Thursday, November 13, 2008

Using Educational TV in your Home School

This was originally posted here on July 11, 2006.

There are many resources available to home educators on educational TV. From PBS flagship station WNET Channel 13 to the myriad small stations located around the country, quality programming is alive and well on PBS, and the Discovery family of channels - Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, Animal Planet and others. You can find information on the web sites of these networks what shows are available, when they begin for the new school year, when they can be taped, and what the fair use regulations are for each show.

I have been using educational TV in my home school since the very beginning. "Science Rules!" Bill Nye the Science Guy was THE educational show to watch when my kids were small. Fast paced, funny, and highly informative, Bill Nye taught me more about science than I learned in school, and helped me teach science to my own kids as a home schooling mom.

OK, I confess that part of my continuing attraction to "Bill Nye The Science Guy" is a certain nostalgia for simpler times when my children were small. I probably have over 60 episodes on VHS that I drag out and watch even now with my son, who is now high school age. While I am enjoying the memories, he enjoys understanding the jokes now that he did not understand in elementary school, and especially the reworking of classic songs to fit the science topic du jour - songs that he did not know in their original versions at the time. His favorite memory, though, is the voiceovers of announcer Pat Cashman, whose offbeat (and usually hilarious) comments were sometimes the most memorable feature of a particular episode.

That sounds like it has nothing to do with whether Bill Nye delivered good science content, but it is actually the secret of this show which had a successful run from 1993-2002. In the same way that "Sesame Street" provided some humor for parents that included clever send-ups of shows that the children didn't really understand, Bill Nye often drew humor out of fragments of older shows and songs that the kids probably didn't appreciate nearly as much as their parents or teachers. His parodies of old commercials, and clever use of what appeared to be old newsreel films was often a springboard for me to share something about my own childhood with my kids when they would ask me "what that was supposed to be about?" The music videos were always amazing in the way they related the song to the topic, even down to using vocabulary that mimicked the rhythm and rhymes of the original song.

And lest it seem that the only good thing about this show was the off-topic humor - nothing was EVER really off-topic on this show. Every "commercial", every song, every experiment, every random moment (Naked! AAAAAAHHH!! Mole Rat!) was somehow related to the topic. It was like a unit study on steroids, utilizing the very best of humor, music, action, hands-on experiments, "historical footage", technology and repitition of key phrases to cement the material in your mind.

When my daughter was in the 5th grade, my mother became gravely ill and I packed up the kids and went across the country to take care of her. During that three month period, and through the grief of her subsequent passing, not to mention the stress of packing up a lifetime of memories and putting my childhood home up for sale, I was in no condition to home school effectively. In my opinion, the year was basically a waste, and I was sure that we would have to spend the better part of the following school year making up for what we missed. But that summer, when it was time for my daughter's annual assesment via the California Test of Basic Skills, she scored far above grade level. In fact, she scored in the 99th percentile in science, having done little more than read a few library books and watch scores of daily episodes of Bill Nye and "The Magic School Bus".

Of course, for those who are concerned about evolutionary content, Bill Nye flunks. Even the intro depicts the fish crawling up on land and morphing through various-sapiens periods to become Bill himself.

Bill Nye made science fun for all ages, but was a kinder, gentler show than "Brainiac", which has a lot of the same academic strengths, but has a lot of very inappropriate humor for little children. In fact, Braniac does not meet any of the criteria found in Phillipians 4:8 - "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." It would be nice to see a kid's show again that was smart and funny without relying on that sort of shocking, in-your-face humor that characterizes the style of today's young writers.

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