Oscar-Winning Actress Viola Davis Reads the Children’s Story, Rent Party Jazz, for Jazz Appreciation Month

FYI: In honor of Jazz Appreciation Month, Viola Davis treats us to a reading of Rent Party Jazz, a children's book written by William Miller and illustrated by Charlotte Riley-Webb. Here's a quick synopsis of the story:

This story is set in New Orleans in the 1930s. Sonny and his mother are scraping by to pay their rent. Mama works in a fish canning factory, and Sonny works for the coal man before school each morning. When Mama loses her job, they no longer have enough money for the rent and fear that the landlord will turn them out. One day Sonny meets Smilin’ Jack, a jazz musician who is playing his trumpet in Jackson Square. Smilin’ Jack offers to play at a party at Sonny’s house to help raise money for the rent. The neighbors all come to sing and dance and before they leave, drop some coins in a bucket. Sonny learns how people can help one another “if they put their minds and hearts to it.”

For anyone not familiar with them, rent parties started in Harlem during the 1920s, when jazz musicians would play at a friend's apartment to help them raise enough money to pay the rent. If you hop over to the website of Yale's Beinecke Library, you can see a collection of rent cards that belonged to Langston Hughes.

This video comes from the Storyline Online Youtube Channel, sponsored by the SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s children’s literacy website. The channel features celebrated actors "reading children’s books alongside creatively produced illustrations, helping to inspire a love of reading in children."

Viola Davis' reading will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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For Sale: The Building Blocks of Albert Einstein’s Creative Mind

Calling all parents with a hedge fund--or big trust fund. If you really love your kids (wink), you can let them play with the building blocks that once belonged to young Albert Einstein. According to Einstein's own sister, Albert used these blocks to build “complicated structures” during his childhood in Germany, sowing the seeds of his creativity. Now, after having been recently auctioned off by Einstein’s descendants, they're being sold online for $160,000--plus $3 shipping within the US). AbeBooks, the online vendor of rare books and ephemera--has a blog post with more information on this collectible.

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Pixar & Khan Academy Offer a Free Online Course on Storytelling

It doesn’t take much to spark a good story.

A tall man, a short woman, a setting that’s sterile to the point of soulless, and a couple dozen bananas…

It practically writes itself!

If you’re slow to recognize the potential in these extremely potent elements (culled from the above video’s opening shot), this free online course on storytelling, part of Khan Academy’s popular Pixar In A Box series, might help strengthen those slack storytelling muscles.

The lessons will hold immense appeal for young Pixar fans, but adults students stand to gain too. Children are naturally confident storytellers. Unfortunately, time can do a number on both fluency and one’s belief in one’s own ability to string together narratives that others will enjoy.

The Pixar directors and story artists drafted to serve as instructors for this course are as deft at encouragement as they are at their craft. They’ll help you move that rubber tree plant… for free.

Each short, example-packed video lesson is followed with an activity in which the viewer is asked to parse his or her favorite stories.

One of the most compelling aspects of the series is hearing about the stories that matter deeply to the teachers.

Mark Andrews, who wrote and directed Brave, recalls his visceral response to the injustice of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’s Island of Misfit Toys.

Domee Shi who storyboarded Inside Out had to bail on The Lion King, she was so effected by Simba’s discovery of his dead father.

Ratatouille animator Sanjay Patel, whose observations consistently struck me as the most profound and out of the box, went with The Killing Fields, a title that’s probably not on the radar of those most squarely in Pixar's demographic.

The first installment stresses the importance of providing a rich setting for well-developed characters to explore, though the teachers are divided on which should come first.

Director Pete Docter, whose daughter’s tweenage passage into the Reviving Ophelia-land inspired Inside Out, stresses “writing what you know” need not pin you to the narrow confines of your own backyard. He was well into production on Monsters, Inc. when he realized it wasn’t so much a tale of a monster whose job is scaring little kids as a story of his own journey to fatherhood.

As you may have guessed, examples from the Pixar canon abound.

Khan Academy will be taking the whole of 2017 to roll out Pixar in a Box’s five remaining Storytelling units

You can complete the first unit here, then revisit their previous course on making animations, while waiting for the rest of the curriculum to drop.

Find more free courses in our collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and theater maker, whose new play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in less than two weeks. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Listen to a Marathon Reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night

A couple of weeks ago on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a diverse group gathered for a marathon reading of Night, Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of his youthful experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

The event was organized in part by the National Yiddish Theatre---fitting given that Night was originally written in Yiddish, though first published in French. The theater’s artistic director and several actors from past productions claimed several of the reading slots, but left more than sixty to be filled by participants from an intentionally broad pool.

There were rabbis and Broadway performers, a New Yorker writer, the Consul General of Germany, and the Hungarian Ambassador to the UN...

Students and educators…

A number of Holocaust survivors…

Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Wiesel’s grown son, Elisha, who observed:

At a time when this country is feeling so divided, when so much negativity is circulating about those who are different from ourselves — those who have different ethnicities, religions or even different political leanings — my father’s words are an important reminder of the dangers of the ‘us versus them’ mentality.

It took the volunteer readers a little over four hours to get through the slim volume, which shows up on many American high schools' required reading lists.

The free event was co-sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Heritage---A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, whose location in lower Manhattan was quite convenient to another important event taking place that day---an interfaith rally to protest President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from 7 countries, suspending entry for all refugees for a period of four months, and calling for “extreme vetting” screenings.

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.

- Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December, 1986

h/t Jeff N.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Why We Love Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”: An Animated Music Lesson

Remember listening to Peter and the Wolf as a child, how the narrator would explain that certain instruments correspond to particular characters:  the duck - an oboe, the wolf - three horns, and so on?

In the above TED-Ed lesson (memorably animated by Compote Collective), music historian Betsy Schwarm fulfills much the same role for The Four Seasons by Antonio Vivaldi. (Stream it here.)

Why are we so drawn to this Baroque concerto? Is it because we associate it with brunch?

The hundreds of movies and commercials that have featured it?

(Director Robert Benton chose Vivaldi rather than an original composer for the score of Kramer vs. Kramer, arguing that "Concerto in C Major for Mandolin & Strings” captured the troubled Manhattan couple’s refined lifestyle far better than the John Williams-esque bombast the ear associates with some many other cinematic hits of the period. The 1979 film’s success sent "The Four Seasons” to the top of the charts.)

These pleasant associations no doubt account for some of our fondness, but Professor Schwarm posits that the stories contained in the melodies are what really reel us in.

Basically, we’re in the thrall of a musical weather report, reveling in the way Vivaldi manages to bring to life both the birdies’ sunny spring song and the sudden thunderstorm that disrupts it.

Summer rolls out the meteorological big guns with a hailstorm.

Autumn’s cooler nighttime temperatures keep the wine-flushed peasants from turning their harvest celebrations into a full-on bacchanal.

Winter? Well perhaps you’re tucked up contentedly in front of the fireplace right now, gratified to be hearing your own comfort echoed in the largo section.

Inspired by the landscape paintings of artist, Marco Ricci, Vivaldi penned four poems that drive the movements of his most famous work. Their translations, below, are nowhere near as eloquent to the modern listener’s ear, but you'll find that reading them along with your favorite recording of the Four Seasons will corroborate Professor Schwarm’s thesis.

Spring – Concerto in E Major


Springtime is upon us.

The birds celebrate her return with festive song,

and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.

Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,

Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more.


On the flower-strewn meadow, with leafy branches rustling overhead, the goat-herd sleeps, his faithful dog beside him.


Led by the festive sound of rustic bagpipes, nymphs and shepherds lightly dance beneath the brilliant canopy of spring.

Summer – Concerto in g-minor

Allegro non molto

Beneath the blazing sun's relentless heat

men and flocks are sweltering,

pines are scorched.

We hear the cuckoo's voice; then sweet songs of the turtle dove and finch are heard.

Soft breezes stir the air….but threatening north wind sweeps them suddenly aside. The shepherd trembles, fearful of violent storm and what may lie ahead.

Adagio e piano - Presto e forte

His limbs are now awakened from their repose by fear of lightning's flash and thunder's roar, as gnats and flies buzz furiously around.


Alas, his worst fears were justified, as the heavens roar and great hailstones beat down upon the proudly standing corn.

Autumn – Concerto in F Major


The peasant celebrates with song and dance the harvest safely gathered in.

The cup of Bacchus flows freely, and many find their relief in deep slumber.

Adagio molto

The singing and the dancing die away

as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,

inviting all to sleep

without a care.


The hunters emerge at dawn,

ready for the chase,

with horns and dogs and cries.

Their quarry flees while they give chase.

Terrified and wounded, the prey struggles on,

but, harried, dies

Winter – Concerto in F-minor

Allegro non molto

Shivering, frozen mid the frosty snow in biting, stinging winds;

running to and fro to stamp one's icy feet, teeth chattering in the bitter chill.


To rest contentedly beside the hearth, while those outside are drenched by pouring rain.


We tread the icy path slowly and cautiously, for fear of tripping and falling.

Then turn abruptly, slip, crash on the ground and, rising, hasten on across the ice lest it cracks up.

We feel the chill north winds coarse through the home despite the locked and bolted doors…

this is winter, which nonetheless brings its own delights.


You can download the Wichita State University Chamber Players’ recording of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” for free here.

See how well you retained your TED-ED lesson with a multiple choice quiz, then read more here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in less than three weeks. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Albert Camus’ Touching Thank You Letter to His Elementary School Teacher

It’s never too late to thank the teacher who changed your life.

Oprah Winfrey fell to pieces when she was reunited on air with Mrs. Duncan, her fourth grade teacher, her "first liberator" and “validator.”

Patrick Stewart used his knighthood ceremony as an occasion to thank Cecil Dormand, the English teacher who told him that Shakespeare’s works were not dramatic poems, but plays to be performed on one’s feet.

And Bill Gates had kind words for Blanche Caffiere, the former librarian at View Ridge Elementary in Seattle, who destigmatized his role as a “messy, nerdy boy who was reading lots of books.”

One of the most heartfelt student-to-teacher tributes is that of Nobel Prize-winning author and philosopher Albert Camus to Louis Germain, a father substitute whose classroom was a welcome reprieve from the extreme poverty Camus experienced at home. Germain persuaded Camus’ widowed mother to allow Camus to compete for the scholarship that enabled him to attend high school.

As read aloud by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, above, at Letters Live, a “celebration of the enduring power of literary correspondence,” Camus’ 1957 message to Germain is an exercise in humility and simply stated gratitude:

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

I don't make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus

The letter was gratefully received by his former teacher, who wrote back a year and a half later to say in part:

If it were possible, I would squeeze the great boy whom you have become, and who will always remain for me "my little Camus.”

He complimented his little Camus on not letting fame go to his head, and urged him to continue making his family priority. He shared some fond memories of Camus as a gentle, optimistic, intellectually curious little fellow, and praised his mother for doing her best in difficult circumstances.

Readers, please use the comments section to share with us the teachers deserving of your thanks.

You can find this letter, and many more, in the great Letters of Note book.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meditation is Replacing Detention in Baltimore’s Public Schools, and the Students Are Thriving

By now, most people are familiar with the term “school-to-prison pipeline," the description of a system that funnels troubled students through disciplinary program after program. Detentions, suspensions, and often expulsions further aggravate many students' already difficult lives, and send them “back to the origin of their angst and unhappiness—their home environments or their neighborhoods,” writes Carla Amurao for PBS’ Tavis Smiley Reports. Harsh disciplinary policies don't actually change behavior, and “statistics reflect that these policies disproportionately target students of color and those with a history of abuse, neglect, poverty or learning disabilities.”

In short, students come to school with significant stresses and setbacks, and are themselves treated as problems to be quarantined or forced out. But why not instead teach those students---why not teach all students---effective means of coping with stress and setbacks? I can think of almost no more useful a set of skills to carry into adulthood, or into a troubled home or neighborhood situation. As the CBS This Morning segment above reports, one school in Baltimore is attempting to so equip their students, with a yoga and meditation program during and after school that takes the place of detention and other punishments.

The Robert W. Coleman Elementary School adopted a twice-a-day yoga and mindfulness practice during school hours for all students, called "Mindful Moments"; and an after-school program called Holistic Me, which “hosts 120 male and female students,” writes Newsweek, “and involves yoga, breathing exercises and meditative activities. Disruptive students are brought to the Mindful Moment Room for breathing practices and discussion with a counselor and are instructed on how to manage their emotions.” As we’ve previously noted on this site, these kinds of activities have been shown in research studies to significantly reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and to improve concentration and memory.

In the Holistic Me program at Coleman, “which focuses on prekindergarden through fifth-grade students,” administrators already noticed a difference in the first year. “Instead of the students fighting or lashing out,” says principal Carlillian Thompson in the video above, they started to use words to solve their problems.” None of the students in the program have received suspensions or detentions, and many have become leaders and high achievers. The program was founded in 2001 by brothers Atman and Ali Smith and their friend Andres Gonzalez, all Baltimore locals. In the past 15 years, their Holistic Life Foundation and its partners have offered a variety of enrichment activities but focused primarily on yoga and mindfulness practices.

Using these techniques, students learn to resolve conflicts peacefully and to reduce the amount of emotional turmoil in their lives. Rather than further alienating or traumatizing already stressed-out kids, this kind of intervention prepares them for academic and social resilience. The foundation has rapidly expanded since 2015, receiving federal funding and delivering programs to Charlottesville, Minneapolis, Madison, and abroad. It may not have changed the course of “school-to-prison pipeline” policies just yet, but it has shown a constructive way forward for other schools like Baltimore’s Patterson High, which has adopted a 15-minute yoga and mindfulness practice at the beginning and end of each day for every one of its students.

Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Audible.com? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with Audible.com, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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