In Part 1 of “The Teachings of Mister Rogers” (https://nlg-consulting.net/2021/11/22/the-teachings-of-mister-rogers-part-1/) we looked at the chapters from Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski’s book, When You Wonder, You’re Learning on Curiosity, Creativity, and Collaborating and the guest experts who joined my Carnegie Mellon Osher class to talk about Fred Rogers as a Learning Scientist. In this post we’ll look at the chapters and class sessions that address Communicating, Learning and Growing, and Connecting.(http://whenyouwonder.org)
Communicating with Bill Isler
Each chapter in the book is filled with great stories about Fred Rogers, examples of episodes and songs that illuminate the theme, contemporary research, and contemporary examples in Pittsburgh of people and projects that manifest the theme today. I was quite fortunate to connect with Bill Isler for my Osher class to share his insights into Fred Rogers as a masterful communicator. Bill served as the CEO of Family Communications, the company that produced the Mister Rogers Neighborhood. He also became the first Executive Director for the Fred Rogers Center, a non-profit that promotes the work of Fred Rogers and contains the archives for much of Fred Roger’s work.
Before I introduce my guest each week I outline some of the themes from the book, When You Wonder, You’re Learning. Deep Listening and Loving Speech were two elements that were part of Fred Roger’s communications approach. According to a quotation from Thich Nhat Hanh in the book:
“When we listen to someone with the intention of helping that person suffer less, that is Deep Listening. When we listen with compassion, we don’t get caught in judgement.”
Bill Isler related a story in the book about Fred Rogers and how he listened and expressed his love with children as well as adults. “When he talked to children, he was always down on one knee. He always got down to eye level….” Fred never wanted to have kids or adults feel that they were inferior to him. He wanted everyone in his audience to feel loved. Moreover, Fred wanted his audience to know that he listened to them. This carried over to letters he received. He literally sent a personal reply to every person who wrote to him. In at least one situation he used a question from a parent’s letter to create a story episode. According to Bill a parent sent a letter and asked Fred for help toilet training her son. Fred used the opportunity to demonstrate on the TV show what toilet training meant and tackled the issue straight-on.
As part of his approach Fred Roger felt it was critical to talk about our feelings in an honest and direct way. Fred always said, “When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, less scary.”
One of the best examples of a contemporary example of Fred’s style of communications is found in the Reel Teens project in Pittsburgh. In this project high school students create videos that demonstrate Fred’s “Loving Speech” approach. They show empathy and concern for their subjects. They communicate well since they have a Purpose, just as every documentary that Fred created had a special reason behind it. In Chapter 3, Gregg and Ryan share the Reel Teens story about Kung Fu Joe, a local Pittsburgh character who would have likely made his way to Mister Rogers Neighborhood. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLdrzBouUb8&feature=youtu.be)
Bill explained that Fred was a “grateful receiver.” He had an amazing interest in listening to people’s stories. Moreover, he used his personal stories and experiences to create the tales and themes for Mister Rogers Neighborhood. It was never about “I.” Fred was always about “our” or “us” or we.”
One of most memorable moments on the Mister Rogers Neighborhood occurred when Jeff Erlanger, a young boy in a wheelchair, joined Fred for the song, “I Love You.” Bill Isler brought the story up-to-date telling the Osher class about a surprise visit by Jeff at the ceremony when Fred was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame. Fred, just as he always did, knelled down and just shared his love for Jeff after more than 25 years apart. The moment brought tears to people. It was just how Fred acted on stage or in real life. He shared his love for people through everything thing he communicated.
Bill also shared stories about the production of the documentary and the Tom Hanks film, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Fred was leery about anyone making a movie about him. Bill made sure that the documentary and feature length films were of high quality. In the case of the Tom Hanks film Bill related how Fred turned a project that was supposed to be just an article by Tom Junod into a major magazine cover story and subsequent film. Along the way Fred used his amazing communications talent to turn Tom Junod into a believer in the Mister Roger’s mystique. (https://time.com/5733017/a-beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood-true-story/)
Learning and Growing with Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski
While I had originally hoped to have Gregg and Ryan join me for Week 1 of my Osher class, it turned out quite well to have them join for Week 5. They used the opportunity to address questions about the origin of the book and reviewed some of the highlights in the previous chapters that were highlighted by my previous guest experts.
I started my mini-lecture by using the Driving Question that was the underlying element in When You Wonder, You’re Learning: In what ways were the teachings of Fred Rogers rooted in Learning Science?
Gregg and Ryan in their book highlight the importance of Striving for Fred Rogers. According to Fred, “Life is marked by failures and setbacks and slip ups as much as hard-won satisfactions…. We need to let Children understand that for us , as for them, life is made of striving more than attaining.” It’s not the final product that is often most important. It’s the process, the steps getting there. It’s not just being persistent, but learning from mistakes and failures.
According to Chapter 5 we need to avoid Toxic Anxiety, “If we want kids to stick with something, experts say, we need to take a different approach from the beginning – one that reduces anxiety.” I brought up the findings from Learning Science around Mastery Learning. We want our learners to demonstrate a pattern of success. That doesn’t mean necessarily 100% or even 90%. Sometimes we might make a mistake three times in a row and then “get it.” We demonstrate success two, three, maybe four times. We’ve mastered a concept or skill, but if we used an average we have failed.
Right in line with Fred’s Teachings is the work of Carol Dweck on Growth and Fixed Mindsets. (https://fs.blog/carol-dweck-mindset/) According to Carol Dweck, “Although people may differ… – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can grow and change through application and experience.”
In Chapter 5 Gregg and Ryan highlight the song, “You’ve Got to Do It” where Fred sings, “It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s the one way to grow. You’ve got to just do it. ” Here is a great example of Striving in order to Learn and Grow.
One of the great local examples of how Fred Roger’s Teachings carry on today is through Remake Learning Days. (https://remakelearningdays.org/) Gregg explained how this annual spring celebration now “billed as ‘the world’s largest open house for the future of teaching and learning” began. At first the Remake Learning Days was an effort in Allegheny County by schools, museums, libraries, after-school programs, and other learning places to showcase what kids could do with technology. Year by year the program grew and today every county in the state of Pennsylvania participates and kids, parents and community members from nineteen other states will join in the celebration of Learning and Growing from May 12-23, 2022.
While I could share my own personal stories, my guests really bring to light their personal connections to Fred Roger’s teachings. Ryan talked about his grandmother and a 1940s photo. His grandmother was the youngest of ten children and her mother did not speak English. She dreamed of becoming a hairdresser. One day she came to school wearing curls she had put in place. The teacher sent a note, “Get a look at Shirley Temple.” This created such anxiety for his grandmother that she never pursued her dream. Ryan’s story demonstrated a Fred Rogers approach where you need to share feelings in an honest and direct in order to learn and grow.
Gregg honed in on Mindsets by telling a story about his soccer coaching experience with his two daughters. He focused on winning and when the team lost their first two games he had to reset his mindset and think about what was needed in practice and the games so the girls enjoyed playing, not just winning. By taking on a Growth Mindset approach he made the game more fun and soon the team was on a winning streak.
Connecting with Larry Berger
For the final class I invited Larry Berger who started his broadcast career at the age of 17 and then at the age of 50 left an environmental engineering position to pursue full-time his passion working with young people and start SLB Productions, a 501c3 company. SLB Productions has gained local and international honors for its innovative approach working with young people using radio production and oral history. (https://slbradio.org/)
Larry and I agreed to focus on “Neighborhoods” for his session. Beginning with the Class Starter I had people think about what neighborhoods meant to them. I used an image of Sampsonia Way on the North Side of Pittsburgh to initiate the Chat Room conversation. People talked about physical elements like buildings as well as psychological needs and most importantly, people. I brought up how this alleyway has become a home for writers, poets, and other artists who come to Pittsburgh through the City of Asylum project. This was a great way to kick off the conversation about the Teachings of Fred Rogers for our last class.
For this class our Driving Question was: In what ways have the teachings of Fred Rogers addressed the needs of neighborhoods? Again Larry and I wanted the Osher class to think about “Connecting” through the Neighborhood lens.
In When You Wonder, You’re Learning there were a number of learning research projects that were highlighted that address the issue of Belonging and Feeling Connected: Spitz research with orphans and Harry Harlow’s research with rhesus monkeys. I also brought back into the conversation one of the key research projects that Gregg Behr and Ryan Rydzewski had highlighted in the previous week conducted by the University of Washington. Here’s a key finding from that research that was highlighted in the book: “Those parents and teachers who had been taught to build stronger relationships outperformed their peers on every measure of well being…”
In every Mister Rogers show, Fred Rogers used his puppets to address feelings. In this case it was feeling not connected or excluded. King Friday plays the role of Fred’s alter ego. He declares, “When I was a young prince, I was not very fine at playing games. So when it came time for people to choose their teams, nobody ever…[selected me].”
To introduce Larry and his work I focused on the theme of Empathy. In When You Wonder, You’re Learning, there’s a wonderful quotation from Larry as he talks about the students in his Youth Express project, “”By the time they put a finished product together, they’re thinking about their projects in ways they never had before. They’re full of so much empathy.”
Larry highlighted how all of his work with kids is built around three key principles that go directly back to Fred Rogers:
- Creating Safe Spaces
- Working with Trusted Adults
- Providing Opportunities to Grow
Larry shared an examples of of Youth Express projects for a local Pittsburgh High School and elementary programs. The process takes time. At first it’s very difficult for both the teachers and the kids, but by using the three principles everyone is successful. In the elementary example Larry and his SLB team were invited to work with 2nd grade teachers around the standard for Persuasive Writing. Larry stepped the class through a series of writing assignments and prompts that kept building on successful communication. In the first stage the young writers wrote a “Mini Bio.” They learned how to record their voices as they read their short personal tales. They moved along a series of steps that led to a Town hall meeting where they connected with their peers. At the final stage each learner had to create a Persuasive Editorial on a subject of personal interest. The process demonstrated the Teachings of Fred Rogers as a contemporary learning activity designed around Psychological Safety, Trusting Relationships, and Personal Growth.
Larry then added another element of research that he incorporates into his programs – Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. SLB Productions make sure that every dimension starting with Physiological needs (nutritious snacks and drinks) to Self Actualization (a final project with true agency expressed) is part of the process.
After sharing additional examples of successful student projects, Larry and I used the Zoom Breakout Rooms to put the class members into virtual neighborhoods where they used a “Quick Story” prompt about childhood memories to have a discussion with their peers. The Osher students loved the opportunity to share their personal stories. Sometimes one person’s story elicited ideas that the student had not thought about before. It was a great way to demonstrate the power of Connecting. As one Osher student shared in the post-course survey, “The activity in the breakout rooms was excellent.”
As we wrapped up the final session Larry shared one last student project that demonstrates how Fred Rogers’s Teachings are still alive today.
Even though I was already a teacher by the time Mister Rogers Neighborhood came on the air, I always felt that there was a part of me that belonged in that neighborhood. My Osher students left their impressions in a final survey of the class. Here a few of their thoughts:
What You Learned: “I learned about all of the things that are being done in Pittsburgh to foster creativity. I learned about the background of how Fred Rogers became Mr. Rogers. I learned that it is easier to be a better person by simply changing the mindset. I learned the importance of acknowledging children’s thoughts and feelings and allowing them to share in a safe environment.”
How you now Connect to the teachings of Fred Rogers: “At this time for sure, the need for his particular type of kindness, listening, wisdom really strikes a chord. I wish I had this course earlier in my life, as a Mother of 4 and a speech therapist – his quiet, calm, voice and slow cadence now make so much more sense to me now than it did when my young children watched the show …trying now to remind myself to model some of this with adults as well as children in my life now…”
What You’ll Do with What You Learned: “Share with others the resources mentioned throughout the course. Buy the book for a couple of people in my family circle.”