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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