Friday, December 31, 2021

Revamped and Renewed


Diamonds may be forever, but websites are not. My dear little website for Broadway Books First Class, which I built from scratch in 2015, has run out of storage! The good folks at GoDaddy inform me that I'll need to choose a new design with updated features and security because they plan to "sunset" my current design. Nothing can migrate from old to new, so that means starting from scratch once again! 

I don't hate the idea. The current website is very "content heavy" after seven years (as they pointed out in an accusatory tone that led me to believe I committed a shameful faux pas). It seems that I should see this as an opportunity to redesign the website so it is streamlined and easier to navigate. 

I'm not sure exactly how, but I will simplify things. It will alleviate some self-induced pressure to update it after every guest artist visit. That was becoming tiresome. It's been a ton of work keeping up and I welcome the change.

Isn't it interesting timing? I was never one for New Year's resolutions, but I do see the changing of the calendar year to be a time of renewal. There must be something in the timing of this that is good for me in some way. At least, it is if I choose to see it as such. 

So, I move forward with optimism and love. Happy New Year! 

Saturday, November 27, 2021


For a while there I was really into vampires. In all of the books, movies, and shows I consumed vampires faced the dilemma of living forever. What do you do with all that time? 

It seems that they'd have to reinvent themselves again and again to keep things interesting. I imagine an enterprising vampire would always have to create new goals to stave off the recurring barrage of monotony. 

My long teaching career can be likened to the vampire's challenge. In order to keep things interesting I'm always tackling new areas in the educational arena. When I started teaching, my focus was on learning American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf culture. That kept me on my toes for many, many years. As I became more knowledgeable and skilled, I took a deep dive into literacy development. The marriage of the two became the focus of my dissertation. It is where my heart beats and I continue to pursue it, but it's become part of me. It doesn't hold the same immediacy that it once did. I've earned the right to say I know a lot.

Over the past several years, I've begun to explore how the things I've learned connect with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Social Justice Education (SJE). I'm finding this is an area that is calling out to me. It isn't just because it's fascinating, it's because it's needed

Consider my week last week. I returned from lunch to find a child sitting in my classroom with our Dean of Students. My kindergarten student became angry during lunch (the kindergarten students eat in the classroom) and had a tantrum. Fried potatoes, broccoli, and chicken were scattered on the tables and floor. Small pieces of potato were mashed into the rugs, book bins were tossed, pencils strewn, crayons broken, an open bottle knocked over on a table dripped water into a large puddle on the floor, and a very angry boy sat with his arms crossed on the floor.

I knew immediately what to do. I've watched our former social worker, Melanie, talk with students in this situation before and emulated her approach. I also brought in our daily work with mindfulness and breathwork. I pulled from my knowledge of this boy and how he responds best to feeling safe rather than challenged. He slowly shared his feelings with me and I listened. I gave him other options for expressing his anger. We continued to talk as he helped me clean the room. A connection of trust was growing and although I realize these outbursts will occur again, I do believe he will develop the mechanisms over time to deal with his anger in a healthier way.

Two days before this, another boy was hurt on the playground. He was scared, so was I. He had a very nasty bump developing over his eyebrow and it freaked me out. He suddenly looked very little. Still, the things I've learned kicked in and he was comforted and safe. It seems my role as an educator these days requires more and more of this type of thing. 

The Six Elements of Social Justice Education
(Click to enlarge)

It happens in the moment - as in the examples above - and in the teaching. Social and Emotional Learning and how it relates to Social Justice Education is something that has captured my interest. 

I teach a Children's Lit course at Fordham University and have had fantastic opportunities to talk with some incredibly passionate students about it. Our discussions push my thinking and bring me insights I wouldn't have realized on my own. 

I'm able to integrate SJE into the work I do with my Broadway Books First Class program. It's exciting work. It's important work. It's the kind of work that keeps vampires and educators on their toes. In this season of gratitude, I'm thankful I continue to have things to motivate and interest me. I have so much more to learn. May the passion never cease. 

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Broadway Books First Class Visit with Jessica Hecht

A kindergarten student introduces herself to Tony Award nominee Jessica Hecht

Exploring the work of an artist is an interesting and contemplative endeavor when you are viewing it with an eye toward sharing your musings with a group of young students. In preparation for our Broadway Books First Class (BBFC) guest artist visit with Tony Award nominee Jessica Hecht, I first let the scope of her work wash over me. I charted the timeline of her Broadway shows and wondered what themes would emerge. What kinds of shows spoke to her? What connections could be made across shows that might give a glimpse into what she is passionate about based on the projects she's selected? 

Jessica made her Broadway debut in 1997 in Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo. The play takes place in Atlanta, Georgia in 1939 within an upper class German-Jewish community. Hitler recently conquered Poland and Gone with the Wind is about to premiere - both provide a backdrop for the action. The plot centers around a Jewish family struggling with their identity in the face of the tumultuous manifestations of racism and prejudice swirling around them. 

I could easily connect this play to her 2015 foray into musical theater with the Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof. This is a well-known and beloved story of a Jewish family steeped in tradition while navigating the inevitable tide of change. Both shows deal with conflict, oppression, struggle, and family. That connection gave me a great place to start. 

Then, there were other shows by heavy hitters like Arthur Miller (The Price, After the Fall, and her Tony nominated performance in A View from the Bridge), Neil Simon (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Broadway Bound), and William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar). Here, too, were dramatic offerings dealing with themes of conflict, struggle, and family. I began to see that Jessica was an actress unafraid to roll up her sleeves and tackle some, often uncomfortable, universal truths. 

I brought all this to the children and slowly laid it out over the course of several weeks. They soaked it all up. They asked probing questions to clarify the weighty themes. I showed them the sign for "CONFLICT" and we discussed its meaning. One student said it is like two trains crashing into each other. We made connections with Disney's Frozen, a show performed by our former guest artist Jelani Alladin. Students more readily understood conflict, oppression, and the importance of family, through Elsa's struggle to fit in because she was different. 

The parallels were easy to make between The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Fiddler on the Roof. We talked about inner conflict and outer conflict, self-esteem, pride, and what it feels like to be made small. 

I worked with the kindergarten and second grade students each morning for two weeks in separate sessions. I started the day with the second graders where our conversations gave credence to their ability to grapple with the serious themes. It was evident in their questions and in the silence brought about by thought. I try never to rush through the quiet moments of processing during a lesson. I'd leave the second graders and return to my own kindergarten class to cover the same material, ever mindful of the modifications in approach and language necessary to engage my younger ones. 

A student Q&A with guest artist Jessica Hecht

Jessica Hecht's work gave us so much to explore! Together we developed questions that showed me how far the second graders have come over the years in their language development and understanding of formulating open-ended questions to promote discussions with our guest artists. (Note: The second graders were my students in kindergarten and first grade.) The first two questions, "How did you feel when you went on stage for the first time?" and the follow-up, "Did that feeling change as you continued to do more shows?" proved to be very insightful. Jessica comes across as very articulate, deliberate, centered, aware, and open in her responses. 

She is also unafraid of sharing her vulnerability and that is where the magic happens. I first saw the power of this when Mary Testa cried during her guest artist visit as she described the healing nature of theater in response to student questions. Jessica's response to the children's questions held the same honesty. 

It started with her sharing how she deals with nerves related to performance and continued as she led us in some of the vocal exercises she did to prepare for her role as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. She invited the students to join in and they happily accepted. Then, she played a recording of "Do You Love Me?" from the musical. It is a duet between Golde and her husband, Tevye. As the recording played, ASL interpreter Lynnette Taylor stepped into spotlight to work her considerable magic. Her impromptu interpretation - she did not know the song would be played beforehand - was truly mesmerizing. Lynnette captured every nuance hidden in the words and we all watched in awe. Students attentively watched and some copied Lynnette to bring the feeling into their own bodies, which deepened their understanding. It's brilliant to see people shine in their element. 

Jessica Hecht reads Sylvester and the Magic Pebble alongside ASL interpreter Lynnette Taylor

That brilliance was evident in Jessica's reading of the children's book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig. Jessica chose this book because it was a favorite of her own children. It's a beautiful story that reminds us of what is truly important in life - the relationships we build, the love we share, and the moments we spend together. This was a message we could apply to Jessica's work as well - conflict, struggle, and the importance of family to get us through it all.

Our visit was fast approaching the time when each student would have an opportunity to meet with Jessica individually to receive a personalized, hardcover copy of the book. We had such a full morning we didn't even get to talk about her work in Friends, Breaking Bad, The Sinner, or her Emmy nominated performance in Special

Jessica Hecht signs a copy of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble for a second grade student

As Jessica signed books and chatted with each child, the rest of the students were busy either reading their copies of the book or writing thank you cards. There are a lot of moving pieces to coordinate to make these guest artist visits happen. I want to thank the following folks for their support. First, Bryan Andes, an incredible NYC Public School educator, for connecting me with Jessica. Second, Andrew Fletcher for purchasing 36 copies of Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in honor of our mentor, Dr. Joanna Uhry. Third, the teachers and ASL interpreters I work with to ensure more students can take part in the program and have equal access to them (with a special nod to my BBFC documentarian, Eileen Lograno). And finally, Jessica Hecht for being the reason we all came together to celebrate literacy and the arts. 

Monday, November 8, 2021



Well, well, well...

Trademark granted!

Broadway Books First Class (BBFC) is now registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office! 

I pursued this at the prompting of friends who urged me to safeguard my creation with copyright and trademark protections. I learned quite a bit about what this all means through the long, costly process. Copyrighting is much easier, cheaper, and faster. Trademarking is another matter.

Trademarks are given for goods and services. It means there is a monetary element to your business. That did not really fit with my program because it isn't a money making enterprise. But, I wanted to ensure that the dancing "Broadway book" logo my niece created for me could not be used by anyone else. The trademark requirements led me to reimagine what BBFC could be and how it might expand to other schools. 

Might it become a nonprofit organization with a board? What are the opportunities for fundraising now that the guest artist visits are growing to include more and more students? Will a trademark help me grab the attention of publishers who might be willing to donate books? I am currently spending a great deal of my own money to purchase books and my appeals for support through DonorsChoose are most likely taxing the goodwill of my friends who generously donate time and time again.

A trademark opens up a lot of possibilities and gives a certain respectability (i.e. clout) to my program. Year Seven has just started. I'm curious to see where the next few years take me. The timing may be ripe for pushing forward because retirement is in my future within the next 5 years. Getting BBFC inside more schools might be a good way to keep my hand in education, while also celebrating literacy and the arts. 

I'm not really sure how it will all unfold, but I trust that things will reveal themselves over time. In the meanwhile, I hold a trademark for something I created! That feels kinda cool. My mom would be proud.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

"Happy Solar Return to You"

Happy Birthday cards and wishes from students (past & present)
I really love my birthday. No examination of why has ever fully explained the reason, but it is simply a day I feel is all mine (even if I do share it with my twin brother). I feel elevated and special on my birthday. I suppose everyone does, no? 

However, this year my expectations entering into it were fairly low. I am still in a fragile place emotionally after the passing of my mom. Nothing feels as special as it once did. My perspective on things remains askew. Thankfully, the good people in my life made this birthday feel like a comfortable blanket wrapping me in safety, appreciation, and love. 

Texts came in shortly after midnight as family and friends jockeyed to be the first to wish me a happy birthday. In the morning, I met my friend, Sarah, on the NJ Transit train going into work. She gifted me with an assortment of fancy-schmancy soaps, which is a guilty pleasure of mine. My phone buzzed with birthday wishes and unexpected presents. Lovely Facebook messages appeared throughout the day. The texts and posts brought back sweet memories of moments spent together. Each one underscoring the passage of time that brought me to today. Friends stopped by my classroom with gifts and hugs. My team teacher, Dawn, led the class in singing/signing Happy Birthday. Young children attempted to count to my advanced age, but got mucked up with the teen numbers as they chanted, "Are you one, are you two..."

Later in the day, the second graders visited with a stack of handmade birthday cards. That really touched me. Those kids know me. Curious George appeared in many of them, along with proclamations that I am the best teacher. 

Not to be outdone, my kindergarten students also handed me their cards. They read their scribbles and swirls - I love that stage in writing development - and explained their pictures. There I was in their drawings, standing happily beside them. It's a place of happiness and fulfillment for me. 

Parent Teacher conferences were in the afternoon and the PTA bought me a birthday cake. It was a thoughtful gesture signaling community, belonging, and support. The love continued when I got home. The house was filled with bouquets of yellow flowers (my favorite). Preparations for my requested birthday meal were underway and I spied a stack of presents ready to be unwrapped after dinner. 

An unexpected birthday bonus came with the ABC News story about Lauren that included photos of our time together in the classroom and a shout-out to me. The story got my partner, Ed, a bit choked up and we both said how much my mom (and his parents) would have enjoyed it.

Afterwards, we popped the champagne and toasted to another year. I have much to be grateful for even if I am still adjusting to a life diminished by grief. I am grateful to everyone who sent a message, a song (thanks, Liz), a gift, or a good thought. How wonderful it is to be loved and supported by all of you. Thank you.

Saturday, November 6, 2021


This blog was started back in March 2007 as a way to share my passion and love of teaching. At that time, I was paired with a team teacher, Lauren Rifloff, who shared my beliefs and was a perfect compliment to my abilities. She loved taking the lead when teaching writing, I loved taking the lead with reading instruction. She was/is a fantastic artist, I have trouble with stick figures. Our class study of poetry was magic in her hands because she loved the freedom of poetic expression, my feelings about poetry were lukewarm (although she's sold me on its merits). We read stories from picture books and chapter books seated side-by-side, me voicing and her signing. We shared a love of stories and read to our students several times a day. 

She was always ready and willing to assist me in conducting research for my doctoral courses relating to reading development for children who are D/deaf and hard of hearing, examining American Sign Language, and unpacking best practices. 

The days went by smoothly as we taught our kindergarten and first grade students over the course of nine years. During that time we shared a great deal professionally and personally. I grew to love her like a sister. I'm happy that so many of our experiences in the classroom are documented here in this blog because it was a time of growth, challenge, and joy for me. 

She left to have her first son, but I always held out hope that she would return and we could resume our partnership. However, I guess that's not going to happen now because she's become a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)! Her sure-to-be blockbuster hit, ETERNALS, is out this week. Lauren plays Makkari, the first Deaf superhero in the MCU. Yep, she's making history!

She is doing a lot of press right now to promote the movie, but embraces her time as an educator in the NYC Public Schools. That is evident in this segment about her on ABC News (see below). Lauren embodies the spirit of, "When one rises, we all rise". 

Now it seems the whole world knows what I've always known - Lauren is SUPER!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Book with Alison Fraser

The in-person first grade class with Alison Fraser (May 2021)
I post these group shots sometimes and realize it's so easy for others to give a cursory glance before moving on to the next photo, the next post, the next...whatever. Today, photographs have lost a bit of their power. This may be because they are so easily taken, viewed and forgotten. It wasn't always that way.

Nevertheless, I've been looking at this photo and thinking about the individuals in it. I see the unique personalities of each child wrapped in the backstories I know so well, as I was lucky enough to spend two years as their teacher. I know their smiles, delights, struggles, kindness, bravery, tentativeness, humor, sadness, challenges, energy, and unique talents. I've witnessed them all firsthand during a difficult period in our lives that brought us together in unprecedented ways. They are extraordinary. 

Then, there is the woman in the striped shirt, straw hat, and black face mask trimmed with lace. That's two-time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser nestled in the midst of my first graders. She has moved audiences with laughter (The Divine Sister, Gypsy), frightened and repulsed us with a quiet, menacing calm (Squeamish) or steely presence (First Daughter Suite), made us rise to our feet to tearfully cheer (The Secret Garden), and swept us along with singing and storytelling so good we simply have to revisit the show again and again (Romance/Romance). She is extraordinary. 

We came together in May 2021 to take a group photo memorializing our collaboration on a literary project. I suppose it's impossible to capture all of this life in an image. Yet, it's a snapshot of a moment we wanted to document and remember. Unless you take the time to look a little closer or dig a little deeper, you may only see what's on the surface. Does anyone have the time to slow down these days and think, "I wonder..." 

What brought us all together? What is the story behind the photograph?

I ponder this sometimes with old, sepia-toned photographs. I'll never know the answer for many photos, but I do for this one. The folks in this picture got together to create art, to tell a story and to make a book. We called it Nat's Cats

In the doing, we found purpose and joy. Alison wrote the story. My students illustrated it. I orchestrated and oversaw the progress, lovingly putting it together for publication. Alison then asked if I would write the foreword, which I am sharing here.

The Cover of Nat's Cats
The students chose orange, which just happens to be Alison's favorite color.

"Once every 100 years or so society is forced to slow down and readjust due to devastation caused by a global pandemic that will not be ignored. In 2020, the spread of COVID-19 closed NYC public schools. My class of kindergartners took to remote learning. We only saw one another on the computer screen and the children thought about the time when they could laugh and play together again. 

As schools slowly opened up, some students returned for in-person learning and some remained remote. My brave little ones were champions, even as they were full of emotional turmoil. In the midst of all this, I received an email from Alison Fraser. Alison is a celebrated Broadway star, with two Tony Award nominations, and a frequent quest with my Broadway Books First Class program. Attached to her email was a charming story about her two cats. I fell in love with it. The language and style were reminiscent of one of my favorite books for children, Curious George

I asked her if my students, now in first grade, could illustrate it. Alison loved the idea and met with the children via Zoom to read her story and invite them to collaborate with her. The class responded with a resounding, YES! and we set off to study children's book illustrations for inspiration. The students experimented with different visual arts media. They worked with watercolors, markers, collage, pen and ink, crayons, paint, and colored pencils for weeks to create their artwork. The result can be seen on the following pages. 

This is how you find joy even in uncertain times. Create art."

Alison reads Nat's Cats while students follow along in their own books.

Our efforts were realized in the beautiful, hardbound copies of our book. One hundred copies, to be exact! As authors and illustrators do, we celebrated with a publishing party. Alison came to visit us in the classroom to read the book, as students followed along in their own copies. 

Children proudly smiled when their drawings came up on the pages. We'd stop and cheer. It was a time of happiness rooted in the satisfaction that comes from the fruition of sustained work. We spent weeks on this project and now we had something tangible to show for it. The lesson of perseverance and goal setting was a good one for the students to learn. 

What is a publishing party without a book signing?

Alison wrote a personalized message for each student. She also made it possible for every child to take home five books to share with family and friends. 

I'd love to see this book in every animal shelter because it stands as a testament to the value of pet adoption. I'm really proud of it - not just the finished product, but the whole process that got us there. And, my goodness, we got to collaborate with Alison Fraser! It's an embarrassment of riches, as they say. 

Saturday, August 7, 2021

Pruning the Stone Garden

Pruning the stone garde
n is a phrase that washed over me in hypnopompia - that time when our minds are slipping back into reality after slumber. My head on the pillow, my mind in the clouds, those words kept a continual loop while I tried to decide if I should get up to write them down or repeat them often enough so I'd remember them later. 

They also confused me. What the hell does "pruning the stone garden" mean? I tried to make sense of it as images of a graveyard came into view as though I were a passenger looking out the window of a slow moving car. I wondered, "Is a stone garden a sea of headstones in a cemetery?" It may be, but I knew that didn't tell the whole story. 

I woke up intrigued by the phrase. I may not be clear on the meaning, but I certainly appreciate the way the words and images play together. Someone told me it could mean futility. That makes sense too. 

I do know that it is twisted in with the concepts of life, loss, death, grief, and longing. I continue to struggle with the reality of a life without my mom. It is constantly on the forefront of my mind as I journey on in this diminished state. I can sometimes talk myself into the calmness of believing she is not gone. In those moments, I shift back into who I was for a spell. But, that's not reality and I'm not crazy enough to live in that delusion. 

Perhaps pruning the stone garden means snipping away the hard things to make what is here, what I'm left with, more beautiful. It may mean I need to deal with my shit and appreciate what I've been given in the past and all that I still have. 

What do you think?

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Remember Me

Dickie Hearts with some of the first grade students
Remember Me is a song from the Disney/Pixar animated Dia de los Muertos themed feature film, Coco. The haunting lament to dearly departed loved ones tugs at the heartstrings, especially for those of us currently dealing with separation and loss. 

Yet, grief is a serpentine trickster. For mixed in with the pain is the joy of remembrance. Those bittersweet memories that speak to our core and make us appreciate what was, even as we struggle to somehow process it all. Death, life, memories, meaning, purpose, struggle, and finally the possibility of peace slither through our thoughts. As is often said about many things, "It's complicated". 

This year was filled with loss of many kinds. COVID-19 changed our educational landscape. Children were separated from classmates, teachers, and the school community. However, we all found new ways to connect - remotely through Zoom or in person keeping socially distanced and wearing masks. 

In the midst of all these changes, Kori Rushton of IRT Theater reached out to ask me to partner with her on new project. Our last collaboration was an American Sign Language (ASL) music video for Dear Theodosia from the wildly successful Broadway musical, Hamilton. This time she suggested my first graders record the up-tempo version of Remember Me in ASL and Mexican Sign Language ("legua de señas mexicana" or LSM). I was immediately onboard, so the planning began.

Students sign Recuérdame (Remember Me) in LSM

To start, we needed a Director of Sign Language (DSL) to interpret the song into ASL. Dickie Hearts, an actor, screenwriter, and filmmaker, who is also Deaf, openly gay, and trés charmant was a perfect choice. Dickie recorded his wonderful ASL interpretation and I taught it to the in-person children, while my friend and coworker, Maria, taught the remote students.  

The class embraced this project with gusto. Every morning for weeks we spent time perfecting another line, adding the right facial expression to go with the movements, breaking down a complex sequence, or working on timing and fluency. At night, parents told me their kids reviewed it on their own with unbridled enthusiasm. The project brought excitement and purpose back into the stressful reality of our daily lives. It was something joyful we could create together.

Kori and Dickie enlisted the help of Gabriel Arellano for the LSM translation. Everyone (students included) met for a Zoom workshop with Gabriel to learn general information about LSM and, specifically, how to sign the Spanish verses of the song. 

Recording the song in four languages (English, Spanish, ASL, and LSM) was Kori's idea...and challenge. Miraculously, we pulled it off! Well, we did it with lots of work and lots of practice. As time went on I began to realize just how much I was asking of my students. It was a lot, but they were champs. That was never more apparent than when we started filming. 

Our Director, Alana Campbell (left), setting up a shot

Enter our indefatigable Director/Director of Photography, Alana Campbell. Alana is a documentary filmmaker who's worked at NBC Dateline, NBC News, National Geographic Channel, PBS, Oprah Winfrey Network, and more. She came up with the story or framework to contextualize the song. Her vision placed the lyrics as an ode, not only to lost loved ones, but also the loss of social interaction brought about because of COVID. 

In the video, students begin on Zoom, removed from one another physically. After months cooped up in their apartments they were feeling antsy and restless. The video strives to capture that forlorn period of time, as well as the thrill of being back together once again. As the camera moves back and a row of happy, smiling children stand alongside Dickie signing and dancing, it feels, to me, like an exhale. 

Take a look...

REMEMBER ME | ASL Cover from IRT Theater on Vimeo.

Now watch it again to see if you can spot the Curious George "Easter eggs" I've placed in the background.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Top Ten 2020 - 2021

It's been one hell of a year, but despite all of the COVID related hardships - and there were many - I found joy in teaching my incredible students. Together, we created an energized classroom community full of activity and purpose. We shared and created stories. We explored and questioned. We not only got through a difficult year, we prospered.

At the end of the school year, as in years past, I asked the children to think back to the stories that meant the most to them. Which children's books packed the biggest punch? Which ones left a lasting impact? It turns out our deep dive into Greek mythology ignited everyone's imaginations (three titles made our top ten list). And another strong showing were books showcasing characters who defied stereotypical gender roles (two titles made the cut) and similar books with strong messages about identity, self-love, and individuality. 

So, here it is. The first grade student picks for the TOP TEN children's books of the 2020 -2021 school year. 

Number One on our Top Ten list
#1. Nat's Cats written by two time Tony Award nominee Alison Fraser. This came as no surprise because it's a great story about the merits of pet adoption, but it's also illustrated by the students themselves! 

Alison, who is a frequent guest artist with my Broadway Books First Class program, sent me the story because she thought the children might like it. I knew they would, so I invited Alison to read it to the class. I also suggested turning the story into a children's book and inviting the class to create the illustrations. Alison loved the idea, so we ran with it. 

After months of work, Nat's Cats made its way to print (via Shutterfly). We celebrated with a publishing party, which included a reading, book signing, and snacks. It was a tricky thing to pull off with COVID restrictions, but we did it and had the best time.  (A more in-depth post about the making of Nat's Cats is in the works.)

Greek mythology came in strong with the next three entries. 

#2.  Young Zeus by G. Brian Karas.

This is the origin story of Zeus (and his brothers and sisters) with lots of action and engaging illustrations to go with the exposition. It has monsters, Titans, Olympians, battles, bickering, tension, love, hope, despair, defeat, and triumph all mixed together for an oddly relatable tale. 

It isn't the first time this title has landed on an end-of-year top ten list and I'm sure it won't be the last.

#3. Why Spiders Spin: A Story of Arachne retold by Jamie and Scott Simons with illustrations by Deborah Winograd. 

Interactive read alouds are my stock-in-trade and when a story lifts off the page and gets on its feet we really soar! How fun it is for the children to act out the immovable arrogance of Arachne and the fiery wrath of Athena. The illustrations allow for lively debates about which tapestry was the finest and the plot leads to discussions about power and privilege. 

The description and imagery of Arachne's punishment is the stuff of legend - literally!

#4.  Let's Go, Pegasus! retold and illustrated by Jean Marzollo. 

This is the book that starts it all for us! The story that hooks my students into the Greek myths every time. Medusa is playful and terrifying as she taunts Perseus into gazing into her eyes (Spoiler: He doesn't.) This retelling ushers us into an exploration of perspective and starts us analyzing the ways stories change over time. We begin to compare different versions of this myth, which is an excellent way to explore power dynamics with a critical eye. Question everything, kids!

An added bonus is our introduction to Athena (here as a wise protector) and my current favorite God, Hermes. 

I've written about my love for this book in previous posts. It speaks to an aesthetic I cannot resist. There is a nostalgic feel that brings me comfort. It is easy to imagine myself as Morris, getting lost in words and images, appreciating and relishing time alone with books, and thinking of them as friends. 

But, why do the kids like it so much? I think the brilliant Academy Award Winning Short Film helps pull them into the story. I certainly appreciate that it is a visual treat without words, so it is easily accessible to all of my students. Ultimately though, I believe they like it for the same reasons I do. To think children miss the power of getting lost in a good book is to underestimate them. And I never want to do that.

#6.  The Sound of All Things written by Myron Ulberg with stunning illustrations by Ted Papoulas. 

It's easy to see why this book was selected. The book portrays the story of Myron's childhood growing up in Brooklyn with deaf parents. The author recounts how his father would ask him to describe, in fine detail, the sounds around them - like Coney Island's famed Cyclone or the explosive fireworks soaring from the pier on the Fourth of July - using American Sign Language. 

As educators, we strive to select books that mirror the lives of our students. We want them to be able to see themselves in the characters they read about. This can include race, culture, class, etc. The Sound of All Things does this because many of my students have parents or family members who are D/deaf and can relate to it on a personal level. 

#7.  Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman. 

This year I introduced a new study focusing on gender identity and expression. It was inspired by family circumstances within the student population, but is a topic that is worth exploring even without those connections. 

Sparkle Boy is about a young boy who likes sparkly, shimmery, glittery things. It causes a bit of a stir until his family comes to understand that freedom of expression should be accepted, respected, and even celebrated. 

I asked legendary drag performer and Tony Award nominated playwright, Charles Busch, to read it to the students. He was, of course, brilliant, and helped deliver the message that being true to yourself is the only way to find happiness and success.

Oh. My. Goodness! This book! It is so breathtakingly beautiful. Do yourself a favor and get this book. It is the story of a young boy named Finn who is mourning the loss of his beloved grandfather. When he dozes off, he enters a magical landscape where the ocean meets the sky and they are reunited. 

The Fan Brothers have moved into the top spot of my favorite children's book authors/illustrators. This book continues their streak of high-quality children's books and my students obviously get the appeal.

#9. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. 

This was another book in our study of gender identity and expression. It is the story of Julian who sees some beautiful mermaids on the subway and falls in love with their outfits. When he arrives home he finds a way to recreate the costume using his Abuela's curtains and a potted plant. This is a moment of tension when she finds him posing, but she is fully supportive and shows it by bringing him to the Coney Island mermaid parade.

The book and its sequel, Julian at the Wedding, showcase the importance of self-love and individuality. 

#10. Firenze's Light by Jessica Collaco.

A children's book about gratitude, compassion, and self-appreciation rounds out our Top Ten list. This is another instance where the read aloud added a touch of something special. 

I invited three-time Tony Award nominee, Mary Testa, to read it to my students (you can watch it by clicking here). Mary's inspired interpretation brought a deeper understanding of the message and encouraged the children to "let their lights shine". 

*Honorable mention goes to The Olympians series of graphic novels by George O'Connor

My first graders devoured these books and learned so much about Greek Mythology from them. Students even purchased the boxed sets and spent hours reading them. Many of the titles were represented on individual student lists, but, like the selection process for the Academy Awards, they canceled themselves out of the final cut because nobody could decide on an overall favorite. We all have our favorite god or goddess in the Olympic pantheon. 

Who is your favorite?

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Creating Worlds with Daryl Roth

My views on success have changed over time. I used to equate success with money and fame. Those outward manifestations of societal achievement don't necessarily touch the heart, but they are great for fostering a prideful sense of "look at me" whilst walking down a red carpet. I thought attention and admiration from others were the ingredients that made a successful person. It was a child's view on life. An immature, limited outlook that I know some folks never outgrow. 

But, I now gauge success in happiness. Am I joyful? Peaceful? Is it well with my soul? 

There have been many, many people in my life who've served as my teachers in this regard. Sometimes it is the great influencers, like my mom, and sometimes the lessons come from unexpected places. One of the latter happened years ago when I saw an interview with Daryl Roth. I, of course, knew her as a Tony Award winning producer credited with "the singular distinction of producing seven Pulitzer Prize-winning plays".  She even has her own theater! I've been there many times. I knew her as a powerful force on Broadway and imagined she breezily waltzed through life luxuriating in all of the perks pursuant with her achievements. 

And then I watched that interview. 

She spoke with a calm, quiet intensity that seemed to be fueled by love. Hmmm....I was intrigued. I was drawn in and listened to her talk about her passion for theater, for producing projects that meant something to her, for wanting to provide a platform for stories that aren't generally told, and for bringing people together in that glorious space where the audience and performers can share a cathartic or uplifting experience. As she spoke, I remembered why I loved theater so much and why I wanted to be a part of it in the first place. How could someone this outwardly successful still glow with the light of connection to their uncomplicated, grounded truth? 

I realized her success wasn't merely based on or defined by money and fame. It was forged in happiness. She appeared joyful, peaceful. All seemed well with her soul. Evidently, it was possible for both versions of success to be true at once. They weren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but without happiness and purpose, the rest is meaningless. 

That interview, which I cannot locate now, opened my eyes a bit. I read and watched more interviews with her and imagined how incredible it would be to have her share her story with my class of first graders. How could that ever happen? I had no idea, so I kissed it up to the universe and went about my business. 

The years went by and I guess the universe was listening because Daryl Roth joined Broadway Books First Class via Zoom this past May! 

I wanted her to read something special related to creating beautiful worlds from the imagination (as Daryl does in the theater), so I suggested Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers. The illustrations are breathtaking, magical, awe-inspiring. They take you soaring into places, which are at once strange and familiar. But, for all the eye-popping wonder there is a heartbeat underneath it all. The story is propelled by loss and longing. A young boy dreaming of meeting his beloved grandfather in the mystical place where the ocean meets the sky. 

The book had parallels we could make with Daryl's work as a producer - bringing all the parts together in one place to create a cohesive whole that is meaningful and healing. Just how she does that is something the children wanted to know. What does a producer do? 

Daryl explained that her role is to first find a story that speaks to her in some way and then put together the creative team to bring the story to life on stage. This includes the director, set designers, costume designers, etc. Daryl called them the "family" of a particular show.  A producer, she explained, gets to work with everyone. For someone like her - who has a deep love and passion for the theater, but who isn't a singer, dancer, actor, or director - being a producer is a perfect fit. Her gifts for making things happen is one that suits a producer well! 

Closer Than Ever:
The first show Daryl produced
The children asked how she became a producer. She told them the very first show she produced, Closer Than Ever, came about because a little voice inside of her spoke up. 

Her friend, lyricist Richard Maltby, invited her to a small venue in Greenwich Village to attend a presentation of some new songs he'd written. As she watched, the songs spoke to her in a way that felt personal. She envisioned the songs "coming together into a beautiful musical evening, a real show". 

Afterwards, she shared her thoughts of producing it and things took off from there. She learned on her feet, pushing forward with a belief in herself and in the work. Those are important lessons young children need to hear/see again and again. 

The students also asked about accessibility for audience members who are deaf and hard of hearing. How do producers do this? Daryl advocates for ASL interpreted performances and believes more of them will be offered in the future. Producers also sometimes provide scripts upon request, so audience members can become familiar with the material beforehand. Interestingly, Daryl supports Deaf West Theatre (they put on successful Broadway revivals of Big River and Spring Awakening). Side note: Our school is planning a collaboration with Deaf West next spring! 

Some in-person students hold up their copies of Ocean Meets Sky (personalized by Daryl Roth)

She's currently producing a riveting show called Blindness. It's a perfect theatrical offering in this time of restricted activity due to COVID. However, I am most excited about Between the Lines. I mean, it makes sense. It's got Broadway. Books. Class. :) And I really want to look into providing opportunities for my students to attend children's show performances at the Daryl Roth Theatre. After all, it's only 8 blocks away from our school!

Our Zoom visit lasted almost an hour. That's a long time for young children, but as Daryl told us, when you are doing something you love you stay energized and engaged. We loved our time with her. She is an extraordinary person to interview because she was game to answer all our questions and always had an additional something special to interject into the conversation. 

New York City school kids are blessed with a great many cultural opportunities. I am so grateful to Daryl Roth for opening her heart, sharing her success, and allowing us to step into that magical space where new worlds are created. The place where the ocean meets the sky. 

A child's thank you card for Daryl Roth showing all of us sitting in front of the TV during our Zoom session.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Storytelling with Kim Weild

First Grade students and teachers (Remote and In-Person) visit with Kim Weild on March 17, 2021

Once upon a time...

Many moons ago...

It was a dark and stormy night...

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...

There are as many ways to begin a story as there are stories. It is said that everyone has a story, but, truly, everyone has many stories. Stories and storytelling are woven into our DNA. They are an integral part of being human. They are the reason Homo sapiens have survived and prospered when other species of man have not. It is our ability to gossip and share information that allows us to work together in large groups (learn more about all this by clicking here). 

The power of storytelling cannot, and should not, be undervalued. 

Through the ages man has shared stories in many different ways. That progression has been skillfully rendered by Dan Yaccarino in his children's book I AM A STORY

I asked Kim Weild to read Dan's book during her Broadway Books First Class guest artist visit because Kim has dedicated her life to telling stories. The stories she tells are often stories of those whose voices are easily overlooked by society. It is through one of those stories that I introduced Kim to my first grade students.

In 2017, she teamed with playwright Charles Mee Jr. to direct his play SOOT AND SPIT about the life and art of James Castle. James was born deaf into a poor Idaho farming family in 1899. He was also autistic, and most likely dyslexic. His childhood was isolated and lonely. Yet, he found a way to communicate. He told stories through his art. 

 It was his art that I studied for a week with my students in preparation for Kim's visit. 

As D/deaf and CODA/SODA children (CODA/SODA = Children or Siblings of Deaf individuals), my students have firsthand knowledge of the joys and struggles associated with deafness. Even without that background, they could empathize with feelings of right and wrong elicited from James Castle's drawings. 

We began with this image of young James being taunted by his classmates. James used soot and spit to create his art on scraps of paper taken from the trash. Such was his need to express his thoughts and feelings because, as a child without language, his ability to communicate was limited. 

His story could have easily fallen through the cracks for us, if it weren't for Kim Weild shining a light on it. His story stayed with the students long after Kim's visit. As I write this, her visit is already 5 weeks in the past, yet a student referenced James Castle this week when we read the book Drawn Together by Minh Le and Dan Santat. She stated that the characters in that book used art to communicate "Just like James Castle tried to do."  Yes! A wonderful connection - exactly right!

We followed our week-long study of James Castle's art by studying another project spearheaded by Kim. It was a 2016 storytelling workshop with the students at our school, which culminated in a book and a show called HOW THE I BECOMES THE WE

Here, Kim facilitated a series of workshops for children in Grades 1-3 highlighting different ways to tell a story. They included ASL Alphabet Handshape Stories, The Physical Embodiment of Story, and Writing/Drawing. This was through her theater company Our Voices. A company that is "dedicated to investigating themes of otherness in society whether they are culture, language, gender, sexual orientation/identification or ability." In short, telling everyone's story. 

The embrace of diversity and respect for others had the children wondering...

Why did Kim like to tell stories so much? 

How did her job as a director help her tell stories? 

They also had questions about specific shows. One was related to the Broadway show AMAZING GRACE (Kim was Associate Director). It is a story loosely based on the life of John Newton, an English slave trader who later became an Anglican priest and eventually an abolitionist. He wrote many hymns, including Amazing Grace. One student asked Kim, "Why did the main character in the show change his mind? (about slavery)." This led to some rather deep discussions in class and with Kim.

They also were curious about her experience working with Keith Hamilton Cobb on AMERICAN MOOR. This is another powerful show "examining the experience and perspective of black men in America through the metaphor of William Shakespeare's character, Othello." 

The conversations built upon one another. Each helping to create background knowledge, which provided context for understanding. All this through the content of theatrical shows. All of this through storytelling!

I found it incredible.

After we signed off of our Zoom meeting with Kim the children began writing their thank you cards. One student veered from this to make a sign highlighting the message she took away from Kim's visit.


And then she added, I LOVE THAT!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Celebrating the 100th Day of School with Robert Ariza

Robert Ariza visits with First Grade on February 24, 2021
Robert Ariza has a beautiful voice. He appears comfortable singing in any musical style; from the smooth, dulcet tones of Sky Masterson in GUYS AND DOLLS (think Frank Sinatra or Harry Connick Jr.) to the swift, rapping wordplay of the titular character in HAMILTON. In fact, he's played both roles - the former in concert with the Billings Symphony Orchestra and the latter at Chicago's famed CIBC Theatre - since making his Broadway debut in 2015 with Deaf West's revival of SPRING AWAKENING. 

However, I first saw him perform in the Off Off Broadway production of Charles Mee Jr.'s SOOT AND SPIT. The play, directed by Kim Weild, tells the story of James Castle. James created art - using the tools mentioned in the show's title - as a means of self-expression. As an deaf man with autism in the early 1900s, he lived a life of isolation without access to spoken or signed language. Art was his language. In SOOT AND SPIT, his art comes to life to tell his story. It was a fascinating theatrical experience made even stronger when Robert Ariza sang a show-stopping duet accompanied by his own guitar playing. It was gorgeous. A fan was born!

I met him after the show and asked if he might be interested in being a guest artist with Broadway Books First Class. He was, but shortly afterwards he left to join the National Tour of LES MISERABLES. That was soon followed by a year-long gig in Chicago with HAMILTON. Then, the pandemic caused my program to halt for a year delaying his visit even further. 

Robert Ariza with his Broadway Books First Class t-shirt

It took four years, but we finally worked it out! Robert's visit happened to coincide with our 100th Day of School. This milestone in a school year has become a time of celebration and a guest artist visit is certainly a great way to honor the day. 

This has been a year of change and upheaval, so when he visited via Zoom, we had some students participating from home and others joining from the classroom. The experience isn't the same as a face-to-face, in-person visit, but the value isn't lost. 

For his read aloud, we chose the book THAT IS NOT A GOOD IDEA! by Mo Willems. It is a story with an unexpected twist at the end, which only very savvy readers will see coming. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, I sent Robert a copy of the book beforehand (signed by the class), along with stickers for him to sign and mail back to me. On the stickers, Robert wrote a "hello" to each student along with his autograph. After the visit, each student received their own copy of the book with the personalized sticker on the inside cover.


As you can see in the video, Robert's reading included fun voice characterizations of the hungry fox, the mama goose, and the portentous foreboding of her little ones. There was also a nice ASL interpretation from my friend and coworker, Cheritha.

The reading was followed, as always, with a question-and-answer session. This was based on the work I had done with the students in the weeks leading up to Robert's visit. During that time, we talked about his background and his performances. We learned a lot from his answers to our questions, which were...

1. Is it hard when somebody is sick and you have to do their performance? (This was based on his job as a swing in SPRING AWAKENING. He also learned ASL for this show!)

2. Do you have any ideas for other shows? (Robert writes music and composes, which sparked this question.)

3. What's your favorite show and why? (This was one we kept coming back to in our visit. INTO THE WOODS is one of Robert's favorite shows, but pinning it down to a favorite role he's played is more difficult. He's performed some treasures from Marius in LES MISERABLES to Alexander Hamilton in HAMILTON.)

We wrapped up the Q&A with a song. Robert played and sang BLACKBIRD by The Beatles for us.

In the days after his visit some of my Broadway babies could be found humming or singing this song. As always, we sent our guest artist a package with thank you cards and a Broadway Books First Class t-shirt. 

Thank you, Robert!

It's exciting to see what the future has in store for the generous performers who visit with us. I KNOW Robert's future is bright. We all look forward to welcoming him back again one of these days, but next time in person. He may just have his Tony Award by then - I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Supporting Trans and Non-Binary Students

In 2012, I wrote an article for Teaching Tolerance (now called Learning for Justice) entitled When Boys Love Barbie. It told of a young boy in my preschool class who loved to wear a shimmery wedding gown. He also wanted a Barbie doll for Christmas. This caused some conflict within his family because he was not conforming to societal expectations of what was appropriate behavior for little boys. 

I like to think that in the intervening years there has been a shift in understanding and acceptance of gender non-conforming students. I'm not sure that this is generally true, but there are certainly more resources (websites, children's books, workbooks, etc.) available to address the topic of gender expression. 

One is a reflective workbook by D. M. Maynard for teachers and support staff designed to help them "navigate supporting the gender journeys of their transgender, non-binary, and/or gender questioning students." It's an area many of us are unfamiliar and/or uncomfortable with for myriad reasons - the unknowns, the sensitivities, the fear of saying or doing something that is unintentionally hurtful or offensive. 

This workbook educates through games, exercises, and vignettes. It leaves us no room to close the door and pretend that issues surrounding gender do not exist because this workbook takes away the power of our excuses. It leads educators gently through the labyrinth of unknowns. These issues exist. Shouldn't we all be equipped to provide the support, guidance, and respect our students deserve. It may not be easy for us, but it's not easy for them either.

Of course, near and dear to my heart are children's books and D. M. Maynard even includes several titles in the Resources section, such as It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Theresa Thorn and Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr. 

I also have some other children's books that can help open up a discussion with students about their own attitudes and viewpoints on issues of gender expression. 

They include Julián is a Mermaid and Julián at the Wedding by Jessica Love. They are exceptional in showcasing unconditional acceptance and support in the face of nontraditional expressions of gender. 

Sparkle Boy by Lesléa Newman and Annie's Plaid Shirt by Stacey B. Davids are both great for breaking gender stereotypes around clothing and what it means to be a "boy" or "girl". They allow us to see that gender identity is what you feel and not what you present.

Finally, check out Bunnybear by Andrea J. Loney. Bunnybear was born a bear but feels more like a bunny inside. He is misunderstood by the bears and the bunnies. He must try to find a way to fit in, while also staying true to who he is on the inside. 

As a student, Tiana, in my children's literature course wrote last semester about the book, "It is a great introduction to discussions on gender and identity because it allows for the initial conversation about feeling different than others without having to explain or go into depth about specific gender identities and terms. It brings up interesting questions like 'How do I stay true to myself' and 'How do I make friends with people who aren't like me' for students to think about and discuss before diving deeper."

Kudos to D. M. Maynard on her three-book series for partners, parents, and teachers of transgender and non-binary individuals. You can learn more about her books, workshops, retreats, and speaking engagements by contacting her at  


Related Posts with Thumbnails