The Teachings of Mister Rogers – Part 1

When I heard that my colleague, Gregg Behr, was about to publish a book on the contemporary importance of Fred Rogers, I knew I wanted to teach a course for the Osher program at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Gregg explained that his book would look at the teachings of Mister Rogers in light of learning science findings. I immediately contacted Gregg and he agreed that he and his co-author, Ryan Rydzewski, would join my class, but unfortunately they would be out of town to kick off the class. I then decided I should purchase When You Wonder, You’re Learning, and see how the book would align to a class format and who were some of the key people in the book.

Chapter 1 focused on Curiosity. I immediately thought about another colleague, Melissa Butler, who appeared in Chapter 1 and created the Children’s Innovation Project (https://www.cmucreatelab.org/projects/Children’s_Innovation_Project) as part of an investigation around innovation and technology while she was a primary school teacher for Pittsburgh Public Schools: Allegheny and also worked with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

Children at PPS: Allegheny Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

As part of her work for the Children’s Innovation Project Melissa took several of Fred Rogers key ideas and brought them into the formal classroom:

  • Be Observant. Study known objects as simple as a button in detail;
  • Be Curious. Examine objects and ask questions, such as how does this work?
  • Be a Team Member. Work with your peers and learn from each other.

For the Osher class Melissa introduced the senior adults to several Fred Rogers resources that are available online. The Neighborhood Archive (http://www.neighborhoodarchive.com/) contains everything from the Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger shows – episodes, characters, songs, memorabilia. Educators’ Neighborhood, a project of the Fred Rogers Center (https://www.fredrogerscenter.org/,) is a community of educators who learn together inspired from the life and work of Fred Rogers. Melissa is one of the key people for this modern day learning community. According to the website: “We study episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, read from the Fred Rogers Center archive, and connect ideas to our daily practice with young children.”

For the Osher class Melissa shared an early episode from the Mister Rogers’ Show where Fred visits Mrs. Russelite. Together they explore her collection of hats and model the attribute of curiosity. Melissa shared a technique called “Episode Talk.” She asked people to first describe that they saw. Then, she queried the group to connect what they described to their lives. It was amazing to hear some of the comments. One person noticed how Fred Rogers and his director used camera angles to provide insight into characters. Other people outlined how they used to play with clothes or hats. The key to ignite curiosity for Mister Rogers and for Melissa Butler is to start with something you know and then ask children or adults to think about new ways to use that item. Melissa explained that the best items are “open ended.” A cardboard box can provide hours of curious investigation and imaginative play. The role for adults is to introduce new narratives for children. Use questions like, “I see you have a new hat. How many ways can you wear it?”

Creativity

For the second week of the class I tapped into the expertise of Jane Werner, the Executive Director for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Originally I had intended for my class to visit the Children’s Museum to view artifacts from Fred Rogers, to interact with the exhibit, the Kindness Gallery, and to observe kids using their creativity throughout the museum. However, the uptick in COVID meant that we had to go online and use Zoom. So, I decided I would create my own Fred Roger’s style documentary to take my class to the museum.

Film by Norton Gusky

To set the stage for Jane I highlighted several themes that came out of the book, When You Wonder, You’re Learning: how learning science has created tools, like the Torrance Test, to measure Creativity; the importance of choices; why we need to “play” even as adults; the Creativity Crisis – how even children are now less creative today than they were 30 years ago; and new directions for Creativity including events like Maker Faires, and spaces like the MakeShop at the Children’s Museum as well as Maker Spaces across the United States.

Jane provided a virtual tour of the Children’s Museum and MuseumLab, the new space just across from the Children’s Museum that is a laboratory to look at how informal practices can make an impact on formal learning with slightly older kids – middle school age. Jane shared many wonderful stories working with Fred Rogers and his wife, Joanne. Fred played a key role in the mission for the Museum – providing a space for Kindness, Curiosity, Creativity, and Joy. Jane highlighted how scientists and artists are both attempting to create models for understanding our world and children need to have experiences as both an artist and scientist. Jane highlighted how the Children’s Museum works with the University of Pittsburgh and a team of Learning Scientists to understand things like the Principles of Practice for the MakeShop: Inquire, Tinker, Seek and Share Resources, Hack and Repurpose, Express Intention, Develop Fluency, and Simplify to Complexity.

Jane designed an engaging interactive activity for the group. She asked them to look at a photograph she had taken of a model car she had inherited from her father with a paper clip next to it. She challenged the Osher students to write a story or draw a picture to explain what was in the photo. The Osher students came up with some wild ideas to express their creativity.

Working Together

For Week 3 I reached out to Cara Ciminillo, the Executive Director of Trying Together (https://tryingtogether.org/). I had served on the Board for the organization when it was known as PAEYC and I knew that in 2018 the organization rebranded itself using a quotation from Fred Rogers:

We need to remember that children are trying, too—trying to understand their feelings and their world, trying to please the people they love, trying to grow. When grownups and children are trying together, just about anything can be possible.

Fred Rogers

I set the stage for Cara looking at key issues from Chapter 4 in When You Wonder, You’re Learning:

  • The lack of Collaboration Skills for students in the US based on the PISA test from the Office of Economic and Community Development (OECD);
  • The importance for Psychological Safety to build Trust and Respect in groups with a special look at research from Google and the work of the Girls of Steel, a Carnegie Mellon University sponsored program of FIRST teams and community outreach, serving girls and boys in grades K-12 in Greater Pittsburgh.
  • The importance of Diversity with a look at how the Mister Rogers Neighborhood modeled the inclusion of gender, race, and disability for team-based projects.
Screenshot from Osher Class

Cara shared the Simple Interactions Tool developed in collaboration with Jun Lei Li, the former director for the Fred Rogers Center. The graphic serves as a way to frame peer-to-peer conversations about best child-caring practices. Cara explained each of the key factors and then she presented a wonderful video about a child-giver who had to deal with a young child new to a facility. The care-giver was a wonderful example of the teachings of Fred Rogers. She demonstrated how to build Psychological Safety by demonstrating kindness and trust. And most importantly the caregiver provided the young child with a simple experience to grow and feel connected.

Cara also highlighted Message From Me (https://messagefromme.org/), a technological tool developed with the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, to provide greater communication between care-givers and children. According to Cara the tool is now used by educational institutions across the country. The tool allows a child to take a picture of a product or activity, add a verbal explanation, and then send the message to a caregiver, so the child and care-giver can have a conversation later about something authentic in the child’s day. Instead of the caregiver saying, “What happened in school today?” and the child saying, “Nothing,” there is now a concrete example to share. Now the caregiver can say, “Tell me more about your drawing. I see you focused on a yellow bird. Tell me more about your bird.” Cara pointed out that Message from Me is a great example of where technology can make a positive difference in a child’s learning and provide for learner autonomy and voice. And most importantly, it helps to build relationships.

Trying Together has also been a leader in the region providing online tools for caregivers to find quality programs and resources for young children. The website AlleghenyChildcare.org is the latest example of the efforts from Trying Together.

The last segment of the session focused on questions from the Osher students. One of the questions came out of the COVID situation. How are young children dealing with living in a world where adults are behind masks? Cara explained how children can read expression from people’s eyes and the tone of their voice. Even though masks make it more difficult for children to read an adult’s expression, they are still very perceptive.

(For the other three chapters and the related Osher class sessions based on When You Wonder, You’re Learning, stay tuned for Part 2 of The Teachings of Fred Rogers.)

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