They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. Just 20 blocks south, the fluorescent lights at PS 347 are just as illuminating.
Once a month, Broadway stars shine exclusively for the students of PS 347, also known as the American Sign Language and English Lower School. Since 2015, teacher Gary Wellbrock has been inviting actors to his classroom to read to his students through his Broadway Books First Class program.
Some of the performers are authors of children’s books who bring their own work to read. Others read books chosen for them by Wellbrock, who tries to match the theme of the book with the performer’s personality or back story. Wellbrock has hosted Tony, Emmy and Oscar award winners, including Stockard Channing, Nathan Lane and Julianne Moore.
A sign language interpreter joins the performer to translate for students, most of whom are deaf or hard of hearing. Students get the opportunity to introduce themselves in American Sign Language and to ask questions. Each student also takes home an autographed copy of the book.
During her visit on Jan. 10, actress Annie Golden — who has starred on Broadway in “Hair” and currently appears on Netflix in “Orange is the New Black” — joined playwright David Caudle to read his book “Viva, the Vegan Fly Trap.”
Caudle, who is deaf in one ear, told the students about the scene in the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which Mary whispers “I love you” into George Bailey’s deaf ear.
“Whenever I feel down, I imagine someone is whispering that in my ear,” Caudle said.
Maria Edwards, a teacher at PS 347, said the visiting actors impart important lessons to students about hard work and perseverance.
“And getting to keep the books creates a beautiful library for them. It’s a special experience that the kids remember,” she said.
Wellbrock, a former actor who has taught deaf and hard of hearing students at PS 347 for more than 20 years, aspires to provide his students with more opportunities to engage with both theater and literacy.
“I want the children I teach to feel that they are seen, that they are important enough for these actors — who people pay good money to see on Broadway — to take time to sit with them because they’re valued,” he says. “I also want them to be able to see themselves in the deaf and hard of hearing performers that visit — to see that their own possibilities are endless.”