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February 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 5

One to Grow On / Welcome to the Neighborhood

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I'm an English teacher, prone to a fondness for metaphors. It strikes me that there's a simple metaphor for how teachers—in all grades and in every kind of school or district—can create a culture that supports learning in both schools and classrooms. Treat those you work with—especially the children—as if you were Fred Rogers, host of the long-running (1966–2001) children's television series Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
For those less familiar, this live-action show featured Fred Rogers—in his TV studio "living room"—talking naturally into the camera as if addressing viewers directly. Each episode included original songs; discussion about life-related topics or short interviews (with everyone from kids with serious disabilities to musician Wynton Marsalis); and a segment about puppet characters filmed in a set depicting "the Neighborhood of Make-Believe." Mr. Rogers' neighborhood was a simple place—and it included everything that's fundamental to teaching and learning and always has been.
Here are six lessons I draw from Mr. Rogers about creating a place that invites learners and catalyzes learning.

Want to Be Present—And Show It

At the start of each episode, Mr. Rogers took off his coat and dress shoes as he entered his house and put on a comfortable sweater and sneakers. It was as if he were saying to those who entered the neighborhood with him, "This is where I want to be. I'm comfortable here. I'm at home and ready to welcome you." He seemed to understand that kids need an adult who is there for them—not there to execute a lesson plan (although that will follow) or just to do a job, but there because it feels right. Because he was at home in his "classroom," so were the young people who joined Mr. Rogers there decade after decade.

Value What Each Person Brings

"There's only one person in the whole world like you," Mr. Rogers sang to the kids in the neighborhood, noting that each individual person makes a community special. The neighborhood he portrayed was a sanctuary—a place where it's good to be "you" no matter your background, shape, or color. There were no inconvenient neighbors, no sense of winners and losers. Rather, he communicated to everyone that "we" are better because of "you."
Likewise, the teacher who values each student's contributions to the classroom will find a way to elicit those strengths to the benefit of the group—and to that individual. When someone sees the best in you, you are more likely to deliver. When someone sees the best in everyone in a group, that group is more likely to work as a team.

Be Trustworthy

Mr. Rogers talked to kids as if they were important, as if their ideas mattered to him. His manner was real, not a façade he wore in the presence of young people. He was patient. He would laugh with his neighbors, be sad with them, and sing with them. The reassuring routines Mr. Rogers provided for viewers sent a message that he would make today better, and he would be back tomorrow.

Make the Day Interesting and Discuss Real Issues

Mr. Rogers taught his charges about intriguing things—or perhaps he just knew how to find wonder in everyday things. The show implied that the world had an endless supply of worthy things to explore and that learning helps people understand the world—the part nearby and the parts we haven't seen.
Mr. Rogers also helped kids grapple with difficult issues. When many people said subjects like death, war, and hatred didn't belong in kids' fare, he listened to the kids, not to the voices beyond the neighborhood. In his child-friendly monologues, Fred Rogers helped children deal with such issues as divorce, the loss of pets, or competition, refusing to ignore what kids could not. This frankness complimented young children—dignified them—by trusting them to work through difficulties and empowering them to face down rather than turn away from the hard edges of life.

Teach Social-Emotional Skills

Mr. Rogers didn't assume kids had the emotional skills they needed for success. Through his monologues and modeling, he taught children to listen and to work together—to delay gratification and to be respectful, patient, and kind. He discussed what it meant to be disciplined, to use words rather than fists, and to practice. Children, Mr. Rogers understood, want to succeed—and they most often will once they know how.

Take the Trolley to Make-Believe

There was a lot of "curriculum" in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—topics to explore, skills to master, complexities to dissect, problems to solve. But there was always time to visit the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
Mr. Rogers communicated to children the difference between reality and fantasy; the segment with puppets took place on a separate area of the set, and he would follow a miniature trolley into this area when it was time for the switch. But he also showed children that imagining, pretending, wondering, and supposing can make reality better even as they provide a way to transcend it for a while. He taught kids that the seeds of creativity exist in each of us.
These lessons aren't flashy, just durable and effective—like Mr. Rogers himself.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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