Category Archives: television

You’ll be swell

It was my fault.  I didn’t read the email carefully enough.  In my defense, my husband came to the same conclusion I did: it would be a fun event where the kids would meet a paleontologist and tour the lot.  This sounded like just the event for Zachary, who has determined he wants to be a paleontologist.  And an ice cream man.  It was clear that the kids would be getting filmed for the live-action portion of a new children’s show, but somehow I thought that the filming would take place while meeting the paleontologist.  I thought it would be no big deal.

Instead, we showed up for what was basically a casting call, albeit a low-pressure one in which all the kids got a turn to act.

Zachary and I were among the first to arrive, so we waited in a pleasant courtyard with twenty-nine other kids.  He colored a couple of pictures and stuffed his face with Goldfish, but then there wasn’t much else left to do.  We’d been there forty-five minutes when, all of a sudden, four kids were being ushered in for hair and makeup.  Four kids who had arrived after we did.

You know I said something, right?  And, even if the staff probably thought I was a pushy mama, at least Zach was in the next group to enter, after a rousing game of tag with a little girl who had driven up all the way from San Diego.

Hair and makeup, thank heaven, was an abbreviated affair, and we were headed into the television studio.  Zachary, you must understand, is terribly mature and great at following directions.  Jumping into new situations without any idea of what’s going on?  Not so much his thing.  I hadn’t explained a damned thing in advance because I had absolutely no idea what was going on.  Which made two of us.  I found myself with twenty seconds to point out a few lights and cameras and tell Zach what they were before he was led in front of the cameras with three other kids.

The whole thing was starting to seem like a very bad idea.

Then, the director asked them if they knew what a Venus Flytrap was, and Zach’s hand shot up.  “Ooo, I do.  It’s a plant that snatches bugs and eats them,” he answered, making the appropriate motions with his hands.  The director must have thought he had a live wire here, just as I thought my son had skipped right over the Anxiety and Overwhelmed portions of the program.

Um, not so much.  The other three kids leaped up to try the lines first, so Zach was last.  And the director changed the line once he got to Zach, who looked right at the camera, just as he had been told.  And delivered the lines, just as he had been told.  Completely deadpan.

“He’s terrified,” the director said.  From the back of the studio, far from my baby, I silently thanked him for noticing.

He did loosen up a little, and I was proud of him for simply pushing forward and gamely giving it a shot, even though he had no idea what the hell was happening.  Near the end, when he had to impersonate a bug flying into a Venus Flytrap, he seemed to actually be enjoying himself.  The little boy playing the Venus Flytrap, unfortunately, kept forgetting to turn and smile at the camera at the end, so they retook the shot about six times.

I learned a few things.  I figured out that Zach would like acting, once he figures out what the fuck is going on.  I discovered that I, however, do not have the makings of a stage mama, because the whole thing flabbergasted me, and this was a rather benign casting call for an educational kids’ show with very nice, non-slimy children’s television people.  And I realized that there are an awful lot of parents who willingly wait around for hours with their kids just for the honor of a few seconds on a television screen.

I also learned to read my emails more carefully.

On the way out of the studio, when we were supposed to be rushing out and thanking the staff for giving us this opportunity, I carried Zachary past the back table.  “Are you the paleontologist?” I asked, not giving two shits whether they wanted me out of the place.  “He came today just to meet you.”  Bless that man’s heart, he came over and talked to my little man, assuring him there were plenty of dinosaurs left to be discovered.

We will be watching the show when it comes out this fall, because the DVD they gave us has already captivated my kids and taught them important words like “herbivore.”  When your three-year-old knows what Triceratops likes to eat, you know the show is doing its job.  And we will watch because my kid wants to see himself on TV.  And we will watch because of the dude who, despite being the star of the television show, was a mensch who took the time to talk to Zach about his career aspirations.

That night, when Zachary was asked the best part of his day, he declared it was getting his usual toast with butter for dinner.  Oh, and meeting a paleontologist.

As is probably pretty clear from this post, which is not, I fear, what the show organizers had in mind when they invited bloggers to come to the event, I have taken the pledge.  It is very important to me, and I will write a post on it soon.  Once I get the badge up.  Once someone explains to me, AS THOUGH I WERE A FOUR-YEAR-OLD, exactly how to put a badge up on my blog.  Please, take pity on a Luddite, people, and tell me how to post a badge on a wordpress blog.

Brain candy

At a recent fifth birthday party, I told Benjamin that he would not be having a piece of candy as a chaser to the giant globs of icing he had just licked off his slice of cake, which were themselves a follow-up to the ice cream he had eaten with his lunch.  Our host, a good friend and a mother of three kids of similar ages to my own, laughed and turned to her mother.  “Oh, God, candy is my savior.  ‘You want some more candy?  Here, take some more candy.’”  She shrugged self-deprecatingly.  “Candy is my babysitter.”

We know each other too well to judge on another at this point and mostly lament our own parenting foibles.  “Of course you need to use candy as a babysitter,” I smiled.  “Your kids don’t watch TV.”

“That’s true.  I’m beginning to think I made the wrong choice.”

I had to concur.  “A TV show lasts a lot longer than a piece of candy.”

In this analogy, then, candy and television are both acknowledged junk, but we indulge our kids because we can only hover over them and prevent their access for so long.  Candy rots the teeth and we all know television rots the brain.

Or does it?

On Monday, I had the privilege of attending a lunch discussion at our local PBS station, one that was conveniently scheduled so I could leave immediately after Lilah’s mid-morning feeding and arrive home ten minutes before her afternoon one.   The nice thing about this event, unlike other things bloggers get invited to, was that it was not about getting me to sell a product but rather about actually discussing how best to help children.

It was a small group of parent bloggers (OK, mothers) and a panel of three women who design children’s programming for PBS.  Joyce Campbell, the VP of Education and Children’s Programming and producer of Sid, the Science Kid, didn’t do a whole lot of talking, as she was clearly there just to hear what we had to say.  The other two women on the panel, however, had some fascinating things to say.

One was Lesli Rotenberg, the Senior VP of Children’s Media and the other was Angela Santomero, the creator and  executive producer of Super Why, which makes her a freakin’ hero in my book.   Super Why is my kids’ new favorite show, and it is the first program they have really loved that I have felt the same way about.  Not that I watch with them, because that would defeat the whole purpose of scheduling TV time right before dinner…  But, I have watched an episode or two, and this show rocks the house.  It is a television show designed to – wait for it – promote reading.  Yes, reading.

Now, here’s a little fun fact about me.  I don’t really watch TV.  I used to watch a little each day, but about a year ago, I realized I was going to have to choose between reading and television, and I decided to stop watching in order to get some reading time.  I went about three months never turning the thing on, but then the presidential conventions turned me into a short-term couch potato.  Nonetheless, my heavy-television weeks involve watching two shows (over the course of the week) and my light ones involve no TV at all.  Come to think of it, other than an episode of Super Why, I haven’t watched TV in at least three weeks, and we never have the TV on during the day.

Yet, I am not against TV.  I am just pro-reading.  So, you can imagine my delight that there is a television program all about these four little kids who, when faced with a problem, go diving into books together to find a solution.

Rock the house.

The subject matter is good, as are the reading skills they teach.  This show happens to be designed to cover Benjamin – who at almost three years old still cannot identify any letter other than “O” and the occasional “S” – and Zachary – who at almost five is sounding out phonics and has probably fifty sight words.  See, there is this pig who is in charge of letters, two girls who are all about reading words, and then a boy who pulls it all together.

OK, you get it – good show, educational, blah, blah, blah.  This is not a review blog and you would probably have stopped reading this post already if you weren’t hoping there would eventually be a point to the whole thing.  There is.

See, apparently, the people over at PBS Kids did not go into their line of work for the fabulous remuneration of public television.  They actually, um, care about providing quality, educational programming to children.  Especially lower-income children.  You know, the kids who may not have Tivo, Cable, and 473 kids’ books.  (I haven’t actually counted, so we may have more.  Those paperbacks are deceptive.)  The kids whose parents may not have the luxury of time to sit down and read with their children every day.  The kids who don’t attend preschools that cost (cough, cough) a year.  They want to reach those children and help them learn to read, love reading, and read well.

Perforce, the folks at PBS Kids have designed a Super Why camp for underprivileged kids, utilizing established camps but bringing in their own curriculum for a week.  They administer a simple “pretest,” and then they use one episode of the show and build five days of reading skills activities around the episode, with each day focusing on the “power” of one of the characters.  At the end of the program, they administered a “post-test”, and saw an 18% increase in letter sounds skills, a 29% increase in reading words, an 84% increase in encoding skills, and a whopping 139% increase in word decoding.

Praise the lord and pass the television.  The fact is, not everyone can afford childcare help.  Some people are working two and three jobs, if they can get them, just to get by.  And, in those families, TV is going to be a cheap alternative to having Super Nanny living in the guest wing.  Those are the kids who most need someone who can spare the time to teach them reading skills.  This show tries to fill the gap.  Is it as good as a parent sitting down for an hour working on reading every afternoon?  No, of course not.  But, that cannot always happen.  And even when it does, there is no earthly reason that media like television can’t be seen as a part of multifaceted approach to getting kids excited about reading.

It turns out there is a do-it-yourself version of this camp.  We were all given a nifty little backpack with activities to do with our kids.  Now, I’ve already screwed up because, although I did the pretest, there was no time to do the next day’s activities and of course the kids wanted to watch the same episode again the next night, in part because Zach was afraid of a different episode called “Thumbelina” for fear the mole might make an appearance.

I am going to be doing all these cool little activities with the kids, similar to some of what the trained professionals do at the camp, although I must say this flies in the face of my “television as a babysitter” technique.  I’ll report back on my family experiment and let you know how it goes, and the good people of PBS Kids will be checking our blogs for feedback.  You can get in on the action, too, because there is a huge trove of activities on the PBS Kids website that can help you use the show to augment your kids’ learning.  They’ll be reading comments and would be happy to hear what people have to say.

Well, slap my thigh and call me “Matilda.”  Who knew television might just have more in common with carrots than with candy?