signing SKELETON)

It was the perfect way to kick off Year Five of Broadway Books First Class. The program, originally conceived as a celebration of literacy and the Arts for students in first grade, has grown to encompass children in preK through fifth grade. This year, I'm teaching kindergarten. The children are brilliant, funny, and engaged, but they are also moody, distractible, and, well...very young.

As always when I begin a new school year with a fresh group of students, especially ones this little, I worry and wonder about how they will respond to Broadway guest artists, read alouds, and in-depth discussions around themes relating to such topics as diversity, acceptance, and collaboration. Will they embrace the visits? Will they be engaged? Will they feel a sense of pride and importance because these artists chose to spend a morning with them? Will the lessons permeate their everyday lives? Will they love the books they get to take home after each visit and read them again and again? Will they become more motivated, skillful readers as a result? In short, will my hopes and dreams for the program take root within them and grow exponentially into something meaningful?

And, thankfully, each year the answer has been yes. Perhaps it's because of the angst that fuels careful preparation or perhaps it's because I've been fortunate enough to have an angel looking over my program. And in true theatrical fashion, this angel on the catwalk is a celebrated Broadway performer with three Tony Award nominations - Mary Testa!

Mary Testa stepped in three years ago amid my growing concerns about returning to teach preschool and what it would mean for the program. She introduced me to Tony Award nominee Jonathan Freeman, who is best known to children for playing Jafar in Disney's Aladdin. Jonathan was a guest artist tailor made for my younger students and his participation ushered in a splendidly exciting year for all of us.

John Treacy Egan as Chef Louis in Disney's The Little Mermaid on Broadway

Mary came through again this year by introducing me to John Treacy Egan, whose role as Chef Louis in Disney's The Little Mermaid served to pique the interest of my kindergarteners. In preparing for his visit I shared an amusing video of John in character, preparing his culinary delights while chopping and deboning our friends from under the sea. The action is humorous in its buffoonery and elicited gasps and giggles from the children. In short, they were hooked - perfect!

There were even more delighted when he brought in a prototype for the prop fish used in the show. Students got to dismantle, reassemble, and play with it as they passed it around the room. John even sang us an energetic a cappella chorus of "Les Poissons" (with a fantastic ASL interpretation by Tavoria Kellam).

Later, as John "the scribe" answered questions about his Broadway career and his children's book Ingredients for a Witch - it is inspired by his musical for children called The Real Wicked Witches of Halloween Hills - Jason 'the scribbler" drew us a picture of Pumpkin, the cat, to hang in our classroom. However, the gifts didn't stop there.

Jason Simon creates artwork for our classroom as a student watches

They brought along bookmarks featuring their enchanting characters with sayings like, "READING can be MAGICAL!", "HEY! Who wants to READ?" and "BACK OFF! I'M READING HERE!" There were also coloring pages, which we saved and colored on Halloween, and books! Every child took home a book signed by both John and Jason.

Artwork by Jason Simon
I'm told there is a second book planned in the series and we are all looking forward to John and Jason's return next year. By then, the children will be a little bit older and will take away new things from the experience. But, just like this year, we will all celebrate reading and getting lost in a good story.

Thank you John Treacy Egan and Jason Simon for a wonderful morning!


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