Deena Rosenberg and Ernie Harburg
'S Wonderful Meets Something Sort of Grandish:
The Computer and Arts Project

Interview by Frank Evans

E. Y. "Yip" Harburg and Ira Gershwin first met when they were fellow students at C.C.N.Y. (They were seated alphabetically, G next to H). When Harburg told Gershwin about his admiration for the light verse of W.S. Gilbert, Gershwin introduced Harburg to the melodies that accompanied them. Harburg heard Gilbert and Sullivan for the first time on the Gershwin family Victrola and it changed Harburg's life, leading him first to light verse and eventually, lyrics. Ira introduced Yip to his first composer, Jay Gorney, with whom he would later write the classic "Brother Can You Spare a Dime."

The two lyricists' professional and personal lives intertwined frequently during their long and prolific careers. Harburg and Gershwin co-wrote lyrics during the Golden Age of Broadway revues in the thirties and both went on to phenomenal careers on Broadway and in Hollywood. Harburg is best known for the "The Wizard of Oz", "Finian's Rainbow" and dozens of standards including "April in Paris," "Over the Rainbow," "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Happiness is (Just) a Thing Called Joe." Ira was, of course, his brother George's primary lyricist. Over the years both would write individually with Burton Lane, Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern and Arthur Schwartz. Both were native New Yorkers, children of immigrants, and were unafraid to deal with political issues in their work.

Deena Rosenberg was fortunate enough spend time over several years in the home of the reclusive Ira Gershwin when she was researching her book, "Fascinating Rhythm," a definitive study of the Gershwin brothers' collaboration. She is the founding chair of the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program of the Tisch School of the Arts at N. Y. U., whose distinguished alumni include George C. Wolfe.

Ernie Harburg, Yip's son, in addition to his work as a social psychologist and epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, is the coauthor of "Who Put the Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz," a biography of his father.

It will come as no surprise that Rosenberg and Harburg are married and parents of a son, Ben.

I expected a different kind of home, more formality: darkness and a reverential shrine to Harburg and Gershwin. Instead sunshine was pouring into a comfortably furnished apartment in a high rise in lower Manhattan. Not a living room filled with plaques and honors, but instead a working desk and cluttered bulletin board with a large poster proclaiming:

Words make you think thoughts.
Music makes you feel feelings.
A song make you feel a thought.
-- Yip Harburg

I am seated on a very comfortable sofa opposite Rosenberg. Harburg sits to her right. The conversation is mainly with her, but Harburg is very much a part of the interview. Neither is the caffeine addict I am, but she brews me a very tasty cup of coffee.

For the last three years, Rosenberg has been Executive Director of a unique program that brings musical theater into elementary school classrooms as a teaching device. The other important component in the program is lap top computers. Her program could radically improve the way kids learn.

She's started a pilot program with the third and fourth grades at P.S. 19 , a culturally diverse school on Manhattan's Lower East Side where 80% of the population is living at the poverty level. In only three years, her kids' reading skills have leapt from 45% at grade level to 75% at grade level.

A big key to unlocking the kids' minds comes from "The Wizard of Oz." It's almost impossible to find any child in America who doesn't know the film. And if they know the film, they intuitively know the language of musical theater. They know that a person can express longing in song ("Over the Rainbow") or convey information in song {"Munchkinland") or celebrate in song ("Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead). Even with daily exposure to rap and hip- hop, "The Wizard of Oz" songs are part of their consciousness. They're a part of a every American child's heritage and kids never think of the 1939 film or songs as old fashioned or corny.

Rosenberg got the initial inspiration for the CAP (Computer and the Arts Project) from her students and alumni from NYU. "At least half of them were doing work with children. They were being hired as part time faculty to do arts in the schools. In crummy, crummy schools, where they were suspending kids right and left, when you added musical theater, indifferent kids came out of the corner and responded to musical theater. My budding writers and composers were having an impact, and at the same time were honing their own skills, finding clarity in telling a story.

"I have a special interest in children. Even when my career went in a different direction, I kept my finger in with inner city kids and schools. I knew that kids who couldn't get letters of the alphabet understood when you added music to the letters."

A Very Special Theory

Rosenberg is gently leading me to the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, developed at Harvard by Howard Gardner. Gardner found that all children learn differently. The majority of schools emphasize mathematic and verbal intelligence. But Gardner also recognized five other ways to get into kid's heads: the kinesthetic (the sense that detects body position and movement of muscles), musical, visual, interpersonal, intra-personal and self knowledge. Rosenberg explains that it's not simply like having a talent for dancing, but a different way of comprehending. And musical theater uses contains and employs all of Gardner's five underused intelligences.

. She gives two innovative examples of how kids can learn math: "If you're going to make music you have to count. You tend to retain content when words are attached to songs. If you want to children to retain information, you're likely to get the information into their heads and they're likely to use it later without having to do the song. The same thing with dance. We help train dance teachers to devise addition and subtraction games. Instead of writing down numbers, you move the arithmetic. You get a sense in space that you're adding, and when you add, you move further. You subtract, you move back. Some kids are internalizing it that way. Their kinesthetic (movement) channel, their dance channel, is more open than their verbal channel. And if you add music to it with a beat, so that there's a pulse that goes with the adding and subtracting, then you've got another reference point that's reenforcing it, so you're giving it to them in a variety of modalities. If they're not getting it one way, they're getting it another way.

"To go off math, there's another game where half the class were nouns and half were verbs and you paired up, nouns and verbs. The noun has to do what the verb is. For instance, the cat has to run. You keep mixing and matching. Grammar is often so dry, but at the end of one of these things, a kids says "Oh! A verb is when you do something. The person who is doing something is a noun. And that became clear by doing it, not by hearing about.

"To learn vocabulary words associated with geography, they made up songs, half rap, half melody, and they retained 25 difficult words about geography.

"Reading could be a variety of things. If a word is hard or if kids stumble, then add the music to give them a whole phrase, a context. Music does something to the part of the brain that's having trouble reading the word and suddenly they're comprehending. They may not get every single word, but what they get is 'Oh, there's a sentence here. It's going in a context. Those four lines go together.' Suddenly reading is manageable."

The school's location allows for on-site history and social studies. The school is ethnically diverse: Hispanic, Asian, African-American and european- american. The area was a magnet for immigrants (like Yip Harburg's parents) and continues to attract newcomers to America. "We simultaneously had them do family trees and family histories, interview relatives and find out traditions and comparative elements from their different backgrounds, and we also showed them "Fiddler on the Roof" and let them draw comparisons. In one class there were kids who had come from Jamaica, China, Peru, Equador, Ireland and Puerto Rico.

"On the Lower East Side, we can do walking trips. Several of the ethnic groups, for instance Orthodox Jews, do tours for school children including the oldest Synagogue on the Lower East Side and they take the kids to a restaurant. Sometimes they go to where there's music making. The kids take this back to the classroom and dramatize being people from the different countries through skits. With guidance from their teachers and a lot of their own imaginative ideas they ended up with a musical at the end of the year called "What Do We Know?"

What Do We Know, The Musical

Curtain up on an empty trunk holding a single photograph with an inscription: "If you can find my relatives, you'll gain the knowledge of the world." The kids go on a quest and it takes them to every sort of ethnic area, not unlike the walking tour. At each stop they do a song or dance from the culture and they keep the tension by looking for the relatives to the person in the picture. "In doing the play, they happen to learn all this history and culture: how America got built, who these different peoples are, what they fought about, why they came to America. Things much more sophisticated and knowledgeable people don't know.

Rosenberg sings the first few bars of the title song and Harburg chimes in:

"What Do We Know?
Now we know the world is not as big as it may seem.
What Do We Know?
Now we know that people came to Ellis Island with a Dream.

The tune is amazingly sophisticated.

Rosenberg laughs. "I'm not looking for them to write hit songs. But we can teach these children reading, writing, social studies, math, science, computer studies and geography through this study of the cultures.

CD-ROMs, Lap Tops and Learning

"There's a CD ROM based on a book, 'How My Name Was Changed at Ellis Island.' Each kid reads a page, and if you can't pronounce or understand a word, you can press a key and the computer will give you both a definition and pronunciation. The teacher might show a movie of Charlie Chaplin on a boat heading for America or play a tape of an Irving Berlin song of the period. Then on the CD ROM, there's an interview with an older person who gives an oral history. There's high motivation, because it's fun using the computer, they're doing it together and it's part of a larger experience. Test scores keep going up. The kids are motivated to learn and their self esteem is going way up. They're being taken seriously because they are learning differently. (The program currently employs 65 different packages of software and CD- ROMs)

"If used the right way, the computers are a tool, like a notebook. Anybody can become an artist if you've got a graphics program. So every kid is an illustrator. If writing doesn't come as easily, a computer gives them their words perfectly in beautiful type. They make a beautiful page and it has pictures. It takes into a whole different realm and they feel good about what they're doing.

Growing the Program

At this point in the interview, I become slightly skeptical. The pilot program has been working with a selected group of kids, but how can the rest of the school benefit? Rosenberg explains: "The school has 750 kids. And the other kids are saying 'Can we get in the model program?' The idea was to see if we could come up with ways of doing things that you could do in a larger group and get across to teachers who had not necessarily been trained to teach in this kind of way. The school's principal, Ivan Kushner is an enlightened guy. He's aware that children do not learn in the same way. So he allowed us to develop methods, curriculum, ways of training teachers in a new way, putting personnel in the school who knew either arts or computers. We took all the fourth graders, there are a hundred of them at PS 19, and hired a person who sees them twice a week to integrate a subject matter with dance and movement: math or science or reading or social studies. We work with the classroom teacher, ask what are the kids having the most trouble with and we also set it up so that an instructor works with half the kids at a time."

Stories of Triumph

From a mother: " 'Aida' was withdrawn until she entered a CAP classroom four months ago. Now she comes home singing and dancing and spends hours each night on her science projects. She is no longer shy with other children. She has blossomed."

"Trevor" was doing poorly at math, science and writing. Since his mother signed him up for the CAP program, he has been emerging from shyness and has mastered vocabulary, literature and social studies. (He still has difficulties with math) He is a leader in the class. A year ago he would have been written off as a non-learner.

"Carpathia," born in Equador, is a fifth grade girl who used to have minimal reading skills. When she was introduced to the computer, she started thriving through the word processing and graphics programs. She is overcoming her difficulties with English through the music and arts programs.

"Oscar," a ten-year-old boy from a close-knit middle class home had previously been diagnosed with "communication disabilities." He came to the program with good computer skills. Within weeks of joining the CAP program, he made dramatic leaps in speaking, reading and writing.

Liz Edelman, a drama specialist, has spent a month visiting second, third and fourth grade classes. Teachers have told her that previously shy and withdrawn children became outgoing and animated. One small miracle: She broke through the wall of silence surrounding "Daisy," a fourth grader from the Ukraine, by use of a theater game which emphasizes immigration.

Retraining Teachers

The first thing Rosenberg did when she came to PS 19 was to ask the teachers who would be involved if they she could take them out to lunch. A common practice in business, but unheard of in public education.

A few weeks later, with the aid of composer-lyricist and educator Sean Hartley, she ran demonstration classes where the teachers participated in the creation of a Musical Play. ( New York City classrooms now have funds which allow for music synthesizers, VCRs and tape decks, so it's much easier for teachers to bring music and arts into the class room.)

In another orientation session she showed how a clip from "The Wizard of Oz" and asked the teachers why they thought she showed it.

One teacher answered "She's in a world of black and white. It's drab and boring. She opens the door and there's color and there's music and that's what we're trying to do for the children. Another answered "It was kid friendly. If we showed it to them and used it in a lesson, they would probably enjoy the lesson. A third teacher felt the film had all the arts in it. Acting and song and dance and design.

Rosenberg told the teachers how "The Wizard of Oz" could tie into New York City's new curriculum. Second grade the emphasizes neighborhood, third grade emphasizes communities around the world and fourth grade emphasizes immigration and New York City. Dorothy's arrival in Munchkinland can be used to start discussion of all these issues.

How to Stay on the Yellow Brick Road

The Arts Community has been extremely supportive of the program. The cast of the Madison Square Garden "Wizard of Oz" visited the school and Scarecrow Lara Teeter led an instant improvisatory class. The cast sang for the kids and then the kids sang to the pros. Peter Stone has been providing the students with seats to the revival of "1776." Hal Prince and Sheldon Harnick have been lending support. "Rent star Michael McElroy and "Ragtime stars Marin Mazzie and Tommy Hollis came to entertain and teach. Kevin Grey took the kids backstage and let them sit on the throne room set of "The King & I ." Lonny Price has been involving Musical Theatre Works. The business community, the Annenberg Foundation and Chase Manhattan have been coming up with ways of finding funding and recycling laptops. Michael Price, who not only heads the Goodspeed Opera House , but is the Cultural Commissioner of Connecticut, heard "If You Dare to Dream," one of the songs the kids wrote and wants to make it the official state song of Children in Connecticut.

"Yip Harburg lived ten blocks from this school. The library that goes with this school, Tompkins Square, changed his life. There was a dedication of the Yip Harburg room at the library and.Pete Seeger, who was a friend of Yip's was the lead speaker/ singer. Sheldon Silver, from the State Assembly spoke. Not all the children and parents could come. So the principal at P.S. 19 decided to have a Yip Harburg day and each grade learned a new Harburg song to sing to each other. The little kids sang from "The Wizard of Oz and the older kids sang "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime and " Paper Moon."

Rosenberg is cautiously optimistic. "We got a grant from the city to retrain teachers to use these new ways of teaching. This year we were able to include second, third and fourth grade, so that's three hundred kids. They have dance and drama and music, not all the time, but the teachers are getting interested too.

"But the moment we have one other public school doing the same thing, then we'll know we've succeeded."

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