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 (’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 ( contains everything from the Mister Rogers and Daniel Tiger shows – episodes, characters, songs, memorabilia. Educators’ Neighborhood, a project of the Fred Rogers Center (,) 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?”


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 ( 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 (, 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 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.)

Capturing Creativity

I remember a high school principal challenging me one day when I told him you can “teach creativity.” He didn’t believe me. In the last ten years educators have realized that you can both teach and assess creativity. Two Pittsburgh educators, Melissa Unger and Anna V. Blake, have captured their personal findings in their new book, Capturing Creativity, to share with fellow educators, parents and higher education programs 20 easy ways to bring low-tech STEAM into the classroom.

I’ve been quite fortunate to see some of the work done by Melissa Unger in person. We began working together ten years as part of grant through the Grable Foundation. I served as a consultant for the South Fayette School District. Melissa was hired by the South Fayette School District to work with students in three environments – urban (Manchester Academic Charter School), suburban (South Fayette), and rural (Fort Cherry) – to deliver a program around computational thinking, Habits of Mind, and project-based learning. The program had been conceptualized by Aileen Owens and the administrative team for the South Fayette School District and now the challenge was to see how this approach could impact a diverse group of students in very different environments. Needless to say the program proved quite successful and Melissa carried on her work becoming an elementary STEAM teacher for South Fayette.

For seven years I joined the South Fayette team to expand the impact of the program to other schools and educators through a Summer Institute. In my role I helped to document the workshops through photographs and to evaluate the success of the program through surveys. My greatest fun was always visiting Melissa’s class. It was obvious that teachers were enjoying themselves. You could see it in the faces of the teachers. They were collaborating in ways many of them had not experienced since they were children. When we looked at the ratings, Melissa always had 100% success. Every educator who participated found something that they could take back to their classroom and use successfully. I know this was the case, since we did follow-up surveys to determine how people were able to use what they learned.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

I can guarantee that you too will have the same kind of success as the educators and students who have worked with both Melissa and Anna. Like South Fayette, the Elizabeth Forward South District has become a national leader in Maker Education. Anna is one of the keys for the school district’s success. I also had many chances to visit Elizabeth Forward over the past ten years and observe teachers and kids working together to creatively solve problems.

What connects Anna and Melissa is a framework that was developed by Harvard University, Agency by Design (AbD). In the Prologue to the book, Peter Wardrip and Jeff Evancho, share the framework and the key values for the project:

  • Curiosity
  • Collaboration
  • Problem-solving
  • Persistence
  • Creativity

In everything I’ve observed Anna and Melissa successfully address these values. Today Anna and Melissa continue to work with the Agency by Design team. They are some of the educators who have had great success developing a STEAM program that works and makes an impact on all students. AbD has added an element of research looking at that question that was thrown at me years ago: how do you know that you are making a difference for learners? How do you assess creativity?

During the recent COVID period when so many schools struggled with hands-on activities for kids, Anna and Melissa took their ideas and created a virtual program, “Pittsburgh STEAM Station.” They invited other educators to join them. Today they have a free resource that includes great lessons from 26 educators representing 19 different schools and districts.

The book is divided into chapters with interviews of fellow educators. The chapter on Curiosity includes one of my colleagues from my days as the Coordinator of Educational Technology for the Fox Chapel Area School District, Stan Strzempek. Stan is a great example of how Maker education has transformed educators. Stan took a traditional computer classroom and redesigned it as a Maker space, the Collaboratory. Stan, like Melissa and Anna, uses commonly found objects. Two of his successful projects are in the book, a parachute design challenge (pp 45-46) and a bubble wand activity (pp 47-48).

In their book Anna and Melissa have not only provided simple and successful examples of STEAM projects, they have outlined the materials you need, the steps to follow, extension activities, and a QR code to the STEAM Station episode that provides a visual representation of the lesson. This is definitely one book that educators, parents, and higher education professionals working with pre-service teachers will want to add to their library.

What’s Working During COVID

While many people have been concerned about the lack of learning during the COVID period, there have been a number of successful strategies and approaches.  Through a dialog with regional educators, my contributions to the work for the Consortium of Schools Networked (CoSN), and listening to personal stories from 2020 HundrED Virtual Innovation Summit, I’ve compiled a list of successes. In this posting, I’ll share some of the ideas I’ve discovered. We’ll look at how at one school in Pennsylvania has students working together in teams and collaborating even with remote learning and social distancing. We’ll hear from an online trainer how the pandemic has opened new learning doors for active learning for students, parents, and educators. We’ll hear from one edtech company that has made robotics a remote hands-on experience for all learners. We’ll discover a school district in California that has found ways to continue to expand the expertise for their professional learning community. Finally, we’ll discover how an African non-profit has had to be pivot to continue to deliver its entrepreneurial program for learners.

Collaboration and Working as a Team

Melissa Unger, the K-2 STEAM Teacher for the South Fayette School District, has been an educational leader for the past decade. The pandemic forced her to rethink how she designs learning experiences, especially to promote collaboration and team-building. According to Melissa, “Being in a Hybrid setting and social distancing has caused us to rethink what it means for students to work together and collaborate. One of the best tools I have used for this is FlipGrid–students are able to share their work, thoughts, or ideas via short videos, and others can comment. In each homeroom, students have only met half of their classmates in person this year, so FlipGrid has allowed for a greater sense of community building and information sharing. I have watched students use others’ videos as a way to add on to their own ideas and form connections. 

“I also think that now more than ever open-ended projects and STEAM tasks are really important for our students. These projects and tasks address an uncertainty that students need to understand – an uncertainty about the virus, school closures, and just what’s going to happen each day. With open-ended projects, I think students start to see that having all the information is not always necessary before moving forward. This new learning situation builds confidence and resilience during this time of uncertainty.”

Active Learning

Active learning is always an important goal. In order to achieve learning engagement it’s critical to think about instruction design. According to Kelesy Derringer, the Co-founder of CodeJoy LLC, ” The job of an educator is not to simply transmit information, but to design educational experiences. Even in online learning, this is still the job, though our delivery method has radically changed. In our classes at CodeJoy, we continue to ask, “What are the students DOING?” We offer opportunities to do more than listen – students can code and control robots, build their own catapults at home with craft supplies, engage in the Engineering Design Process together, talk to a live puppet, ask a florist to cut a rose in half to see what it looks like, strap a phone camera to a horse and go for a ride, or have a dance party with children all over the world! Engagement looks different online, but it should still be the cornerstone around which educators design their learning experiences.”

Lock downs and social distancing requirements have created serious challenges to hands-on robotics education, but also inspired creative solutions, such as 1:1 robotics and remote robots. According to Tom Lauwers, the CEO and Founder of Birdbrain Technologies, “With 1:1 robotics, all students have a robotics kit at home, and use remote collaboration tools like the newly released micro:bit classroom along with teacher-led video instruction to learn coding and robotics. Remote Robots is a new technology that we’ve developed to allow kids to code a robot in a beginner-friendly environment that is not located in the same location as them. We quickly created five 24/7 live-streamed robots in April that anyone can code, and have also created a tutorial for educators to set up their own remote robots. Together, 1:1 robotics and remote robots provide educators with a toolbox to continue physical computing and robotics education in these pandemic times.”

Creating a Professional Community

CoSN for the past three years has assembled a global team of advisors to look at Innovation in Education. I’ve been part of the CoSN Driving K-12 Innovation advisory team. This year in addition to the normal Hurdles, Accelerators, and Tech Enablers, we began to look at examples of innovation due to the COVID situation. Phillip Neufield, the Executive Officer for the Fresno Unified School District in California shared his insights with the CoSN community. According to Phillip, “Over the past five years, our district has moved to more experiential, actionable professional learning where teachers experiencing their learning as we intend teacher practices to land as learning experiences for their students (albeit with adult learning wisdom applied).”

“So in spring we delivered over 100 webinars to prepare teachers for the shift to distance learning with over 1,700 educators participating, some up to 3-5 times in different webinars.  Educators could access recorded sessions.  And we offered competency-based on-demand web training resources with over 10,000 unique visits.”

“We repeated this approach in summer to prepare educators for fall.
We found educators were bringing these new teaching practices back to their grade-level or department-level professional learning communities (teaching practices included the know-why, know-how, and tech mediated activities).”

Creative Pivoting

The problems learners, parents, and educators face in the United States due to the pandemic are truly global. During the Virtual HundrED Innovation 2020 Summit I listened to an African educator, Frank Omana, outline how his non-profit, EDUCATE!, pivoted.

Educate! tackles youth unemployment by partnering with youth, schools, and governments to design and deliver education solutions that equip young people in Africa with the skills to attain further education, overcome gender inequities, start businesses, get jobs, and drive development in their communities. With the appearance of COVID this skill-based model for entrepreneurial studies had to find a distance learning option

Frank and his team created “The Experience on Air.” They began to broadcast on national radio and available via text messaging. They kept the core components – practical experience with mentorships, skills, and assessments. Remarkably the pivot opened new doors for the African learners using the distance learning model.

In each of the cases I’ve outlined new doors opened, while old gateways were no longer available. In today’s world, that’s the lesson we all need to understand. We need to be nimble and pivot so we can maintain our educational goals like Birdbrain, CodeJoy, Frenso, or the South Fayette School District. The real test is how well are we meeting the needs of our learning community.