As a first-grade teacher working in New York City, I once bemoaned the joyless trajectory operating within our educational system. The increased emphasis on testing—even for young children—and blatant disregard for providing developmentally appropriate instruction for all children has left teachers, students and families feeling exhausted and abused.
Then my thinking began to shift. Instead of allowing policy makers and politicians to dictate every moment of my school day, I started to reflect on how I could work within the current system. I began to see opportunities by asking myself, “What can I do to effect a positive change?” In that straightforward question, I found inspiration to begin a new program celebrating literacy and the arts called Broadway Books First Class. This book-reading series signifies a tangible way to respond to the current educational climate that devalues the arts.
The idea is simple. I invite Broadway performers to read a children's book to my first-grade class, answer a few questions and share their stories. The genesis of Broadway Books First Class came about through my love of the theater, children’s books and education. I envisioned it as a celebration of the rich cultural heritage offered by going to school and teaching in New York City.
The response to the program was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. Within hours of my posting an initial feeler on Facebook in July 2015, Tony Award-winner Gregory Jbara and Tony Award-nominees Charles Busch and Alison Fraser had committed to participate. The list continues to grow. Also amongst the performers is my former first-grade student Eden Duncan Smith, who most recently appeared in the latest Annie movie as the orphan Isabella. Eden credits her time in my class and our school with inspiring her to perform. These are the stories that make me proud to be a teacher and the reason why I remain passionate about providing my students with a well-rounded education.
The students in my class this year are a mix of deaf, hard-of-hearing and hearing children. Most are children of deaf adults (known as CODAs) whose first language is American Sign Language (ASL), and many families are of low socio-economic status. Although they are surrounded by the best the city has to offer in terms of performance, the reality is that many of them do not have access to it. My reading series is conducted either in spoken English with an ASL interpreter or exclusively in ASL if the performer is fluent in this language. The visits allow students to gain exposure to other cultures through theater and books in a fun, exciting manner.
Each Broadway Books First Class visit is predicated upon the development of a central theme or message determined in advance with the performer. Children’s books are selected to promote understanding and encourage discussion. Topics include diversity and acceptance, persistence and self-confidence, cooperation and teamwork, and role models. All this is wrapped inside a warm hug of respect for the children, for literature and for the theater. Our parent association even gifted the students with personal copies of several of the titles. The excitement surrounding the books, in conjunction with the visits, has encouraged independent repeated reading of each book at home and in school. A happy result is that reading begets reading! I’ve also noticed an increase in motivation and reading stamina. There is a sense of ownership; reading has become personal.
This idea can be modified to work in any school by tapping into the local culture. I encourage teachers to think outside the box and incorporate teaching practices that go beyond the walls of the classroom. For some, this could be a reading series with parent invitees. For others, it might focus on community workers, farmers or whoever signifies a strong presence in your city or town. I have witnessed firsthand the outpouring of support. People want to help; we just need to ask.
The opportunities are all around us. Positive changes are happening. It is up to us to take the first step.
Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.