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love is the driver: or, about that Reading Rainbow Kickstarter


(Cross-posted from Hearts+Minds.)

Over the last few days, every social media platform I know has been lit up with posts about LeVar Burton's attempt to restart and remodel Reading Rainbow. By and large, the overall coverage of the project has been extremely positive, which makes sense; in addition to being a terrific show, Reading Rainbow hits all the right nostalgia buttons for a pretty wide swath of the population. I mean, it's difficult to criticize the mission of a project that includes both Reading and Rainbow in its name. 

One notable critique, however, appeared from Caitlin Dewey on the Washington Post's Intersect blog, and I think it's worth addressing. Among the concerns Dewey highlights: that the project is out of step with the digital reality of children in poverty, and that it ultimately addresses the wrong issue - it focuses on teaching kids to love reading, when they might not know how to read at all. 

First of all, there are a few basic facts here that I would dispute. For example, she points out that low-income kids are more likely to access the Internet at home via mobile phone, which is totally true, but ignores the fact that the program is (at least in part) designed for teachers in classrooms, where desktops and laptops remain the primary means of Internet access. She also notes that the service will cost money, which is true as well, except for "disadvantaged" classrooms, where access to the new platform will be provided for free. My beef with inappropriate and inaccessible technology is well-documented, but honestly, I don't think that's as much of an issue here.

What I find more problematic, however, is the idea that we can't focus on both literacy education and fostering a love of books. Reading is a skill that only improves with practice, and as anyone who's ever studied a musical instrument can attest, no one wants to practice unless they're enjoying themselves. The kids who are struggling with literacy are the ones whose parents don't have the time, the resources, or the ability to read to their kids, to let their kids see them reading, to spark that flame that lights the way for a lifetime of learning. To succeed, they need that extra drive, that extra grit. They've got to want it. It's the desire that, at least in part, motivates the learning.

So I don't think it's wrong for us to expose kids to books, and the wonders they hold, in as many places as possible. In fact, I think it's helpful for kids to see reading in action, to connect stories to books and books to joy. It certainly can't replace literacy education, but it's far from irrelevant.

Now, is this project everything I'd dream of? Not necessarily. My heart still lies with public television, which remains the most accessible medium we have. Do I wish that the general public would devote this much time and focus to other, less flashy education issues? Of course. But this is still a good idea overall, and it's one that deserves our support. And if you have any doubt about the program's potential for inspiration, go check out some of the old clips on YouTube. You don't have to take my word for it. 



following the signs

I love Sesame Street for a lot of reasons, but I think what might have triggered my initial infatuation was its song parodies. As has been previously documented, I was a super weird kid*, and I distinctly remember watching Patti LaBelle sing "How I Miss My X" and feeling delighted - not just because it was clever, but because I felt like I was getting the adults' joke. It was a secret club, and by virtue of being a nerd, I had found my way in.

I was thinking about this a few weeks ago as I finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy (yes, I just read them, yes, I am sorry I didn't listen to everyone who told me to read them four years ago). Around the same time, I came across a link for the Sesame Workshop version of book 2, "The Hungry Games: Catching Fur." First of all: awesome. Second of all: the very existence of this video inadvertently highlights one of the most overlooked and (I think) one of the most important aspects of the books.

Obviously, the Hunger Games, as an event, are a huge viewing event for the members of the Capital. Something Katniss mentions a few times, however, is that the Games really aren't for the elites; they're there to remind the Districts of their powerlessness. The whole shindig is ostensibly for one audience, but, under its surface, has a completely different purpose. 

This is a level of media analysis that I think is often missing from the coverage of so-called viral videos and other marketing tactics. Sesame Street's target audience (3-5 YO) probably doesn't care much about the cleverness of the takeoff, just as they don't really care about the borderline-Dada parody "Homelamb." (At least I hope they don't, because I'm pretty sure Homeland is not appropriate for children.) Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit that relies on the support of Viewers Like You. The whole point is to remain present and worthwhile in the minds of supporters, so that it ultimately has the resources to provide the educational programming that is targeted at children. Similarly, the amazing PBS remixes that came out last year are clearly focused on people who *used* to watch Reading Rainbow, and who would potentially donate to support the network if they felt that it would provide some sort of cachet.

(I'm going to embed one of the Mr. Rogers videos here, because it is required viewing. Be prepared to choke up a little bit.)

In my first gig out of grad school I was doing ICT consulting for governance projects, and I did a little bit of side reading on semiotics and the art of signaling. The intersection between these areas of study and international development seems to me to (also) be important and overlooked - don't we need to know what people want to say about themselves before we offer them something that allows them to speak, literally as well as metaphorically? Side note: if you have any recommended readings here, I'd love to hear about them.

At any rate, this is one of the many things that Suzanne Collins got right in her book, and it's one of the many approaches that Sesame Workshop has gotten right in their work. I'll be looking for more examples of the interaction between mission-driven work and semiotics (MAN, that sounds dry, but it's not). If you come across any, please let me know.


*I really wanted to find a clip from the 30 Rock episode with Carrie Fisher, where a preteen Liz Lemon watches Laugh-In (or its surrogate), looks at the camera, and says, "It's funny because it's true." I don't know if I've ever seen a more accurate representation of my childhood on television.



the politics of difference


 I'm afraid this post might not be coherent, because this particular topic makes me really, really angry. But I obviously care enough to write about it, so I'll do my best to also make it readable.

I was raised to not be mean. This sounds like an obvious thing, but there's a big difference between "being raised without being encouraged to be mean" and "being actively encouraged to not be mean." My mother, who is otherwise a fairly quiet and laid-back person, was very firm on this point. We did not tell each other to shut up in my house. We disagreed, and we fought, but we did not yell at each other. Whenever an ad hominem element crept into a complaint about school or work, the response was usually something along the lines of "Okay, that part's not relevant." We could be frustrated, and angry, but mean, we were gently reminded, was never necessary.

So I think that this cultivated aversion to meanness is a big part of the problem I have with the coverage of Rachel Jeantel. Jeantel, you may have heard, is the star witness in the Trayvon Martin case, the girl who was on the phone with him when he was shot. You have also probably heard the following: that her testimony was "embarrassing" and "humiliating"; that she is "brutally ignorant" and "stupid"; that she is "unreliable" and "inconsistent," "cringe-worthy" and "difficult to understand." 

She has her defenders, of course, but even many of them are saying that "she's not the one on trial," which implies that these characteristics are irrelevant to her role - not that the critiques themselves are wrong.

In my opinion, however, they're nasty, petty attacks on a perfectly fine witness. Let's take a closer look at them, one by one.

  1. Rachel Jeantel is stupid because she can't read cursive writing. I grew up in Florida public schools. Believe me: it is totally plausible that her education there did not teach her cursive. It is also plausible that she was taught cursive, but for a variety of potential life reasons didn't have the resources to focus on her education. Or maybe she's dyslexic. None of these equate to stupidity

  2. Rachel Jeantel is unreliable because she (lied about x, y, z/is on record as drinking and smoking). Jeantel lied about being a minor (she wasn't) and going to Trayvon Martin's funeral (she didn't). She says she claimed to be under 18 because she wanted to avoid media attention - possibly because, as a young, poor, heavyset black woman, she knew that she would receive exactly the kind of attention that she's getting now. Are we going to blame her for not wanting that?

    She didn't go to Trayvon's funeral because she was traumatized by the fact that she was on the phone with a friend who then died. Which, again, seems totally reasonable to me. She drinks and she smokes and she Tweets about getting her nails done before court BECAUSE SHE'S NINETEEN AND NINETEEN-YEAR-OLDS ARE NOT RENOWNED FOR THEIR DECISION-MAKING SKILLS. Go find a freshman student government representative at UVA who doesn't drink or smoke, and then get back to me.

  3. Rachel Jeantel is hostile and/or incomprehensible, which hurts her credibility as a witness. First of all, the way we talk about language in this country drives me up a wall - with so much disdain, as though a person who speaks differently, in a way that hasn't been adopted by the mainstream, is dumb by default. Perhaps the reason that this particular dialect is not in the mainstream is because American society oppressed black people for hundreds of years? Just a thought. There's a long history of patchwork dialects in this world, and if you want to dismiss the way Jeantel speaks, bear in mind that you're also dismissing large English-speaking swaths of the Indian subcontinent and the entire nation of Haiti. Also, I understood her perfectly fine, and I'm not even an auditory learner. 
    Regarding her hostility*: personally, I think that makes her more credible, not less. Her friend is dead and now she has to talk about it in public, which doesn't sound like a fun afternoon to me. And again, she must have known how America would perceive her, justly or not. Who actively looks forward to being mocked?

To sum: Rachel Jeantel is embarrassing to herself and others because she is a) poor, b) young, c) black, and d) angry that her friend is dead. In other words, she is embarrassing because she is herself and not us. If that is not the very definition of meanness, I don't know what is.


An interesting companion to this debate is a recent Buzzfeed piece on the one and only Kanye West, "In Defense of Kanye's Vanity." Their take on the musician's widely mocked narcissism is fascinating and, I think, very important:

To assert that, despite the boundaries of a racist world that strangles your very view of what is possible, you are still going to be out here stuntin’ on everyone, that you will love yourself and love yourself excessively, is powerful beyond measure. And as many black artists have said before, for black folks to love themselves is a political act. The poet Audre Lorde captures it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” 

With Kanye and with Rachel Jeantel, we are free to wish that they might appear more gentle, or comfortable, or familiar. But they have no obligation to be what we consider "palatable," and we have no right to expect it. Because it may be that our definition is what needs changing, and not the protests against it.

*Do not get me started on so-called "hostility" or "aggressiveness" in women, which is an entirely separate conversation.