Tuesday, October 21, 2008

PBS KIDS is Raising Readers

I’ve been reading the book G is for Growing about all the curricular research that went into the creation and development of Sesame Street from 1968 through to the new millennium. I’ll try to give a full report on that soon, but suffice it to say I was incredibly impressed by the range of research that went into the creation of that show, especially since it created the use of research and curriculum in television production. One point that was interesting was the position reading and literacy took amongst the various curricular goals: inasmuch as there was—or is—a hierarchy of curricula within the Sesame Street mission, reading has definitely always been the first and foremost. Math, social skills, emotional skills, and other areas have received their due, but for me reading is always what I think of when I think of Street’s pedagogy. (That’s particularly telling since as a child my favorite Muppet was the Count…plus Grover.)

I feel that Sesame Street has always maintained that position as the foremost show for literacy, while the Children’s Television Workshop concentrated on science in 3-2-1 Contact and math on Square One, also both shows I watched religiously. Only in retrospect did I realize PBS, the de facto distributor for CTW, aired a number of literacy shows: I watched Reading Rainbow with just as much avidity as the other shows, for instance, and I even watched Wishbone regularly, even though I didn’t encounter it until at least middle school. I must say that I completely missed the original The Electric Company, sadly. But at any rate, the trend has gone on, with PBS launching Between the Lions a few years ago and, more recently, animated shows like WordWorld and WordGirl, which both premiered in September 2007.

Now the full genesis and purpose of those recent productions is coming into view. A few years ago PBS KIDS received a Ready to Learn grant from the Department of Education to further develop its literacy curriculum across multiple platforms. Sesame Street and Between the Lions benefitted, while new shows emerged in the form of WordWorld, SuperWhy, Martha Speaks, which premiered this past September 1, and the revised The Electric Company, which will premiere in January 2009. This was not a simple grant program for traditional television funding, however. Much of PBS KIDS’ resulting literacy program, called Raising Readers, has focused on the Internet as a means of interactive education that allows parents and caregivers to build off of the shows in games and offline activities to enhance the reading skills of two-to-eight year-olds. There has been a great deal of original Internet content created for each of the participating programs, but Raising Readers’ flagship is an entirely new site, PBS KIDS Island, which was presented to the media just last Wednesday.

On that day I had the opportunity to meet in midtown Manhattan (near Between the Lions’ namesake New York Public Library building) with Sharon Philippart, Project Director for Raising Readers, and Sara DeWitt, Senior Director for PBS KIDS & Parents and PBS KIDS Interactive, for a walk-through of the new website, which had actually launched a few days earlier.

The site is located at http://pbskids.org/read/, but is also available through a large banner across the bottom of PBS KIDS’ traditional website. The name “Island” derives from the site’s artificial environment, an amusement park island that allows children to navigate to different games. At first glance the site therefore seems quite akin to Noggin’s, Nick Jr.’s, or any other kids’ stations’ (it made me think particularly of Nick’s Dora site based on her carnival episode), but there are several important innovations. The games, which are all literacy-based, are not universally accessible; rather, children have to progress through levels, passing off the skills developed in one game before moving onto another—for which those skills will be prerequisite. This progressive model wouldn’t be much use without the more important ability for parents to create user profiles for each of their children—or teachers for their students—that can save their progress over the long term: the island does not, and indeed absolutely should not, be mastered in a single sitting.

The recording of personal information allows for the customization of the interface, to a degree: the child’s character can be either the green boy or girl from PBS KIDS’ logo, for instance, and the tree house (a home-base where children can enjoy the prizes they have won) can be pink or blue or otherwise customized. It can also provide customized feedback to parents to let them track their children’s progress (after the little one’s gone to bed, for instance).

Speaking of which, while the literacy games are entertaining and educational, I think I was most impressed by the wealth of pedagogical material available for parents and teachers. It is my impression that PBS has become more transparent in its curricular goals since Sesame Street first aired thirty-nine years ago. Now you see notices on virtually every kids’ station of what each program’s curriculum entails: Maggie and the Ferocious Beast teaches social skills, Wonder Pets teaches teamwork and practical problem solving, etc. PBS KIDS Island does this one better by providing complete curriculum descriptions, not just in general but on a game-by-game basis. It then builds upon these with further resources such as games and activities that can be carried out away from the computer—an excellent resource for we Kids Off the Couch-types who like to see media as a means to enhance unmediated experiences (for a long explanation of what I mean, see one of my first postings). The site even allows parents to play the games themselves as administrators, without effecting the children’s records. There are also embedded video tours and explanations.

These last two items are useful for all parents—I’m already playing around myself without effecting Loretta’s scores—but are intended specifically for low-income parents who may have low literacy skills themselves. The folks at PBS KIDS understand that ultimately it is the parents who will set the standard of literacy for their children, and if the site is to reach children at the highest risk of illiteracy or below-level literacy, it must also target their parents. This may seem slightly patronizing, but I find it’s not for two reasons: first, reaching the poor is part of the DOE Ready to Learn grant’s stipulations, and second, and more important, reaching the impoverished has been part of Sesame Street’s mission from the very beginning; it is, in fact, its raison d’etre. More on this next year when we celebrate the show’s fortieth birthday, but it grew out of the progressive policies of Lyndon Johnson and programs like Head Start. Television, it was assumed, was able of reaching inner-city children unreachable through other methods; today, the Internet has much of the same capacity. The inclusion of materials for educators (include professional-level lesson plans and pedagogical materials) helps ensure that children who don’t yet have online access at home can still take part in the program at school.

The site has various other innovations that should be mentioned. It is compelling, for me, that characters from different shows intermingle, rather than having to go back to a homepage and accessing a new site for a new show; this cross purposing comes as a result of the grant being applied to multiple shows, but it is helpful in that children see they are learning similar material from different sources.

Also, I liked that after winning games children could redeem their tickets for actual prizes. On many other websites winning a game lets you see a quick video or print a coloring page, which is good enough, but when you log out it’s gone. Here the kids can hoarde up their prizes in their tree house, watching their video whenever they like, coloring again and again, etc. The prizes become much more material and therefore worthwhile because they are something the children get to actually keep.

So I'd like to encourage all parents to have a look at PBS KIDS Island; it's a great resource for the little ones (and material for older readers is on the way). I’d like to say a word about the shows that are involved, though I suspect a thorough review must be saved for another day. When I got home from meeting with Philippart and DeWitt I explained to Loretta what Martha Speaks is about—essentially a talking dog (but one that teaches vocabulary). She lit up and said she had read that book in school, and indeed she had. The show is based on a whole series of books by Susan Meddaugh. That gives one more platform for parents to extend the experience. And ultimately, all of this material—online and on the television—is pointing to books: what better way to teach literacy, after all, than with a book or a pencil? I don’t think this is undermining the Raising Readers initiative at all. As we children of the 1980s learned from LaVar Burton: “Don’t take my word for it”—go read it for yourself.


Anonymous said...

Hi Randy ... this was a wonderful post! I just came across your site and will be reading much more. I don't see a place to contact you other than here. I'd like to let you know about our wonderful children's site, Ziggity Zoom (www.ziggityzoom.com) Although we are only 6 months old, we are moving up the charts ... Ziggity Zoom has all original content & characters. It is a fun & educational site. We truly hope you will check it out & possibly pass it on. Thanks.
Sharon Pierce McCullough

Randy Astle said...

Thanks for letting me know about your site. I just took a quick look at it and it looks great. I'll add it to my blog list and will try to write something about it in the future. Thanks!

For those who are interested, I also intend to write again about PBS KIDS Island after Loretta's had a few months to move through it--a sort of longitudinal report.

Anonymous said...

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