Teachers on TV? US schools try creative strategy to narrow digital divide

US educators and local television stations have teamed up to help teachers engage children who are stuck in the doldrums of distance learning.
US educators and local television stations have teamed up to help teachers engage children who are stuck in the doldrums of distance learning.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Nearly every weekday morning, Valentin Vivar curls up in bed next to his older sister, Araceli, and switches on one of his favourite television shows.

The hour-long programme, "Let's Learn NYC!", isn't typical children's fare. Valentin, 5, watches as educators from New York City public schools teach math and science, sing songs and take viewers on virtual field trips to botanical gardens and dance performances. Araceli, 17, is there to help out.

After the coronavirus pandemic shut down their schools in March, the siblings attended virtual classes from their apartment in Queens on Araceli's iPhone. Their parents could not afford another device, and their class attendance was sporadic because sometimes both had school at the same time.

Valentin, who needed speech therapy, was missing out on conversations with classmates, and he was struggling to pronounce words.

Then a teacher told them about the television programme, and Valentin was hooked. He sounded out letters and words and formed strong bonds with the teachers he saw on screen.

Now, Valentin "wants to read books by himself, and he's writing new words," Araceli said. "I really like to see him learn and grow."

Around the country, educators and local television stations have teamed up to help teachers make their broadcast debuts and engage children who are stuck in the doldrums of distance learning.

The idea - in some ways a throwback to the early days of public television - has supplemented online lessons for some families, and serves a more critical role: reaching students who, without reliable Internet access or a laptop at home, have been left behind.

In some places, the programmes air on weekends or after school. Elsewhere, districts have scheduled time to watch it during the school day. In New York, the programme airs every weekday on a public television channel, part of a network of PBS stations working with school districts.

Fox stations in several cities are airing teachers' lessons as well, thanks to Ms Melinda Spaulding Chevalier, a Houston resident and former TV news anchor who thought of the concept in March. She pitched a daily programme featuring teachers to her old boss, Mr D'Artagnan Bebel, the general manager of Houston's Fox station. He was in.

Less than two weeks later, local educators were on the air, teaching condensed lessons for an hour.

The concept quickly spread to Fox stations in Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, all of which joined with local school districts or teacher unions to put teachers on television. (The initiative ended in Houston and Washington after the spring but is still airing every weekday in San Francisco and on Saturdays in Chicago.)

In Houston, an average of 37,000 people watched the programme each time it aired in the spring, and about 2,200 people were watching the San Francisco version each day this fall, the TV stations said.

"We Still Teach," the Chicago version of the programme, which began in May, reaches 50,000 households in the area each weekend, according to Nielsen.

"We're not solving the digital divide, but from my experience with the personal connection of coming into a viewer's kitchen or living room, I felt this could be a more immediate way to help bridge the gap," Ms Spaulding Chevalier said. "We're letting them know they haven't been forgotten."

The plan was embraced by hundreds of educators who agreed to set up tripods in their living rooms, assemble makeshift props, send in footage and make their broadcast debuts. Some of their content is aimed at younger children, and other segments target high school ages.

Mr Erik Young, a high school social studies teacher in Chicago, said he had jumped at the chance to provide extra help to students stuck at home.

"It was needed for lots of us," he said. "In addition to us missing our students and our school family, you really do miss the camaraderie."

Mr Young filmed a series of social studies quiz shows and cheesy history poetry in his basement on his daughter's iPhone, starting over whenever he stumbled over a line. His efforts epitomised what the show's creators consider one of the programme's most endearing characteristics - a grassroots, rough-around-the-edges quality.

"This is what we do - creating something out of nothing is quintessentially what it feels like to be a Chicago Public Schools educator," said Ms Stacy Davis Gates, the vice-president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

The Fox stations are airing the educational programme for free, without requiring districts to pay for airtime and without running commercials. Future Chicago broadcasts are dependent on whether the creators continue producing it.

Educators say the programme has helped children form deep connections with the teachers they see on screen - a classroom type of relationship that is tough to reproduce through remote learning.

"There are no frustrating tech disruptions," Ms Spaulding Chevalier said, explaining why children are often more drawn to the teachers on TV than on a computer screen. "Students are able to focus on the lesson, on a larger screen, and with a medium that's comfortable."

In San Francisco, Ms Latoya Pitcher's 4-year-old son, Levi, is a devoted fan of the programme, and loves to sing its daily goodbye song along with the school district's superintendent, Mr Vincent Matthews.

The one time Ms Pitcher forgot to turn on the programme, she said, Levi asked: "Mommy, what happened to my friend?" "They have Dora and 'Blues Clues' and all that, but this is people," Ms Pitcher said. "That's what they lost with shelter-in-place: seeing people every day."

Public television stations have worked out similar partnerships with educators in at least 15 states, according to America's Public Television Stations, a non-profit organisation that coordinates with local stations.

In New York, fall education has fluctuated between remote and in person, but the Vivar siblings have remained at home because of concerns about the coronavirus. Valentin, a kindergartner, got an iPad from the school district in September, so he can attend remote classes, but he still watches the TV programme.

Araceli, a high school senior, has struggled to keep up with assignments and college applications while also ensuring her brother is getting an education. When Valentin is watching the television programme, she said, she can focus on her studies and know that he is being taken care of.

"Whenever he sees the programme, he gets happy," Araceli said. "It's good for him to know that there's another teacher in the TV for him."