Understanding students can be quite a challenging task for any teacher. On one hand, how does a teacher grant the developing students the right amount of credit in their abilities to learn more advanced subjects and think critically? Another task is how do teachers encourage their students to learn about themselves as unique individuals? Based on my previous studies in early childhood education and how animation in children's shows can engage young viewers in new insights if well written, I feel that these are the two most important questions one would start asking when working with and taking time to understand children. I have mentioned in a previous post how children’s programming can cover such topics in an effective and creative manner. In this blog post, I will be reviewing and analyzing an episode of Arthur and Hey Arnold to answer the two questions I inquire at the start using the developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. The episodes I will be covering are Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble and New Teacher, starting with a synopsis of the episodes and where the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky play an important role.
In the Arthur episode, Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble, Arthur and his best friend, Buster are lamenting how hard the work their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them and their fellow classmates. They are both seen exiting the school with a pile of books and papers, which appears to make their homework nights extremely daunting. Breaking a fourth wall, (which often takes place at the start of each episode of Arthur), Arthur turns to the viewer, describing the mountain of homework Mr. Ratburn gives them. He adds as an example how Mr. Ratburn must always make everything into a learning experience, even something as simple as a field trip to the zoo. Buster adds that sometimes he wishes their teacher would just disappear after tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.
The episode proceeds with Mr. Ratburn needing to take some time off due to a sore throat, unable to carry on with the class for the remainder of the day. The school principal, Mr. Haney informs the students their teacher will be absent and during his time off, they will have a substitute teacher. The students are then left wondering who will be filling in for Mr. Ratburn. Later, Mr. Haney informs them that Mr. Ratburn’s sister, Rodentia Ratburn will cover for him, much to the children’s’ dismay in concern that she might be harder a teacher than Mr. Ratburn. The next day, Rodentia introduces herself to the students and it turns out that her teaching style is a far cry from that of her brother’s. The approach she takes is incredibly basic for a 3rd grade level. The subject matters and materials she provides the children is too easy and unchallenging, e.g., reciting the 1x’s table, mixing of colors and narrating in a high-pitched voice while utilizing a puppet. Inevitably, the children find their given tasks boring and look forward to Mr. Ratburn’s return.
When Mr. Ratburn gets back to work, his students celebrate and welcome him back. Without hesitation, Mr. Ratburn begins the lesson of the day, the episode ending with Arthur and Buster delighted by how challenging the assignment is.
This episode adds a new insight into the relationship between Nigel Ratburn and his students. At first, the 3rd class complains that the amount of homework they are given is too difficult compared to what other 3rd grade students from other classrooms are given, (which had been mentioned before in a few episodes prior). Arthur and his friends look at Mrs. Sweetwater’s students and envy how easy going she is on them. It only takes a substitute teacher who fails to grasp how truly capable of learning challenging concepts and subjects that they start to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s more challenging teaching style. The reason Mr. Ratburn appears to be so strict with the students regarding homework and their studies is because he gives students credit for their capabilities to learn more complex subjects, think critically and problem solve on their own. Those are the types of traits that demonstrate a tremendous sign of respect that a teacher has for their students. Rodentia Ratburn represents an example of a teacher lacking the skills to comprehend what type of curriculum is ideal for the 3rd grade level, which is the main contrast between her and her brother. To delve into more detail, here’s where Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory plays a role in this episode. Between the ages of 0-2 years, children learn to rely on their coordination senses via developing motor skills, which this stage is known as the Sensorimotor stage. The next stage of development is the Preoperational stage, which occurs between ages 2-7 years. During that time, children learn to think symbolically and expand their grammar to communication and describe concepts in full. They also rely on imagination as well as instinct despite their skills in abstract thought still being underdeveloped. Once the students are between the ages of 7-11 years old, the Concrete Operational stage involves thinking more critically and plausibly about concrete ideas as well as understanding in-depth conservation. Even so, the types of games children play together involve rules and problem solving. Last, but not least is the Formal Operations stage, which takes place at age 11 and onwards. By then, students can formulate abstract thought and think theoretically and hypothetically, building up on previous knowledge.
Given the ages of the main student characters in Arthur, eight to nine years old which places them in 3rd grade, their developmental level would be at the Concrete Operational stage. The way that their substitute teacher teaches and talks to the students falls into a strange mix between the later part of the Sensorimotor stage (age 2) and the Preoperational stage (up to 5 years), which is no surprise as the day goes on, the children start to feel disenchanted. Because these are subject matters they already know and understand, Mr. Ratburn’s class realize that the harder a challenge is, the more they can strengthen their skills and build up on previous ones. Perhaps the Brain’s remark “for goodness sake’s, we’re in 3rd grade, you know” to Rodentia Ratburn sums up the scenario best as well as his desire to run home to his computer in desperate need of a challenging activity.
The way that Lev Vygotsky’s theories play a role in this episode is how his theory of Zone of Proximal Development can be applied. To offer a belief overview of what the theory covers, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is represented in three circles ranking from large to medium to small. The largest circle represents what a child has yet to learn and struggles with doing on his/her own, which is outside the zone. The middle circle, which represents the zone itself, is where the instructors come in to help the child master the skill he/she is trying to learn. It covers what the child can do with help. The circle in the center of the previous ones, which is inside the zone, represents what the child already knows how to do on his/her own. As seen in Arthur's Substitute Teacher Trouble, the students already know all the basic material needed to progress in their skills, but find the more advanced material is too difficult. After Arthur and his classmates endure an entire day without challenging their current knowledge, they are delighted at the end when Mr. Ratburn assigns them advanced math problems and come to fully appreciate his teaching style. What is happening here is that when the students quietly proceed to work on the assignment, they are relying on what they already know. Although we don’t see how well the students perform on the assignment, this would be the time when they will know which areas they have the most hinderance and which areas highlight their forte. From there, it would be the teacher's job to pinpoint where the students need to go back and review upon grading their work, which we see many examples of Mr. Ratburn doing in other episodes.
In the episode of Hey Aronold, New Teacher, the students start their day with an announcement from Principal Wartz informing them that their teacher, Miss Slovak is retiring from teaching to pursue a career in golfing, which the students cheer. They are indifferent, however when they meet their new teacher, Robert Simmons, a good natured, charismatic, compassionate man who is excited to meet the class he will be teaching. Mr. Simmons is seen working with the students utilizing a unique teaching style in which he helps them embrace their own unique qualities. In addition to the curriculum, he even encourages the children to ask the “why” questions. This comes off as rather banal and trite at first, so the class begins to rebel in hopes of getting rid of Mr. Simmons. Once the revolt takes an emotional effect on Mr. Simmons, thus the students successfully eliminate him, the thoughtful and caring instructor is replaced by the ruthless and harsh Mr. Goose, formally known as Lieutenant Major Goose. As his former title implies, Mr. Goose’s teaching style is similar to that of drills that suit the army. It ends up taking a toll on the students’ wellbeing, making them realize how much Mr. Simmons genuinely cared and respected them as individuals. They remedy the situation by going over to Mr. Simmons’ house to apologize. Although he is skeptical at first, the students go out of their way to show they are truly remorseful. They even take the time to demonstrate their appreciation for him as a teacher and a person by taking the lessons he taught them so far and showing how he has helped them grow. Mr. Simmons is deeply moved by the students' display of kindness and wants to be their teacher again. Before Mr. Simmons officially returns, Arnold and his classmates challenge Mr. Goose with a bombardment of ‘why’ questions, causing the lieutenant intense anxiety and quitting the job. The episode ends with the entire class welcoming Mr. Simmons back and then spending a sunny afternoon on a field trip.
This episode of Hey Arnold shares some similarities to the episode of Arthur mentioned early on. Both Mr. Simmons and Mr. Ratburn have different teaching styles, yet both these characters are seen utilizing unique methods. What they also have in common is that they both encourage their students to think more critically than they normally would. Mr. Ratburn assigns tasks that advance his students' previous knowledge to the next level and Mr. Simmons encourages the 'why' questions, which are perhaps amongst the most important traits any teacher could have. At first, their students wish their situations were different because they do not see the benefits of the ways in which their teachers teach, but once they see the alternative, the latter encourages them to appreciate the former. Although Rodentia Ratburn and Mr. Goose are not the same personality wise, they both represent teaching methods that do a major disservice for child development, one being on the softer extreme of the spectrum and the other being on the rougher extreme.
The aspects in which Jean Piaget’s developmental theories can be applied to New Teacher from Hey Arnold would be to evaluate the third stage of cognitive development, Concrete Operational as brought up earlier. Because the main characters of Hey Arnold are around the same age as the ones from Arthur, Arthur’s class being in the third grade and Arnold’s class in the fourth, we see examples of where the students are put in positions where they cover concepts and apply them to concrete scenarios. At that age, aside from learning basic math as a foundation (academics), we see examples of how the children question their own thinking and evaluate their own ideas as well as understanding others. We also see that the characters from Hey Arnold learn how to deal with their everyday stress through critical thought and putting things in perspective. The reason Mr. Simmons’ teaching approaches surpass what an overtly strict teacher does is because the more anxiety inducing the learning environment becomes, the less the student is able to put things into perspective. Worse yet, the less the learning environment leaves little to no room for the student to examine their own thinking and that of others, the less critical their understanding becomes and thus their further development is stifled.
The way in which the theories of Lev Vygotsky can be highlighted in this episode is that the viewer sees that the students are already capable of thinking on a standard academic level. Before Mr. Simmons became Arnold and his classmates’ new teacher, the students already abide by the standard techniques taught by their previous teacher, Miss Slovak. After her departure, the role Mr. Simmons represents is one that genuinely respects the students’ capabilities as to how understanding themselves as individuals helps them academically and in life in general, that he goes out of his way to inspire and encourage them to reach their full potential. The circle outside the Zone of Proximal Development, (what the learner can’t do on his/her own), in this case would be that the students haven’t learned how to think more abstractly and outside the box, let alone ask themselves the ‘why’ questions. With Mr. Simmons’ assistance, the children learn how to develop this important and often sidelined skill. On a side note, Hey Arnold creator, Craig Bartlett stated in an interview why Miss Slovak was replaced. “She was too much of a caricature. That seemed a little bit too simple – it wasn’t smart enough. What if we put, instead, a great teacher who really cares about the students and is just full of passion?” Bottom-line is that Mr. Simmons is the type of character that best depicts how individual and critical thinking would be applied to Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the viewer sees examples as such when contrasting him to other teacher characters like Miss Slovak and Mr. Goose. Going back to Mr. Goose, we see he is too far to an extreme that he leave absolutely no room whatsoever for open discussion.
It’s seldom to see that many children’s programming cover a topic as what defines a good teacher who truly respects their students with regards to their capabilities and individuality. Even so, such qualities are hard to come by with real life teachers. The most important questions teachers might often ask themselves is are they giving the students enough credit for what they can do as independent thinkers and advance in their skill level and are they being respected and encouraged as individuals? Children’s programming such as Arthur (which is geared towards edutainment) and Hey Arnold have had writers on the shows who took the time to study the issues kids face and how they properly confront the situation through teamwork and problem solving. For this blog post, I just examined an episode from both these shows that best covered how a teacher demonstrated genuine respect for their students and describing how the child developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky play a role. In the episode of Arthur, Arthur’s Teacher Trouble, the students feel that the homework their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them is too difficult and stressful. At first, they don’t realize how his teaching style benefits them in contrast to their fellow third grades from the other classrooms. Upon enduring an entire day with the unchallenging and over simplistic, Rodentia Ratburn, the students begin to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s approaches and how it challenges their academic skills. The episode of Hey Arnold, New Teacher marks the introduction of Mr. Simmons, who has a unique way of teaching his students, which Arnold and his classmates fail to appreciate and understand how it advances their development. It took an overtly strict teacher for them to realize how being able to think critically and philosophically improves their well-being, a trait that their previous teacher lacked as well.
If more teachers take time to get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses in academics and in creative thinking, even so find ways to advocate for students to reach their full potential in both those areas, it will make a whole world of difference in a child's life. Students will garner more confidence in their capabilities and understanding themselves as individuals will even spark a greater desire to continue learning and growing.
Marc Brown, who is known primarily as the author of the Arthur children's books series, is a three-time Emmy award winner behind the PBS Kids TV series of the same name. Born and raised in Erie, Pennsylvania along with his three sisters, he grew up listening to his Grandma Thora's stories, which eventually inspired him to come up with and write his own stories as he got older. Aside from sparking his interest in writing, Thora also sparked his interest in drawing. Marc began using watercolors in high school after his teacher introduced him to the medium, which he continues to use in most of his illustrative works. Among his influences are Cubist artist Marc Chagall and fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak of the Where the Wild Things Are fame. Marc majored in graphic design at the Cleveland Institute of Art after receiving help from Grandma Thora. Since then, Marc Brown pursued children's books even while taking up other jobs before pursuing the career path officially.
To this day, Arthur continues to air, becoming the longest running children's animated series in the United States and the second longest running animated show behind The Simpsons. The television series made its debut on October 7th, 1996, two decades after the first Arthur book, Arthur's Nose was published. Both the books and the television series center around the everyday life and challenges of the titular character, who is an 8-year old anthropomorphic aardvark, his friends and family. The topics of the books deal with issues and challenges children face such as trying new things, first days of school, effort and success and working together with peers. In the television series, there are episodes that cover difficult issues families struggle with such as autism, cancer, dyslexia, Alzheimer's, death of a pet, Asperger's syndrome and coping after a devastating event.
I had the pleasure of meeting Marc Brown back in 2014 at a talk he was giving at the Boston Public Library. The lecture was a part of the Gateway to Reading Lowell Lecture Series. Marc discussed what inspired him to become a children's book author as well as his creative process, how the people he went to school with when he was in third grade and family members inspired the characters in the Arthur books, other books he was working on and other authors he worked with. When on the topic of how Arthur became a TV show, he cited the late Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) as his main influence. PBS wanted to make a television show based on the Arthur books as a means to encourage children to read. Marc recalls "what PBS wanted to do with Arthur was to make more kids want to read by watching television. I thought that was a wonderful use of both animation and TV. And the best role model was my buddy Fred Rogers, who I think used television in such helpful ways to kids and families. I miss him a lot." Marc then goes on to show the audience some clips from the animated series. "We did a lot of shows, things that you couldn't do in a picture book as well. Like a lot of families, including ours have dealt with the problem of Alzheimer's and Arthur's having some problems with his Grandpa." The first clip shown is from the episode, Grandpa Dave's Memory Album, featuring late comedian and actress Joan Rivers in a special guest appearance followed by another clip from the episode, The Great MacGrady, which dealt with the topic of cancer. Marc then goes on to show more clips from the animated series featuring other guest appearances including Larry King, Matt Damon, Neil Gaiman, Ming Tsai the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Fincke, Michelle Kwan, the late Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Frank Gehry, Yo-Yo and of course, Fred Rogers. After the montage of clips, Marc talks about his experiences meeting four presidents after writing the book, Arthur Meets the President and shares some fun and humorous anecdotes from his travels. He then talks about a book he illustrated, titled Wild About Books, written by fellow children's book author, Judy Sierra. The writing style in Wild About Books pays homage to Dr. Seuss, who is known for famous titles such as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax. Marc shows the audience his illustrations as he narrates the book and concludes the lecture by saying "if I ran the zoo, all the teachers would make more money than movie stars because what they do is a lot more important. Think about that".
After the lecture, there is the question time taking place, starting with the kids and then the rest of the audience. When my turn comes up, (timestamp 48:16), I ask about how does the team go about the difficult topics covered in the show. Marc's response goes as follows:
"Well, I'm glad that you are interested in that because...it's kind of a detail that a lot of people don't know about. Because we deal with so many issues that are difficult, most people don't want to deal with those [topics] with kids. We have a wonderful advisory group and we go to people who are specialists in those fields. We talked with a lot of people who know about cancer and they know about families..., dealing with that and how to be helpful, what we should put in the show, what we shouldn't put in, what's age-appropriate. So it's...our advisors who really helped us a lot and as I was saying very quickly when I showed you that little reel about our guest stars, Matt Damon's mom who teaches at Lesley is one of our advisors and she's really good as they all are. And we have great young writers! They...will get together once a year and we'll make a list of things that might make good show shows and...one day I said 'desk wars'! And they wrote a whole story about kids and their desks and classroom and the wars that they were having with... each other...or head lice! Who's going to deal with head lice? We are!"
The next question is from a little girl who asks if any of his books have been adapted in braille because her mother is blind, to which Marc replies that "there are quite a few Arthur books that are in Braille. I was working directly with the Perkins School". At the 52:49 timestamp, Kathy Brodsky, a clinical social worker who also writes children's books herself comments on the work Marc and his wife, Laurene Krasny Brown did on Dinosaurs Divorce: A Guide for Changing Families and When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, commenting that she has used the books "for people of all different ages and they've been terrific". Marc turns everyone's attention towards Laurene for a round of applause and describes how she went about writing those stories. "Laurene worked at...Harvard with the brilliant Howard Gardner for many years in project zero and did a lot of research of children and media. And she's so good at taking those hard issues and...getting the right questions for families to talk about". The last question is from a little boy, who asks Marc what inspired him to make Arthur into a TV show to which he responds "well, like I said, I wanted kids to read and I wanted kids to go to the library and pick out more books. And Arthur is all about reading... [W]hen he has difficult things in his life, one of the first things he does is go to the library to try to learn about it". After Marc thanks everyone for coming and supporting his work, there is also a book signing taking place.
I purchased a copy of In New York at the book signing. When I get to Marc's table, I briefly introduce myself and tell him what I'm studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (animation at the time). I then expressed my interest in writing and illustrating my own original stories and characters, so I asked his advice for aspiring writers. Marc's response was very simple: just keep writing and exploring. You just need to find what is inspiring to you and keep practicing the skills. If you have a great idea you want to write about and it's important to you, keep working on developing the story and character you've been working on.
Of all the advice I received that year in regards to getting started with creative ideas, this was one of the strongest and it stuck with me ever since. Sometimes it's easy to get so caught up in the little details about how people get into writing a book (or any other form of media for that matter), but what they often forget that it's the craft that goes into writing and illustrating the final product people value most. The time and effort put into a project and the quality of writing is what resonates with your audience in the end. If you can write good, enriching stories and characters that resonate with the reader, you are on the right path. In the case of writing children's books, it's important to learn about your age group, what your topic is, do the research, seek good help and information from others who specialize in the topic to decipher what is an age appropriate way to tell the story, develop the idea and most of all, you will never stop learning.
Ever (re)discovered new facts about any art form or part of pop culture that you thought you knew before and realized there might be more to the story than what meets the eye? The Blog section debunks common expectations and assumptions in the art world.