Friday, May 27, 2022

Sharing Big Moments with Broadway's Daniel Jenkins

Daniel Jenkins visits with Kindergarten and Second Grade students 
(Photo credit: Eileen Lograno)

Something extraordinary happened today and in my excitement I wanted to call my mom to tell her all about it. Sadly, I knew I couldn't, but I could imagine the conversation. She would understand what it means to me to have Daniel Jenkins, the original Huck Finn in Big River, ask me to sing with him. 

It all happened during his visit to my kindergarten classroom as a guest artist with Broadway Books First Class. The fact that Daniel Jenkins was even visiting was enough to set my pulse racing. It's because some of us forge deep connections to certain Broadway shows. We've played the album nonstop, sang every song, know every lyric, sat in the audience to watch it more than once, and bought tickets for our family and friends so they could share our enthusiasm. 

Daniel Jenkins signed my cast album
Big River was one of those shows for me and Daniel Jenkins was my Huck. His voice, his energy, his twang, his humor, and his overall performance were something I dreamed of emulating. 

There have been other favorite shows and other guest artists who've visited with the program that've had me walking on air. There was Alison Fraser (Romance/Romance and The Secret Garden), Douglas Sills (The Scarlet Pimpernel), David Staller (Evita), Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), Kecia Lewis (Once on This Island), Stockard Channing (Grease), and Annie Golden (Hair), but never has one of these incredible performers asked me to duet with them. It was nothing I ever considered doing either. 

Until today. 

Today, Daniel Jenkins surprised me after a student asked, "Can you sing for us?" He turned to me and told me to move my chair a little closer to him. He said I would be singing with him. He chose "Worlds Apart" from Big River.  As I scooted closer, I thought I heard him whisper to the ASL interpreter, "He can sing, right?" 

He began, "I see the same stars through my window..." and then I joined him. He was also signing as he sang, so I locked eyes with him and we told the story of two people finding a connection despite their differences. I wasn't sure how I was doing, but it didn't really matter. I was sharing a moment of importance (to me) that came about because of an act of kindness from someone I have admired for over 30 years. When we finished, I gave him a hug, as the children clapped and cheered, and then I dramatically fell off my chair in disbelief at what had just occurred. 

I'm about to fall off my chair after singing with Tony Award nominee Daniel Jenkins

Daniel's visit this week seemed to have even more weight to it because entering a school these days is an act of courage. The horrific murders of 2 teachers and 19 children in a fourth-grade classroom in Texas has left me despondent. The anguish of the parents and families of the victims hurts my soul. In this fragile state, Daniel Jenkins offered up some joy, a little island to find peace within a wild, untamed ocean. 

His book selection seemed timely as well. Although, a children's book promoting the themes of friendship and acceptance is always a strong selection. 

Daniel Jenkins reading Big Al
(Photo Credit: Dawn Klein)
Daniel chose to read the book Big Al by Andrew Clements and Yoshi. It tells the story of a large, scary looking fish who is lonely because his appearance frightens the other fish. 

Big Al tries everything to hide parts of himself and alter his looks, but nothing works. It isn't until all of the little fish are caught in a fisherman's net and Big Al saves the day that they all realize he is more than meets the eye. It is a heartwarming tale with beautiful illustrations. 

As Daniel read, I looked around the classroom to witness how the story was registering with the children. This energetic bunch was suddenly quiet. All eyes on Daniel and ASL interpreter, Lynnette Taylor, in an impressive show of what can only be called, "rapt attention." 

It dawned on me that this visit was full of "big" moments - both literal and figurative. Here was a guest artist with Broadway credits in Big River (the original production in 1985 and the Deaf West revival in 2003) and Big (in 1996, based on the popular Tom Hanks movie). He read a children's book called Big Al, gave me a very big moment (see above), and shared some truly big life lessons in his responses to the children's questions.

A student askes, "Why did you want to perform on Broadway?"
(Photo Credit: Dawn Klein)

When asked why he wanted to be on Broadway, he responded by telling us about the joys and advantages of playing with people who help you grow. The lesson was one that applies to many situations, but his point was that surrounding yourself with others who are passionate about what they are doing presents opportunities for us to learn and pushes us to improve. Indeed!

We wrapped up the Q&A and Daniel put his considerable ASL and fingerspelling skills to use by signing books for all of the students. With messages of "Peace" he engaged with each child, giving them a moment to be seen and feel valued. 

Daniel signs the first letter in this students name
(Photo credit: Eileen Lograno)

A writer from Broadway World was supposed to attend this guest artist visit for an article about the program. He had to cancel at the last minute and I am sorry he missed a golden opportunity to put some positivity into our grieving country. I'm sorry my mom isn't alive to pick up the phone so I can tell her all about it. A friend told me she's an angel looking out for me now. If that's the case, she did some sweet work with this visit. 

We all lift our hands in gratitude to applaud Daniel Jenkins - thank you!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

"God Willin' and the Crick Don't Rise"

In the haze of memory, it seems melancholy and joy swirl and blend in unpredictable ways. One moment a memory makes you smile and the next it leaves you feeling lost and alone. You want to remember and forget all at once. None of it makes sense. Such is grief. You can't go over it, you just need to go through it. 

It's said that scents or smells can bring you back to a time and place. The same can be said for language. A turn of phrase, an oft-repeated saying, or a colloquialism lovingly brings to mind the person who said it. And with those few familiar words, we are transported back in time to feel the feels associated with it.

My mom (pictured above as a little girl) had a slight lilting accent born of West Virginia and Ohio. I used to tell her she sounded like Dolly Parton sometimes when she'd leave me voice messages. Although, it seemed much less prominent in person - except when she'd say "warsh" instead of "wash" and things like "prit' near" or "I reckon." 

I've adopted some of my favorites into my vernacular. There is "God willin' and the crick don't rise" and "I see said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw" - the latter took me a minute to grasp the first time I heard it. These are clever turns of phrase that are deceptively meaningful. Or they mean nothing at all. That's the beauty.

Then, there was the time we drove through a small town in West Virginia and she said it was a "poke-and-plum" town. What? She explained, "You poke your head out the window and you're plumb through town." I found that endlessly amusing. 

She described her time in the Marines as "Hurry up and wait." I hadn't heard that expression before, but I hear it all the time now. 

There are words we just didn't use in New York that I'd hear when we visited Ohio. Words like davenport (couch), pop (soda), and bawling (crying).  

Nobody close to me uses these words and phrases anymore. I miss hearing them. My mom used to say that information died with the folks who remembered them. She said she'd reached a point where she couldn't ask anyone things about the past anymore. 

In what turned out to be the last time I saw my mom, I recorded a conversation wherein she talked about her grandparents in West Virginia, her childhood, meeting my dad, and the early days of their marriage. Her story in her voice. I'm so glad to have it. I reckon it was prit' near perfect. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Danny Burstein Takes Us on an Adventure

Danny Burstein with the kindergarten and second grade students of PS347 on February 7, 2022

Tony Award Winner Danny Burstein (Moulin Rouge) stepped into my classroom on a cold Monday morning in February and his warmth radiated throughout the room. I watched the kindergarten and second grade children applaud as he entered and I playfully asked them, "Who is this?!" They enthusiastically replied, "Danny Burstein!" To them, he was already a friend.

We'd been studying his career for weeks. Show by show, character by character, theme by theme...we watched, learned, and questioned. Children in both grades became immersed and engaged in different aspects of his work. The kindergarten students were fascinated by the energy and vibrancy of the Can-Can from Moulin Rouge, while the second graders probed deeper into the why's behind his career choices. I smiled at the thought of what they'd take away from the morning. How would it affect them? What memories would stay? And I remembered a somewhat similar experience from my childhood.
Danny Burstein in First Grade
When I was a young lad in school all of the students were called to gather in the auditorium to watch a performance by a troupe of modern-day minstrels. It was unannounced. There was no fanfare or preparation. I didn't know what we were seeing, but our attention was directed to the stage as the house lights dimmed. Soon after the curtain opened, I heard the lilting melody of Try to Remember for the first time. 

The opening notes were like a siren song calling my spirit closer. I was lost and nothing else around me mattered. The lyrics, the music, the mood, the insight, the longing, the loss, the hope, and the beauty of this song spoke to the deepest parts of me. This was live theater?! Holy Shit! 

I was hooked! It was a transcendent moment that has stayed with me. I still think Try to Remember is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard. It is all mine. I've established a firmly rooted sense of connection. I'm so glad I went to school that day. I can't imagine missing that unexpected performance of The Fantasticks. 

That intangible sense that there are feelings and connections bigger than I could possibly fathom and can never properly articulate is one of the driving forces behind Broadway Books First Class. It's a delicious sense of wonder and possibility. It can not be manufactured, but it can be cultivated by presenting opportunities for students to feel the pull of the extraordinary. The kind of magic that can be found in a performance or in the pages of a book. We never know what small moment or passage may reach out and touch the heart of a child. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have the support of so many members of the Broadway community to help me realize this impossible dream. 

Of course, Danny Burstein delivered beautifully. Everyone told me that he is one of the nicest people in show biz and this "boy from the Bronx" proved that this is indeed true. His energy, warmth, and humor were on display in every interaction.

First, in his reading of the the imaginative children's book classic Harold and the Purple Crayon. Talk about wonder and possibility! Harold takes us on an adventure unbounded by the physical. Clever word play is combined with simple line drawings to usher children into Harold's unfolding adventure. Page-by-page we were drawn into the story by Danny's invitations to sample a bit of Harold's world. "What's your favorite kind of pie?" he asked when Harold left us with 9 varieties to choose from. Together, Danny and Harold ushered us into a world wherein we could go anywhere and do anything. 

Danny Burstein reads Harold and the Purple Crayon alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil

Danny chose this book because it was one he read to his own children. I love when guest artists suggest favorite books they have a deep connection to for reasons that are rooted in loving memories. Children feel and feed off of that joy. I see it every time I read my beloved Curious George. They want to ride on the waves of our enthusiasm. It helps them build their own connections and I envision them one day sharing it with their own children. The story goes on.

Danny signs books
The fact that each child took home a copy of the book with a personalized message from Danny only strengthens the bond to the book and the experience. 

And what an experience! Our students had a front row seat to an exclusive interview and performance by an a man with seven Tony Award nominations (winning in 2021 for Moulin Rouge). He shared his long-held passion for performing and his desire to keep challenging himself with different roles. For example, deciding to move on from his celebrated role as the Latin lover Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone (his first Tony nomination) to successfully explore vastly different characters in other plays and musicals (including Golden Boy, South Pacific, FolliesFiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and A Midsummer Night's Dream.)  

Prompted by the students, Danny sang us a bit of If I Were a Rich Man from his 2016 Tony nominated performance in Fiddler on the Roof.  He set up the song by giving the children a bit of background. We'd previously studied the big themes of the show when Jessica Hecht visited. She played Golde to his Tevye on Broadway. It was thrilling having them both visit us just a few months apart. Danny gave us more insights into the show from his (and Tevye's) perspective. 

Danny Burstein singing IF I WERE A RICH MAN alongside ASL interpreter Dylan Geil (pictured here signing "if")

Again and again I find that the best way to build understanding and connections between ourselves and the things we love is through relationships. This is true in facilitating an understanding of the nuances between characters in shows, between the issues presented in them, and it is also true in the impact the visits have upon the students. It is such an incredible privilege to welcome Broadway guest artists into the classroom. The impact and magic of the visits are not lost on the children. These are moments, I believe, that will shape their lives. 

For a little over an hour my students had the golden opportunity to connect with Danny Burstein. And for that, we are all grateful.

I Love You
"Thank you and for the book and your voice is nice and the song."

Photos: Eileen Lograno, Dawn Klein, and Gary Wellbrock. 
Photo of Danny in First Grade provided courtesy of Danny Burstein

Sunday, January 23, 2022

This Old Guitar

My old guitar finally gets some attention

In John Denver's song, This Old Guitar, he sings that his old guitar has "brightened up some days and helped me make it through some lonely nights." 

I have my own old guitar. 

My mom bought it for me when I was in high school (or perhaps junior high). I carried it to lessons in a house I remember well, even though I recall nothing of my teacher. I learned songs from my John Denver songbook and little ditties like "Oh, Suzanna." Along the road of life, I was pulled into other interests and stopped my lessons. Yet, I continued to bring my guitar with me wherever I went. 

It was there, leaning up against the wall in my tiny studio apartment on West 47th Street. I never played it, but thought it looked very cool. It traveled with me to a larger apartment on West 51st where it also sat untouched. Eventually, it landed here in my dream home only to gather dust once more. My old guitar patiently waited in our guest room for over 25 years before I gave it some attention. It took my mother's passing, a brilliant book written by my friend Esther Kim, and a global pandemic for me to pick it up and start making music again. 

With renewed motivation, I had it restrung and balanced. I found a wonderful teacher, Justin Rothberg, who indulges me in my song selections, while teaching me technique and music theory. Our sessions are all on Zoom and it's been a great experience thus far. Learning and playing have been forms of therapy and healing. Lately, my favorite moments in life have been playing and singing along with my partner, Ed. Ed is always willing to appease me and suffer through the halts and hesitations in my playing as I learn to go from one chord to the next seamlessly. 

I've been embracing creative outlets more and more lately. My introspective questioning about life always seems to go back to the need to love, create, and express. It appears, for me, that peace can most readily be found there. 

As for my old guitar, I'll wrap this post up with another line from John Denver's song..."Oh, what a friend to have on a cold and lonely night." 

Monday, January 17, 2022

Singing with The BenAnna Band

Learn more about the BenAnna Band here

Creating art! It's such a joyous expression of emotion and purpose. I am finding it is a brilliant way to combat the anxiety surrounding the day-to-day uncertainties of this pandemic. And I'm understanding art as a form of rebellion in a whole other light. In finding joy through creative expression we are defiantly flipping the bird to our oppressive overlord, realizing we have a choice in our reaction even if we do not to our circumstances. 

I recently had the unexpected opportunity to involve my students in recording a song with the BenAnna Band. Anna, one half of this musical duo for children, is the daughter of my longtime friend Patti. I've known Patti since junior high school and we even dated briefly. Life comes around in the most delicious manner sometimes. 

Anna reached out to see if my students might be able to provide vocals for a call-and-response song called This Time We Share. I played the song for the kindergarten and second grade students on a Monday morning asking, "Who would like to sing?" Every hand went up! They learned it so quickly. Some students singing and others signing the lyrics. In the days that followed, I taught them a little bit about notes and rests as we looked at the sheet music. It made me wistful for the once upon a time days of music education at our school.

BenAnna Band producer Brian Cook and ASL interpreter Shannon Moore

The following Monday their producer, Brian, braved the elements and the threat of Covid to record the children in my classroom. We tried several groupings of mixed voices and, in no time at all, Brian had what he needed. 

I told the children he was going back to edit it all together and the final cut would be available on Apple Music, Amazon, and Spotify around Valentine's Day. One boy excitedly exclaimed, "We're going to be famous!" I admired the enthusiasm, but brought it back to the joy of creating rather than the lure of fame. An ASL video version is being discussed as well. I already know the kids can handle it after our previous outings with Dear Theodosia and Remember Me

The BenAnna Band children's choir :)

A big thank you to the BenAnna Band for the opportunity. I'll post updates with links to the finished song when it is available.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

COVID and NYC Public Schools

United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew holds a press conference outside of PS347 alongside our Chapter Leader, Michael Nappi. 

The Omicron variant is taking a bite out of New York City public schools. Everyday we get updates about classroom closures, quarantines, and changing protocols. The Department of Education (DOE) and the UFT are doing everything they can to keep schools open. It is certainly an ongoing challenge. 

A concern at the moment is that teachers are "dropping like flies" (as my friend Maria says). As educators test positive and isolate, schools are threatened with understaffing. If the positivity rate continues to increase there may be no other choice but to go remote. It is an option being fought at every turn.

To address this issue, and others, UFT President Michael Mulgrew held a press conference outside of our school yesterday morning. He outlined the new procedures, which include increased testing for teachers and students, the distribution of home testing kits, and a beefed-up situation room to test and trace.

Quarantine and isolation are basically a thing of the past for those in close contact with someone who has tested positive (that's where the home testing kits become key in determining safety). Folks with symptoms also rely on the rapid tests in order to judge whether or not they can return to school. 

Our Dean of Students, John Marro, takes students' temperatures as they arrive on the first day back after holiday break, Monday, January 3, 2022.

I feel sometimes like I've walked through a minefield and have successfully navigated my way across dangerous terrain, but a misstep is bound to happen. I am vaccinated and boostered, covered in hand sanitizer (or "hanitizer" as the kids say), masked, and distanced. But, I'm also working with kindergarten children who have a casual relationship with masks, like to hug, and often place little fingers in little mouths and noses. That and a four-hour daily commute on public transportation gives one pause. Although, I am somehow not making myself crazy over any of it. 

This too shall pass. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Somewhere Over the Rainbow with Karen Mason

Karen Mason sharing the love with some Kindergarten and Second Grade students
Life happens all at once. We usually focus on one thing more than another, but our myriad thoughts and actions are always bumping into each other.  Each one edifying the next, bringing clarity and new understanding. That's how I like to facilitate the learning in my classroom. We explore topics by making connections and allow themes to emerge naturally. Subjects do not happen in isolation, it's all connected. 

This year the Broadway Books First Class guest artist visits have not existed in isolation either. There is a throughline emerging and growing stronger with each performer. This happens as we examine their body of work. The children made deeper connections within social justice education, literacy, and social studies as we prepared to welcome Broadway stalwart Karen Mason this past December. 

It started with Jelani Alladin. The theme of the book he read, The Barnabus Project by The Fan Brothers, was "Nothing is impossible".  Jelani played Kristoff in Frozen on Broadway. In the animated movie his character was drawn as a white male with blonde hair. Jelani described how he was surprised and delighted that the director did not let that depiction constrain the sense of possibility when casting the role. Jelani has been successful in letting his talent open doors and challenging the heretofore narrow-minded views and standard operating procedure of casting. 

Tony Award nominee, Jessica Hecht, was our second guest. She has an impressive body of work that showcased for us the idea of conflict. What is conflict? How do we remain true to ourselves when who we are (i.e., religion, race, SES, etc.) is making us targets of racism, bigotry, and oppression? How do we tap into that inner core that tells us to stand tall and proud? How do we overcome? Where and when do tolerance and acceptance fit in? 

Karen Mason
Then, there is Karen Mason and her resume filled with incredible performances in spectacular shows. There is Mamma Mia!, Sunset Boulevard, Hairspray, Wonderland, and Love Never Dies. 

Shows that allowed the kindergarten and second grade students to continue to examine issues of tolerance and acceptance. Consider Hairspray and Love Never Dies. Both shows, in their way, deal with judging and excluding others for physical characteristics (e.g., body type and ideas of beauty) and race.  

As we revisit these themes across time, we are able to delve deeper into them and make those important connections. I knew we were on to something good when a student said, unprompted, that Tracy Turnblad's eventual inclusion in The Corny Collins Show was "Just like Jelani Alladin" when he talked about being cast in Frozen. We had opportunities to explore the unfortunate realities of our broken society and examine ways to take action to improve things. All based on the work of the guest artists!

Karen Mason sings Over the Rainbow with ASL interpretation by Rick Rubin

Another aspect I couldn't overlook was Karen's - almost tangible - joy of singing. The notion of passion and dreams is certainly another takeaway that spans all of the guest artist visits. I followed Karen on Instagram (@karenmasondiva) throughout the pandemic and was taken with how music lifts her up. This is someone who has found that thing that touches her soul. I believe it is a truly transcendent and joyful experience for her to lift her voice in song. The fact that her talents have opened up so many golden opportunities for her seems almost secondary to the fact that she simply gets to express herself artistically. 

One of the many questions the children had for her was, "Can you sing for us?" Karen happily obliged with a beautiful rendition of Over the Rainbow (including the lesser-known introduction). We all even joined her for the finale. Whereupon, she graced us with one of those fancy Broadway bows we've been practicing. 

Karen Mason reads The Pigeon HAS to go to School! by Mo Willems

All of this was wonderful, but no visit would be complete without a celebration of storytelling through the reading of a children's book. For Karen's visit, I chose The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! by Mo Willems. It is a fun book that provided a lighter tone to balance some of our heavier discussions. Although, never underestimate the gravitas inherent in the pigeon's ongoing dilemas.

Each child took home a hardcover copy of the book signed with a personalized message from Karen. During the book signing they even had an opportunity to see up close the crown she wore as the Queen of Hearts in the musical Wonderland on Broadway. That was pretty cool!

We may be in the midst of a pandemic surrounded by fear and worry, but there is no reason we cannot embrace passion and joy as well. We did that with Karen Mason, a story, and a song. And for that, we give thanks.

"Your voice is so beautiful, like a flower."


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