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"Mister Rogers" Reflects on Respect, Diversity, and the Classroom Neighborhood


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Update: Fred Rogers died this morning (February 27, 2003) after a brief battle with stomach cancer. Today, we honor "Mister Rogers" lasting contributions to American education and America's children by reposting this einterview he did last fall with Education World writer Cara Bafile. At this time of great sadness about the death of Rogers, the Mister Rogers Web site offers Helpful Hints for Parents -- a resource that provides tips for talking with children about the death of their television friend.


Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers, star of the PBS program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, poses with school children.
Photo by Walt Seng. Provided by Family Communications, Inc.
Fred Rogers -- sporting his trademark sweaters (some knitted by his mother) and worn sneakers -- has been most children's favorite "neighbor" since the television debut of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in 1968. Although now seen only in reruns, the long-running PBS program continues to delight young viewers with music, dance, make-believe, and more. Rogers, however, has moved on to other projects through Family Communications, Inc. (FCI), the non-profit organization he formed in 1971. A performer, composer, author, minister, father, and grandfather, Rogers calls himself simply "a man who cares deeply about children."

Fred Rogers has been involved with children's television for 45 years. For most of those years, he has been a constant and reassuring voice to America's children, helping them cope with war, assassination, violence, divorce, and other concepts too great for young minds to comprehend alone. Although retired from the "Neighborhood," the anniversary of September 11 brought Rogers back to the camera, as he recorded public service announcements for PBS in an attempt to head off confusion children might experience upon seeing replays of last year's attacks.

Rogers' desire to care for children has driven him to expand his company's offerings to include materials designed to encourage the healthy emotional growth of children and families. The materials include products to help childcare providers, early childhood educators, parents, and other caring adults teach children to deal effectively with their emotions.

Rogers, who brings to everything he does a wealth of study and experience in child development, recently took time to share with Education World his thoughts on how teachers can create a caring neighborhood in their classrooms.

Education World: What advice can you offer teachers who want to establish a warm and caring classroom environment for young children?

Fred Rogers: Do you remember your favorite teachers? They were probably the ones who wanted to learn your name; who had a warm smile; who made you feel that they were glad to be there to help you learn. No matter how old or young we are, we learn best from people who care about us. That relationship grows when teachers are friendly, respectful, and interested in us as unique human beings.

Of course, caring doesn't mean letting children do whatever they want to do. In fact, children need their teachers to be in charge of the classroom. They thrive in a structured atmosphere, in which teachers make appropriate and reasonable rules and follow through by enforcing those rules with kindness and firmness.

EW:In what ways can teachers promote peace and cooperation among students, especially as they get to know one another in a new class?

Rogers: An old Quaker adage says, "Attitudes are caught, not taught." The teacher sets the attitude of the classroom -- and that attitude is contagious. Children learn from their teacher's example, from the way the teacher respects each child and from the way the teacher expects children to treat one another. Children need to learn that they don't have to like everyone -- but they do have to be courteous to everyone.

EW: What kinds of activities can teachers use to encourage respect for diversity among children?

Rogers: When children learn more about one another, and when they know their teachers recognize and celebrate their differences, they are more likely to feel a sense of community in the classroom. Teachers foster mutual respect when they provide activities that encourage conversation, sharing, and interaction.

Here at Family Communications, Inc., we've developed a resource called Different and the Same to help teachers deal with diversity in early elementary classrooms. The project uses video as a medium for observation, discussion and sharing. A teacher's guide filled with diverse curricular activities, teacher-facilitated dialogue, and a suggested list of multi-cultural children's books accompanies the video. We hope the materials will help teachers feel more comfortable talking about diversity and working towards reducing prejudice in their classrooms and beyond.

EW: In today's turbulent times, what concerns might children have that teachers need to be aware of? How can teachers help children deal with their concerns?

Rogers: Children aren't empty vessels into which teachers simply pour facts. Children come to the classroom with feelings, concerns, anxieties, and joys. Many children today are at risk. Many come to school sad, angry, and deeply upset, having witnessed domestic violence or suffered some form of child abuse.

Life holds few easy answers, but one thing is sure -- it's through relationships that children grow best and learn best. In fact, most formal studies of at-risk children show that what most helps make them resilient is having someone who cares about them. For our most troubled children, the teacher probably is the only truly nurturing person in their lives.

Teachers give their students life-long lessons when they help them discover what they can do when they're going through hard times...things that won't hurt themselves or anyone else.

Children need to know that putting their feelings into words, whether by talking with a caring listener or by writing journals or poetry, really can help. They need to know that painting, drawing, listening to music, or playing an instrument also can help.

We all must find our own ways of coping with life's stresses. Helping children begin to do that will serve them their whole lives.

For more information about all of the educational materials published by Family Communications, Inc., see the organization's online Catalog or for more information phone 1-877-677-6437.

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