A Visit with Karen Mason

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Broadway Books First Class

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? 

Then, there is Karen Mason and her resume filled with incredible performances in spectacular shows. There is Mamma Mia!Sunset BoulevardHairsprayWonderland, 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!

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 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. 

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.