Newsletter
From John Farrell
February 2006
Greetings Friends,

January has slipped past, we’re into mid February, and the days are surely getting a little longer. It’s been a mild winter here in New York with relatively brief doses of snow and ice, and just a couple of spells of really cold temperatures. Local schools have been delayed or cancelled a few times, but the cause isn’t always extreme conditions, sometimes it’s the expectation of what may come. Much of our culture seems to be living in an age of anticipation and fear where we expect (or at least want) to be in control of everything, including the weather. Schools were cancelled one day last year on the basis of a predicted storm that never arrived. I don’t pay much attention to the weather report, but I have to admit I kind of like it when they’re wrong.

I know it must get tiresome for young people to hear their elders say, “When I was a kid...” but it does seem that life was a lot different then, when I was a young boy. Some things were certainly simpler then, before the world was so invested in “up to the minute” reporting. One of the great joys I recall from elementary school days was the excitement of waking up to find that it had snowed while I slept and school was cancelled. It was particularly exhilarating if the snowstorm had passed through overnight and the morning brought one of those dazzlingly azure skies contrasted exquisitely by the brilliant light of new fallen snow. When that happened it was as though the earth was saying, “This is an extra special day…ENJOY IT!” I suppose the “surprise snowstorm” is a thing of the past but the excitement of a snow day is alive and well, at least among students and teachers I know. I don’t care what the Groundhog says I’m hoping for at least one or two big snowfalls before springtime arrives. It makes spring seem even more a time of renewal if we reach it with clear impressions of winter fresh in our minds. Many of you probably disagree with me and can’t wait for spring to arrive but my point of view is the one I often tell children, “Waiting isn’t a bad thing…and delayed gratification is actually a good thing.” Now, some news since I last wrote to you.


VISITING BELGIUM AND THE NETHERLANDS and SEEING SINTER KLAAS

In late November I spent time in Belgium and the Netherlands visiting schools and presenting at the ECIS (European Council of International Schools) conference in the Hague. While in Belgium I did assembly programs and workshops at the International School of Brussels and the Brussels English Primary School. In the Netherlands I spent a day at the International School of Amsterdam where my good friends Paul and Patricia Murphy teach. The administrators, parents, teachers and students at each of these schools reached out to welcome me with open arms, hearts, and minds. I thoroughly enjoyed singing with, listening to, and learning from them. Traveling internationally is a terrific way to broaden our understanding of other people, cultures, and countries. Whenever I’m fortunate enough to visit new places I return home uplifted and encouraged by how much we all have in common, regardless of language, geographic, cultural, or political differences.



Ann Marie joined me in Amsterdam for five days and she and I did a workshop together at the ECIS conference. We also visited the Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh museum, did lots of walking, enjoyed Amsterdam’s multi-cultural restaurants, and took a boat tour of the canals. It was a much needed, relaxing time together away from home.
The months since my mom died in July have been a difficult time for me personally, and for our family too. When someone lives a life as long and well as Mom did, death is a relief and the most natural conclusion you could hope for, but the presence she occupied in our lives is missing and we still feel that emptiness though time, family, and friends are helping us move on and think more of the fullness of her life rather than the void she left behind.


A VISIT FROM SINTER KLAAS

My last full day in Amsterdam was the day that Sinter Klaas arrived. I borrowed Paul’s bicycle and pedaled into the city center to be a part of the festivities. It was a magical time as I joined thousands of boys and girls, and their families, waiting along the narrow streets near the canals. The children held out brown burlap sacks hoping that some of Sinter Klaas’s hundreds of helpers would drop in some cookies, candies or other treats. The helpers are called “Zwarte Piets,” which means Black Peters. Many of the Zwarte Piets were gliding along the route on rollerblades. They were all dressed in colorful jester-like costumes and were wearing black-faced make up. The blackened faces signify the soot from the chimneys which is part of the legend associated with Sinter Klaas. Legend says that the helpers would check each house by looking down the chimney to see if anyone was home. I didn’t have a chimney or a sack with me but when I held out my hand the helpers gave me gifts too.

There were marching bands, simple floats, horse drawn carriages, clowns, bicyclists, stilt walkers, and many other groups leading the way for the guest of honor himself. Finally, as the excitement built to a peak, and the most jubilant band of all came by on a float, the moment arrived -- and there he was, Sinter Klaas, -- sitting high atop a gorgeous white horse, wearing a red robe trimmed in white fur. He had on a bishop’s mitered hat and held a staff in his hand. He was a masterful horseman and he graciously, smiled, shook hands, and greeted those along the route. He wasn’t the jovial Santa Americans have come to know but he seemed kind, was very distinguished and had a commanding presence. The procession advanced to Leidseplein Square where Sinter Klaas dismounted and then climbed the stairs to a big balcony overlooking the square. On the balcony, the mayor of the city led the audience of thousands in call and response chants and traditional Dutch songs. Then he made an enthusiastic introduction, and passed the microphone to Sinter Klaas who addressed the thrilled multitude below.

The fact that I don’t speak or understand Dutch made the afternoon even more enchanting for me because even though I seldom knew what was being said or sang I still felt very much a part of the celebration as I smiled, clapped along and waved to strangers who didn’t seem like strangers at all. It’s an afternoon I will always remember.



NEW NAME FOR PEACE PROJECT

In the autumn newsletter I wrote about a new project I was starting that was inspired by my trip to South Africa. The project’s name has been changed slightly to “Building Bridges of Peace.” (BBOP) The web site will remain www.abridgeofpeace.org, but the new name is a better description for what we are trying to do together. The BBOP mission statement is being refined and revised as we go along taking these first baby steps in building a foundation. The next several paragraphs include details about BBOP. If you think you might like to be a part of the project please read on. Being a “part of the project” doesn’t require any particular commitment beyond an interest in what we’re doing and a willingness to consider trying some of the suggestions.

Building Bridges of Peace Mission Statement

The goal of “Building Bridges of Peace” is to enable students and teachers to connect with other students and teachers around the world in a manner that will allow them to; expand their awareness and understanding of others; express their thoughts and feelings through writing, the arts, and the internet; and take action by initiating and participating in projects that will promote cultural exchanges and provide relief to disadvantaged groups of children and adults whose basic human rights and needs aren’t being met.

PROJECT STRUCTURE

The project structure will include three components or elements which will overlap and intersect. Included here are brief descriptions of each of these components.

The Web Site

The website will be a platform that will enable young people to express themselves, and gain a deeper understanding of others whose cultures or living conditions may be misunderstood by, or unfamiliar to them. The website will be a place students and teachers can visit to post and view poetry, stories, songs and other forms of artistic expression. The content featured will offer a glimpse into the respective backgrounds, traditions, and experiences of the contributors. The website will also be a forum for young people to communicate their feelings, hopes, dreams, concerns, and ideas regarding what we can do to work for a more peaceful, healthy and just future for the earth and those who live on it.

The Resource Component

BBOP will produce materials, strategies, and lesson plans that will enable teachers and students to explore topics relevant to pursuing the goals of expanding awareness and understanding, encouraging expression, and promoting actions that reach out to others to create “bridges” of peace and goodwill. Materials may include recorded music and video, thought provoking photographs and artwork, and written and artistic expressions created by students and or teachers. Recommended books, magazines, and websites will be included when appropriate. We will also offer suggestions for activities that can be done with students, and provide topics and questions for starting discussions and encouraging students to respond creatively.

The Projects

Working together young people, teachers, and the BBOP core group will design, develop, and participate in projects that will make a tangible difference in the lives of children in need of assistance. Project conception, development, implementation, and outcomes will be documented and reported about on the web site through newsletters that include journal entries, stories, photographs and video created by project participants.

What Has Been Done So Far

The following paragraphs detail briefly some of the things we done since October to pursue the development of BBOP in a manner that will allow us to achieve the goals outlined above.

A small group of teachers in several countries have volunteered to be part of an initial pilot program collecting written work from students on topics relating to building bridges of peace. We are asking students of any age to use writing to express their hopes, concerns, and dreams, along with ideas for how we can make our world a more peaceful place. Some of the student’s writings will be featured on the web site. Since this is a new program we are going slowly and learning as we go along.

On the last day of October 2005 we did an audio and video recording of the song “We Are Walking a Bridge of Peace.” The session featured the South African singing group Thula Sizwe, students from the Tapco School in the Bronx, N.Y., Jeff Miller and myself. Many talented and kind friends helped make the recording session possible. Sincerest thanks all of them especially Ray Flanigan, Genie Swinson, Nathan Mandracchia, Walter Young and the members of the Walnut Hill Community Church in Bethel, CT. There are pictures from the recording session as well as a newspaper article about it available at the web site. The song is sung in English, Zulu, and Spanish, and there is an instrumental section so that listeners can sing along in other languages if they would like. The instrumental could also be used as a track for students to create “new” verses for the song. The video includes simple sign language motions for some of the lyrics. The audio is now available for listening to at www.abridgeofpeace.org

Jeff Miller and I recently finished a version of my song, “If I Wasn’t Me I Might Be You” and that is also now available on the web site www.abridgeofpeace.org It is my hope that teachers will use the song as a springboard into discussions about empathy and compassion. It can also be a starting point for talking about homelessness, Alzheimer’s, severe disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy, and the effects of violent crime and prejudice. There will be background information about the writing of the song along with ideas for guiding discussions and encouraging student responses to the piece.

Another step I took in getting the project going was to ask a group of friends to serve as advisors. We had a pot luck supper at our home on January 14. Everyone had a chance to meet one another, get acquainted a little, and hear some of my ideas about the project. The meeting was cut short by a snow and ice storm, but many seeds were planted, good questions were raised and valuable suggestions offered.

In addition to the individuals who were at this meeting I have been in contact with several people from near and far, (New York City, Connecticut, Florida, Washington DC, Japan, South Africa, California, Europe etc.) who are willing and wanting to help so I have high hopes that Building Bridges of Peace is going to grow into an effective and wide reaching entity that will allow us to do what humans do best, which is to reach out to each other to tell stories, share dreams, and work together for our common good.


SIGN UP FOR BBOP NEWSLETTER

If you would like to have your name added to the BBOP Newsletter list please email [email protected] or call Mary Jain at 800-928-4007, or visit www.abridgeofpeace.org and sign up there. You will receive news about the projects progress, invitations to try some writing and discussion activities with students, and a chance to help shape the project by responding to what we’re doing. There are no dues or fees and of course, your email address will not be shared with anyone else, not even in the interest of national security, whatever that is.


NEW FEATURE ON WEB SITE

We’ve added a new feature on the web site which is called “Kids and Teachers Interview John.” Often when I visit a school to do an assembly program, concert or workshop there is time set aside for “Questions and Answers.” Many times not everyone gets to ask “his or her” question and I feel bad when then happens. Other times, a whole class will mail me letters and these frequently include questions too. Even though I would like to answer all of those questions it is hard to do that sometimes so I decided to add this feature to the web site. If your students would like to submit a question or questions please go to the website www.johnfarrell.net and click on the “Kids and Teachers Interview John” link. If someone has already submitted your question or one very similar to it I won’t add the question to the web site but if you have an original question, especially an unusual one, I will do my best to answer it and post it so others can read it.


SONGBOOK AND NEW RECORDINGS IN PROGRESS

We have begun creating a songbook / activity book that will include sheet music, lyrics, and activities to go along with many of the songs from my first five CD’s plus some new songs too. We are also beginning to record new songs for a CD for young students as well as working on songs for older kids (old enough to have their own kids and grandkids). The adult stuff may end up being made available via the web. The kids songs will be on a forthcoming CD.

THANKS FOR YOUR INTEREST AND THOUGHTFULNESS

If you’ve gotten this far in the newsletter I owe you a big thanks for taking the time to hear me out. I remain grateful for all the support and friendship I receive from so many people. I enjoy hearing from you too so please send an email to
[email protected] , or letter to 51 Prospect Street, Brewster, NY 10509

With love and thanks,

John

Click Here to Read John's November Newsletter about his trip to South Africa


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