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

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(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. 

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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.

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