A Visit with Siena Rafter
American Sign Language!
I just love it. The hand movements that convey meaning through space, the facial expressions that hold important grammatical information, the sentence structure - different from English - that sits comfortably now within my body, the way it allows one to say so much with just one sign, and the mesmerizing sense of awe I feel when I see someone who's mastered it.
This love and respect for a language I continue to gain competence with is one reason I was so thrilled to welcome Siena Rafter into my classroom. Siena shares my passion for ASL. She is not a native signer, but has taken to ASL with a fierce dedication to live within it. She is a strong advocate for equal access in communication and supports the Deaf community. Given all of this, I was excited to welcome her into my classroom to serve as a role model for my students.
Siena's ties to Broadway and the performing arts are closely connected with ASL. She was Assistant Director to Tony Award Winner Kenny Leon for the Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God in 2018. She was also part of the ASL team for Glenda Jackson's 2019 Broadway revival of King Lear.
I cheered her stage performance in a dazzling production of Twelfth Night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2018, which incorporated ASL into the staging. And I performed alongside her in 2016 on the historic High Line in a show inspired by my Broadway Books First Class program entitled, How the I Becomes the We. In fact, that is where we met and I knew she was someone special from our first hello. I'll never forget my first introduction to this confident young woman with a megawatt smile, who was eating a sweet pepper like most of us eat an apple.
Siena's visit with my kindergarten students took place on an October morning in 2019. During the visit she shared her love of language and literacy. And she spoke about the joy she's found in bridging ASL with the performing arts. Students were full of questions. Siena's answers led the children to see the possibilities that lie in belief and that a dream only remains a dream if you don't work towards realizing it. Dreams can become truth through planning and perseverance.
I shared a photograph of Siena as a young child, the same age as my students. The photo demystifies the guest artist. It helps students connect the dots between themselves and the person before them. It reminds me of the quote by American civil rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, "You can't be what you can't see." Role models are so important and I was thrilled to share Siena's light with my young charges.
She read a wonderful chapter book designed especially for young readers, Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin. I selected this title because illustrator Brian Selznick (Wonderstruck, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Marvels) has ties to the Deaf community and knows and appreciates sign language. And author David Serlin works at The University of California, San Diego with Deaf author, researcher, and powerhouse, Carol Padden. This visit, in all its layers, was a celebration of ASL and Deaf pride.
Baby Monkey, Private Eye is an engaging series of mysteries wrapped around irresistibly cute illustrations. It is a cleverly written pattern book consisting of only about 52 words. Pattern books foster confidence and joy associated with reading, which makes children want to read them again and again. During the read aloud, Siena encouraged students to participate and join in on the oft-repeated phrases...
Baby Monkey looks for clues.
Baby Monkey writes notes.
Baby Monkey eats a snack.
Baby Monkey puts on his pants.
Now Baby Monkey is ready!
Baby Monkey solves the case!
After the reading, each student also got to take home their own personalized hardcover copy of the book. In anticipation of this event, I even had the added bonus of receiving a promotional poster for the book signed by Brian Selznick and David Serlin.
Keep your eyes open for more from Siena in the years to come. And do yourself a favor, check out Baby Monkey, Private Eye for your beginning readers.
Broadway Books First Class