Higglytown Heroes – Real Heroes for our time

Overview of the show: Higglytown Heroes is about the adventures of 4 kids, Eubie, Wayne, Twinkle, and Kip, as well as their pet squirrel Fran. Higglytown Heroes demonstrates to viewers the roles of everyday heroes in life – firefighters, police, doctors, dentists etc – all people who have a positive impact on nearly everyone.

The show is designed around the use of animated matroyshka dolls – a unique artistic style that sets Higglytown Heroes apart from other children’s shows. The plots are simplistic but enjoyable; most involve the four children happening across an incident in town and finding out about how it gets solved and who solves it.

Primary and repeated themes are of cooperation and a curiosity about the world – these short episodes are a positive choice for toddlers.


The Magic Schoolbus – A Reason to Stay Home

Age Levels Targeted:

5-12

Background:
The Magic Schoolbus is an animation version of a successful series of books. I actually discovered the books first back in my days managing a second hand bookstore. One of the advantages of working in a bookstore is that you have first shot at all the new merchandise as it comes in (of course one could also call this a disadvantage as you can find yourself spending your salary in a hurry). In the case of the Magic Schoolbus books I literally had to grab myself any ones I didn’t have yet before putting them on the shelves because parents would snatch them the moment they went on. While the books are excellent, it seems to me that the animated series actually improved upon the books, covering a lot more ground in greater detail than the books while leaving it just as child friendly.

Overview of the show:

The series is based on a very unusual third grade class at Walkerville Elementary school. The students themselves are a perfectly ordinary all-American class such as you might find anywhere in the US. The student body is a cross section of religions, races and colors with a range of scientific knowledge. What’s so unusual about this class is the one who conducts it: Ms. Frizzle.

Ms. Frizzle is the science teacher we all wish we’d had in school for pretty much any subject. While she may often dress and act strangely it’s regarded as being delightfully eccentric rather than laughable. Because what Ms. Frizzle has is a school bus. This isn’t any ordinary bus. The bus is magic and can shrink, grow, change form and do all sorts of other things as necessary to facilitate Ms. Frizzle’s in depth field trips.

The series action all centers on Ms. Frizzle’s field trips. These are hardly state board of education approved or the kind of trips you or I had in school. Ms. Frizzle sees every question her students ask as ‘inspiration for investigation’ (ok I’m not sure she ever uses that actual line but with her tendency to use rhyme exclamations it’s the kind of thing she would say and with the sheer number of times I’ve watched it with my kids just thinking of her has obviously taken its toll on my speech). She challenges the kids by literally bringing them into the process or situation they’ve asked about. Thus they learn about the planets by having the bus become a spaceship and taking a tour of our solar system.



They learn about how honey is made by becoming bees and saving a hive and learn about heat because without it they’ll freeze in the arctic.

The series is highly entertaining as a kid’s science series. However while it is aimed at the 5-12 age bracket, it can be of valuable use for all ages. I’ve heard of it being used in high school and even college and I learn things from it as an adult. The scientific information it imparts is solid without factual mistakes or ‘dumbing down for the kids’ sake’. Kids interested in understanding how the world works will adore this show. My kids are always asking me to get them more. This is an ideal show to get your kid started on understanding their universe.

The Main Characters:
The Bus
Yes, the bus, though it never speaks is a character on the show. It has its own personality and communicates with Ms. Frizzle. It’s not precisely anthropomorphized most of the time but it does often seem to be petlike. In one episode it actually becomes a bear and goes off in the city foraging for food. It is capable of becoming any type of craft necessary as well as some things that have no relation to any kind of machine.
Valerie Frizzle
‘The Frizz’, Walkerville elementary’s star teacher is the teacher we all wish we’d had in school. Quirky and eccentric with her red hair and outrageous outfits, she makes frontal lessons seem an affront. She’s always taking her students on field trips to go investigate phenomena that have arisen in daily life so that, for example, when Arnold wants to know why his hot cocoa has gone cold she takes the class to the arctic to learn about heat and cold and when Ralphie gets sick she takes the class for a field trip inside Ralphie’s body to learn about how the body defends against sickness.
Voiced by veteran actress Lily Tomlin, Ms. Frizzle’s origins are maintained as a teasing secret throughout the series. We do have hints dropped about her past careers here and there such as finding out that she used to work in recycling and that she toured with her own band for awhile. We also learn about her family as she’s regularly quoting them. In one episode we even find out that she had an ancestor pirate who used to take people on field trips on his magic galleon. But she’s clearly not in her first year at Walkerville elementary as we learn when a student from an older grade says ‘she took us on that trip last year’.
Liz
Liz is the class mascot, pet and at the same time Ms. Frizzle’s assistant. She goes on many of the class trips with them and often drives the bus herself and is on occasion left by Ms. Frizzle as the substitute teacher. In one episode she is actually the star as the children learn about lizards.
Outside of that episode Liz doesn’t add much educational value to the series but does provide endearing comic relief which keeps kids coming back (and thus exposing them to the rest of the show) so her value may be more than meets the eye.
Dorothy Ann
Dorothy Ann, whose last name we never learn during the series, is the class brain and resident bookworm. She’s always doing research on any subject that comes up and is often the catalyst for Ms. Frizzles field trips either because she can’t find the necessary information or because the information she finds seems implausible or at odds with someone else’s (usually Carlos’ or Ralphie’s) claim. At this point, Ms. Frizzle tends to decide that the class to discover the truth for themselves. While noone discounts the importance of book learning, the series makes it clear that books can often take you only so far and that books alone without your own experience won’t give you the whole picture. Dorothy Ann finally realizes this for herself in the episode “The Magic School Bus Blows its Top” where she loses her schoolbooks but then is awakened to all the facts she’s managing to learn through experience when she doesn’t use her books as a crutch.



Arnold while often the one whose curiosity is the cause of field trips (such as the trip to the arctic inspired by his dismay over where the heat from his no longer hot cocoa’s gone) is the one member of the class seemingly not too keen on the trips. Yet despite this, he’s clearly happy to be in the class and proud of having gone on the trips after the fact as is clear from the bragging about it he’s clearly been doing about it to his cousin Janet that she reveals to us in the Lost in Space episode. While Arnold’s Judaism is generally not a huge issue in the show it does play a part in the holiday special episode when the class decide to give up seeing the Nutcracker Suite showing they’d planned on attending in order to be with Arnold on the first night of Hanuka.
Phoebe Terese
Phoebe’s rolein the show is to keep reminding us how different Walkerville elementary in general and Ms. Frizzle’s class in particular is from what one would expect at most schools. Throughout the series whenever anything incredible happens Phoebe always notes that ‘in my old school we weren’t allowed to…’ anything from going inside a chicken’s egg to turning into salmon.
Phoebe is an exceptionally shy soul as we discover when she’s given the starring role of the class play in the ‘gets planted episode

Ralphie Tennelli
Ralphie is the class jock which is emphasized by the baseball cap he wears and his constant references to sports. In class he mostly tends to daydream about such things as hitting the winning homerun but he enjoys the field trips as much as anyone else, especially in the episode where the class learns about friction while trying to play baseball in a world in which there is none.

Carlos Ramon
Carlos is the class clown who always has a groaner of a pun or joke for any situation. His corny jokes are always sure to elicit a “Car-los!” from his groaning classmates. We discover in the “going batty episode that he gets this from his father whose similar jokes elicit a “Mr. Ramon!” from his fellow parents. Carlos serves as an antithesis of Dorothy Anne, preferring to use his hands, mind and intuition to come to conclusions as opposed to her research style.
Wanda Li
If Carlos is the antithesis to Dorothy Anne, Wanda plays a similar role to Arnold. The class’ spunky Chinese tomboy is always gung-ho to seek out and make new discoveries regardless of the risks. Wanda’s an interesting combination of soft and hard, loving the ballet and caring about her friends on the one hand, while engaging them in debate and challenging them not to be afraid on the other hand.
Keesha Franklin
Keesha is the sarcastic class skeptic and plays the foil to Ralphie who tends to have his head in the clouds.
Tim
The class artist, Tim can usually be found sketching away at something (usually a picture of one of his classmates engaged in the class’ adventures. He’s a quiet boy who rarely plays a central role of any kind in the series. The one exception to this is the episode in which the class helps him deliver honey from his grandfather’s honeybee farm.

Janet Perlstein

I hesitated as to whether or not to include Janice as a major character. She’s not really a member of Ms. Frizzle’s class and only appears in a limited number of episodes. However she tends to be a major character whenever she is in an episode and she’s mentioned so often even when not there that I figured I’d include her.

Academic skills the show teaches:

The show encourages scientific and analytical thinking, stimulates curiosity and encourages innovative thinking. Although Ms. Frizzle clearly always has the answers to the problems herself, she often lets the kids work their own way out of the situations the bus has landed them in. Thus for example in the episode The Magic Schoolbus gets Planted where Phoebe is turned into a plant and must reason through the process of plant growth in order to grow into a beanstalk on time to do the school play proud


Social skills the show teaches:

The show encourages cooperation among peers. It fosters respect for each others ideas and being willing to consider that one’s own preconceived notions may be wrong or flawed. And of course it encourages kids to consider that their teachers may have a wealth of knowledge and interesting things to teach them which in these days of almost automatic disrespect for teachers is a valuable lesson unto itself.

My Kids Perspective

My kids have all adored this show. Even my daughter, whose been enjoying it in kindergarten and is a real science buff (this is a child who in the 3rd grade created a 41 slide powerpoint presentation on the periodic table on her own initiative and delivered it to her class) still enjoys the show as she approaches her teens and my 3 year old is mesmerized by it as well though he doesn’t really understand what’s going on yet (just enough to say he wants the ‘magic school BUS’ emphasis on last word his). They also enjoy the books of the magic schoolbus which parallel the various episodes so that one could say it inspires reading as well.

Site Review
The Magic Schoolbus is one of the best shows out there for introducing kids to science. It is very in step with a major philosophy of this site which is that even within the school framework children learn best through seeing and experiencing the subject matter that needs to be absorbed. Ms. Frizzle is a teacher who clearly understands this.

One of the show’s major characters, Arnold, is probably best known for his line “I should have stayed home today.” As a kid I remember that there were educational shows, such as The Magic Garden, that I felt were worth staying home for and at times I’d even fake sickness to watch them that were worth staying home for to the extent that I even once skipped a scheduled morning school trip to an ice cream factory in order to have a chance to be home in the early afternoon and watch the show (ok so maybe I wasn’t completely your typical kid).  The Magic Schoolbus is just such a show. Hopefully your kids love of learning will encourage them to want to spend time in school rather than staying at home watching TV. Of course you could have the best of all worlds by just buying the shows. But if your kids are at home for whatever reason this is the kind of show you want them to be watching.

Anecdotal: in my daughter’s kindergarten, part of the birthday party festivities required the birthday child and their parent to provide an activity for the kids. Most of the kids would do some simple activity like reading a story or makinga quiz about the child. Not my daughter! She decided she wanted to have everyone perform the volcano experiment based on the episode the Magic schoolbus blows its top. So the kids all got cups of baking soda and materials to pour into it to try and find what would and what wouldn’t cause an explosive chemical reaction allowing them to blow up a balloon.

Similar shows: Beakman’s World, Bill Nye the Science Guy, Sid the Science Kid, Cyberchase, Mister Wizard

Liberty’s Kids – A Revolutionary Concept

Age Levels targeted: 7-15

Background
Liberty’s Kids is a PBS kids show that originally ran in the 2002-3 season before being replaced by Cyberchase, the math program I reviewed awhile back. It was later run in syndication in various places.

Liberty’s Kids tells the story of America’s birth as a nation through the eyes of three young reporters who work for Benjamin Franklin in his newspaper business. In this respect it’s reminiscent of the old Peanuts series This is America, Charlie Brown, the 1960s series The Time Tunnel, and even the Warner Brothers series Histeria!, all of which I intend to review in the future.

An animated series, Liberty’s kids features numerous celebrity voices led by Walter Cronkite as Benjamin Franklin. Other notable actors who lent their voices to the characters of the series include Billy Crystal, Ben Stiller, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone.

There were plans in the works at one point for a followup series on the US civil war but as of this time those plans have yet to come to fruition, which is a shame as its handling of the Revolutionary war period is so well done.

Overview of the show

From the Boston tea party, at which the first rebel blow is struck by colonists dressed as Native Americans, the series follows the events of the revolution, constantly placing our heroes at the heart of the action. As reporters for Franklin’s newspaper, they try to objectively report what they’re seeing and learning though often struggling with their own personal subjectivity and previously held assumptions.

The characters are constantly coming in contact with famous figures of the revolution at a time when they’re engaged in playing an integral part in the events of the struggle against England.

The Main Characters

Sarah Phillips
Sarah is a kindly but opinionated young lady of fifteen years of age who travels by herself to America from England in 1773 just as the events that will develop into the revolutionary war are beginning to unfold. She has come to search for her father, a British officer who was last said to be in the Ohio area.
Sarah is hosted by her mother’s good friend, the already famous inventor and writer Dr. Benjamin Franklin. With a potential war looming between her mother country and America Sarah decides to go to work for Dr. Franklin’s newspaper in order to balance out the reporting she feels is too one sided in favor of the Americans. Coming from an upper class English social background Sarah begins the series as a staunch loyalist, faithful to king and country. However as the series progresses and Sarah becomes more acclimatized to her surroundings she undergoes a reevaluation of her opinions and realizes that not everything King George does is right and the colonists aren’t always wrong, eventually adopting the revolution as her own cause and America as the place where her future lies, as we can see below in this clip from the episoide ‘The Great Galvez’

Sarah, it is suggested throughout the series has a developing relationship with James. At first they are constantly at loggerheads; the faithful loyalist and the hotheaded patriot. But as Sarah falls for America so she appears to gain affection for James who stands for a belief in a independent America. Ultimately, Sarah’s whole family ends up in America as Sarah completes her metamorphosis from English monarchist to independent Republican.

James Hiller
James Hiller is an orphan boy that Dr. Franklin has apprenticed to himself in the print shop. James is a fierce believer in the colonies campaign to gain their independence and this tends to inform his writing, making for a highly subjective point of view. This is the case to such a great extent that Sarah decides to stay on at the print shop as a reporter primarily for the sake of balancing out James subjectivity.

James attempts at all times to be the leader, the ‘man of the group’, displaying a protectiveness of the younger Henri and of Sarah who despite being older is a woman at an age before women’s rights have come into mode. It’s shown throughout the series that he bears a certain romantic fondness for Sarah which is likely returned beneath their external philosophical squabbling about the war.

In the course of his experiences reporting for Dr. Franklin, James is forced to deal with facts about the revolutionary side that aren’t always to his taste. Presented with certain truths he, like Sarah, learns to question and reevaluate his initial assumptions. While he never loses his patriotism, he does become aware of harsh realities that patriotism brings with it such as the tendency of some people to feign patriotism as an excuse to commit evil indiscriminately. By the time the series ends, James has plans to start his own newspaper which will carry an objective view of events without being blinded by overconfident zeal.

Henri LeFevbre

Henri is the young sidekick of the group, a figure greatly reminiscent of Moki, the nomad sidekick in Hanna Barbera’s Children’s Bible series.  Henri left France for the colonies with his parents but they died on the trip over and Henri was exploited by the captain of the ship he traveled in who overworked the boy until Moses and James rescued him, sneaking him off the ship and hiding him at Dr. Franklin’s place where he became a worker in the print shop. Although he already speaks French, Dr. Franklin insisted that he learn to read, speak and write in both his native tongue and English. Despite this, Henri’s greatest desire throughout the series is for a family of his own to replace his deceased parents. He bonds with his friends at the print shop and one could certainly argue that they establish a family unit with him as the little brother. Ultimately, he becomes the ward of the Marquis de Lafayette, France’s liaison to the Continental Army and therefore perhaps the most important, and certainly best known, French figure of the American Revolution. Lafayette takes Henri back to his native France but not before he’s had a good grounding in theories of democracy, individual rights, and the importance of independence.

Henri’s youth and innocence tends to get him entangled in all sorts of scrapes from which his friends then have to extract him. On the other hand his diminutive stature is often useful to the trio in getting to places to which an adult could not gain access. As with Moki, whose limited knowledge of history and Bible allow Derek and Margot to provide background in those areas,  Henri’s innocence with regard to the war is a useful device the show has for allowing Sarah and James to explain the events unfolding to the tv audience in a natural way. As time goes on Henri begins to grasp the importance of the war and in the episode ‘James Armistead’ even becomes a member of the continental army’s drum and bugle corps.
Moses
Moses is a native African brought to America by traders and sold as a slave. His metal forging skills, however, combined with a lenient southern master, allowed him to buy his freedom and escape the Southern states, making his way northward till eventually he arrives in Philadelphia. In the episode ‘Yorktown’ we learn that Moses’ brother had not been as lucky. He does manage to escape slavery, but only by joining the British army to fight against the colonists.


Moses’ great intelligence has allowed him to learn to read as well, making him a useful worker at Dr. Franklin’s print shop.

Moses, as the always present adult figure (Benjamin Franklin is often not present, being called off to other parts of the country and even abroad on business and political ventures) keeps a responsible eye on Dr. Franklin’s young work crew, especially the mischievous Henri with whom he feels a bond of kinship based on their mutual experience of enslavement (Moses in the South and Henri by the captain of the ship that brought him to the colonies).

Moses’ greatest wish, a plan revealed only to Dr. Franklin, is to set up a coeducational school for children of all racs and colors where he can teach them the importance of human dignity and freedom. Moses sees his work at the print shop as a springboard for fulfilling his aspirations on several levels. Firstly, it will allow him to save the funds necessary to understake such an ambitious venture. Secondly, it gives him an environment in which to put his educational theories into practice, molding young minds to understand the importance of human dignity and personal independence. Most importantly, however, is that the minds in question are those of young up and coming newspaper reporters who as they come into their own will write the opinion pieces that will shape the way the infant nation thinks about freedom and human rights.

Academic skills the show teaches
The main academic lessons to be learned from this series are obviously in the field of history; specifically American and 18th Century History.
In addition to this however there are other academic advantages to be drawn from the show. Firstly, of course is Geography. The characters move around to different places in the colonies and thus learn the history not just of the time and situation but also of the places that played a relevant part.
In addition, the show introduces to children skills such as critical thinking and the art of debate and offers them topics of discussion upon which to hone those skills. Often the characters themselves carry out a debate but that doesn’t mean your child won’t find their job complete and you may well find them ready to weigh in on either side of the argument.

Social skills the show teaches
This show is a goldmine of lessons in social interaction at two levels. First there are the interrelations among the fictional heroes of the show. The characters constantly look out for each other, and get each other out of dangerous situations. Their regular disagreements on various issues, contains valuable lessons in conflict management. Generally, despite being in disagreement they manage to mutually come to an accepted state of disagreement from which your kids can learn that just because two people hold conflicting views on an issue, even an important one, it doesn’t mean that they can’t remain friends. At other times, they do get carried away in anger at each other. However, the subsequent reconciliation teaches kids the mature approach to conflict resolution. They learn that it’s important to be a big person and admit when you’re wrong and reflect on why you reacted the way you did. They also learn the problem with jumping to conclusions about people and their actions. Things aren’t always as they initially appear and that an entire story can change seen from a different perspective or with additional information.  This clip is a case in point

Then there are the social lessons to be learned by the events of the revolution themselves as issues of self preservation conflict with loyalty to one’s nation and people have tough choices to make. Weighty issues such as the meaning of freedom, the morality of slaveholding and basic human rights are debated giving your children room to weigh in with their own opinions on these issues. In addition, semi-fictional events are portrayed (by semi-fictional, I mean events that didn’t necessarily take place as portrayed in the show but are the kinds of things that happened at the time) which create room for debate.

Site Review

Liberty’s Kids is a well thought out series, perfect for introducing the Revolutionary War to your kids. The animated format and compelling personal stories of the heroes are on a simple friendly level that captures one’s attention. At the same time your kids are introduced by the heroes to the complex political machinations setting the war in motion and the ideals driving the American cause. While the target audience is 2nd9th graders, adults stand to learn a lot from this series as well and this is one series you’re likely to enjoy watching with your kids for your sake and not just for theirs.

My kids review
My kids enjoyed this series, especially my oldest son who responds particularly well to history programs. My daughter who tends to prefer science, was slower to get into it but once engaged in the program was keen to go on watching episode after episode. Both were disappointed when they found out that the program had come to an end. Then I made the mistake of mentioning that I’d read there were plans for a similar program about the civil war and as it has yet to come out they’ve been reminding me about it ever since.

Anecdotal
One of the delightful things about this show is the opportunity to see historical figures interacting with each other and seen through the eyes of others. When we watched the program this reminded us all of our visit to Franklin Court in Philadelphia, the home of Benjamin Franklin during his lifetime and now a tribute museum to his life’s work. One of the most enjoyable things for me as a kid there, and now for my own kids, was the phones there. There is a large hall in which there are rows and rows of phones and a ‘telephone directory’ with the ‘phone numbers’ of all sorts of famous individuals who interacted with Franklin during his lifetime. Watching this program, according to my kids, was ‘like having those phones come to life in a story’

Similar shows
This is America, Charlie Brown, Once Upon a Time…Man, The Time Tunnel, The Greatest Adventure: Stories from the Bible, Histeria, Little House on the Prairie

Bill Nye The Science Guy Who Always Knows Why

Age Levels targeted:
8-18

Background:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a PBS educational TV program about science that was created and ran on television in the mid 1990s. The show was produced by Walt Disney’s educational division and hosted by scientist Bill Nye, a former assistant of Christopher Lloyd’s when he’d perform his experiments on the animated series version of ‘Back to the future.’ The show is still used in many schools, having been designed as an in-school program to be used by instructors as part of the classroom curriculum. The show is applicable to a wide range of ages.

Bill Nye the Science Guy ran for 100 episodes and has spanned three spinoff science shows (so far) also hosted by Bill Nye: The Eyes of Nye, 100 Greatest Discoveries, and Stuff Happens. The original Bill Nye the Science Guy show covered topics similar to those discussed in Beakman’s World, another science show that I have discussed, that ran at around the same time and even shared a writer/director. Both shows have a great sense of humor and a fast paced method of coming directly at the young watcher and keeping him constantly engaged with the subject material thus keeping him focused.

Overview of the show:
I’ve already noted in the last section, the connection between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman’s World. Another comparison that has often been made is between Bill Nye and Don Herbert, the famed Mr. Wizard, the ‘father’ of science teaching on TV who had two popular series of this sort. Bill onscreen is dressed as a typical scientist wearing a bow tie and lab coat and teaching people, mixing in humor while teaching the science of everyday objects and phenomena. To that extent he is similar to Herbert. But there the similarity between Herbert and his followers end. Mister Wizard is a much more straightforward ‘pure’ hands-on science show which is slower paced and thus very different from his later follower hosts such as Bill Nye and Beakman. I plan to discuss him and his shows in another entry on the site in future.
As with Beakman’s World and the Mister Wizard shows, Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show geared for the elementary school set to teach them scientific topics – and yet it’s very different from either show. For starters, it’s more focused than Beakman’s World. While Beakman’s World would try and give a taste of two or three unrelated topics on each show (for example ‘vaccinations’ and ‘friction’), Bill Nye the Science Guy almost always focused on a single topic which Nye would come at from a wide variety of angles and in a varied selection of places. Location is another major difference. On Beakman’s World, all the action happens inside Beakman’s laboratory. Bill Nye the Science Guy couldn’t be more different in this respect. Bill does spend a fair amount of time in the lab, with most shows starting with him walking onto the set, known as “Nye Labs.” However, large sections of the show involve his getting outside. He won’t just create you a model volcano – he goes out to Mount Saint Helens to show the effects of an actual volcanic explosion.

He won’t just stick on a pair of goggles and pretend he’s flying to discuss flight – he’ll actually spend time in a plane.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is also far less insular than Beakman’s World in the matter of scientific expertise. Beakman’s lab consists of only himself, his assistant and Lester. Even when he brings so-called ‘experts’ to explain the concepts he’s teaching, the ‘experts’ are actually (and obviously) he himself, in costume. Bill Nye, on the other hand, constantly interacts with people of all ages and backgrounds outside his lab. He also works with and interviews people from outside his show, each of whom is expert in fields of study relevant to the episode’s topic of study.

Another nice touch Bill Nye the Science Guy features is the inclusion of parodied spoof song videos, wherein he takes a popular song and changes its words to explain the concept he’s been teaching during the course of the episode. This culminates in an entire episode devoted just to science through song entitled “NTV Top 11 Video Countdown.”

None of what I’ve said above, of course, should be misconstrued as an attempt to criticize either Beakman’s world, a wonderful show unto itself which I have nothing but the highest praise for, or Mister Wizard which is the pioneer of TV science shows. My point is that despite the shows’ similarity they also have a great number of differences and each of the shows, while appealing to many of the same target audiences, may strike more of a chord with different viewers so that the shows all essentially complement each other and are best used together to demonstrate various principles as I’ll note below in my anecdotal section.

The Main Characters
The two main characters on the show are Bill Nye a.k.a. ‘ Bill Nye the Science Guy ‘ and Pat Cashman who is the show’s announcer. We never see him on the show but he often interacts with Bill from offscreen. In addition to this there’s a ‘typical American family’ who appears in several episodes in comic relief. Other than that though, the characters tend to change completely from one episode to the next depending on the topic.
Types of skills the show teaches:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show that teaches scientific concepts and does so in a fun and engaging way that keeps kids attention focused so that they absorb a lot of useful educational material without feeling bored or overwhelmed. The show is appropriate for a wide range of ages. My kids started enjoying it even before they entered elementary school but I recently had someone who goes to one of the top high schools in the US tell me that they used it in his high school as well. I don’t claim to be a science expert by any means but I do find the show personally interesting, informative, and witty. It will stimulate your child to be more inquisitive about the world around him if he’s not already and will answer questions for them if they’re inquisitive already.
Site review:
To my mind this is probably the best science show out there for school level kids of the present generation. The fast pace, different ways of getting at serious subject material, the songs, and the humor all combine to create a wonderful learning environment that kids used to that kind of television can relate to. It’s real people as opposed to the animation style of the magic schoolbus (another wonderful show) which while excellent is likely to be considered babyish around the time they hit junior high. It has a wider range and scope of place then either of the other two shows I’ve mentioned in this review, Mister Wizard and Beakman’s World, which are both in-lab shows. Another major advantage is that the show was designed to be an in-school program meaning that its subject matter is likely to apply fairly specifically to subjects your kids will be taught in class.

My Kids Perspective:
My kids constantly watch and rewatch the episodes of this show and ask me to find out if there are more episodes out there that they haven’t watched yet, This has been true of all my kids at all ages. Even the youngest, who isn’t up to understanding anything in it at this point, still loves to watch it with his siblings because of the catchy music and fast moving action. They’ve constantly drawn upon facts they learned from the show in real life situations and I’ll often hear them debating scientific subjects only to have one or the other of them bring something from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The one time my kids are definitely not free to choose their TV preferences is when they have a test to study for. That is unless it’s a show where TV can help in studying for a test. I’ve found Bill Nye the Science Guy to be one of the best shows for this. Naturally this isn’t in place of their actual study material. But rare is the child who is going to study their test material non-stop before a test. They need breaks. And if they’re willing to spend the break watching TV and the program they happen to watch is an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy dealing with the test topic it can only help. Mister Wizard is also a pretty useful show for study purposes though Beakman, (except when the topic’s a perfect fit) less so. As of the time of the writing of this piece, my children have always received exceptionally high grades in science so I figure it can’t be hurting!

Anecdotal: Two or three years back, my daughter was standing with a parent who homeschools and whose kids are quite advanced educationally and her son (a high school graduate by age 14). As they were standing there a helicopter passed overhead and my friend asked “do you know what’s keeping that up?” to which her son replied ‘the rotors’ upon which my daughter, at the time around 8 piped up “no –it’s lift…and the Bernoulli effect.” I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about (though I made a point to look it up afterwards – nothing wrong with learning from our kids even if they’re third graders and what they’re teaching us are principles of aerodynamic theory) but she did because she’d been watching the episode about flight

and my friend apparently did and was clearly impressed.

Another time my kids asked a friend’s father to give them trivia questions. “on what subject?” he asked. “Ask us science questions,” they begged. Jokingly he asked them “ok what’s DNA.” in unison they replied “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” It’s not often you see a man’s jaw literally drop and as he sat there agape they went onto explain to him exactly what it is and how scientists use it.

Similar shows
Beakman’s World, Mister Wizard, The Magic School Bus

Once Upon a Time…Man

Age Levels targeted:
8-18

Background:
Once upon a time…Man is better known by its original French title Il était une fois… l’homme. An animated series, it was produced by Albert Barillé.in 1978 and is without a doubt one of the most thorough and engaging reviews of western history I have ever seen. I say this speaking as someone who believes very strongly that kids knowledge of their national history ought to be further rounded out by a broader knowledge of world history. While the fact that the show is presented in an animated form to better engage children’s interest might cause one to be dismissive at first, the content is anything but abridged as the series methodically traces the history of western civilization from its earliest eastern origins through its expansion westward. It is thereby not only completely suitable for adults but even recommended.
Admittedly there does appear to be a strong Eurocentric focus (this is French made after all) to the series but without a bias in favor of any specific country (which is impressive considering that the show was produced long before the existence of the EU which might be presumed to have influence in such a show produced today. Moreover, despite the considerable amount of time spent on Europe there is a great deal of attention paid elsewhere as well when showing the shows roots and to be fair much of the development of Western civilization, both positive and negative did happen in Europe. The series doesn’t, as one might expect, end in our age but actually goes on to project what the future will likely be like based on present developments and trends and deals with such issues as ecological decimation, space travel, wars, and disappearing resources.
Overview of the show:
The show’s two minute opening segment is backed by a rendition of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach. The segment’s finale, the earth’s destruction is timed to coincide with the Tocata’s striking ending.

The show then proceeds to cover a broad spectrum of events taking place around the globe in a temporally linear and geographically western direction. The events are shown through the point of view of a collection of characters who appear repeatedly throughout the series, taking on relevantly archetypal roles in different times and places. This achieves two things. Firstly it allows us to get to know the characters throughout the series, even if on some level they’re also meant to be different people living at a different time. Secondly it enables the creators to suggest that even as things change in the world in many basic ways they remain the same with the same types of people undergoing variations of the same types of experiences, trials and tribulations from one generation and geographic location to the next. The events portrayed are those that would later have proven to have had major effects on the world’s history. The events are covered on a year by year basis, thereby promoting a broad understanding of what the world was like at this time and what social, political, religious, scientific and other event shaping currents were affecting the world at any given time.

The series covers the various events from a highly objective point of view. It takes into account both scientific and religious developments without making a judgment in favor of either side. Beginning with the Big Bang, we’re taken through the scientifically posited stages of evolution, and prehistoric times, on through the early days of civilizations with its religious beliefs, rituals and figures. Although there were countries that had problems with the shows representations (primarily those where the church was strong and took exception to both evolution and the depictions of the church in the Middle Ages) both evolution and religion are handled sensitively throughout. Muhammad, for example, is always portrayed from behind out of respect for the Islamic belief that it is sacrilegious to draw pictures of him. Evolution is presented as part of the historical matrix without dwelling on its scientific basis while the religious events are also handled from a purely historical point of view. Events such as the birth of Jesus and Muhammad’s ascension in the Arab world being looked at from the point of view of how those events affected geopolitical events and not in terms of Xmas celebrations or final prophets. The series then moves westward and onward until finally it is looking into the future and forecasting mankind’s fate as time marches on.

The Main Characters
As mentioned in the overview (above), Once Upon a Time… Man features a set collection of archetypal characters that repeat their existences in different places and settings throughout time. This technique is common to History series, and we can see a similar use of it in the humorous educational series Histeria!, which I plan on discussing in another piece, the idea presumably being that every age has its archetypal figures that assume the same or similar relationship towards the events being portrayed. The main figures in Once Upon a Time… Man are:
• Maestro – He is portrayed as a elderly wise man with a beard so long he frequently hides objects in it or takes objects out from it. He has long white hair that almost completely covers him. He generally holds a position of power or influence without being the main power holder (after all these are meant to be archetypal figures of centrality but the actuial positions of power were held in every age by real recorded historical figures). He generally serves in a religious, royal court or other political position.

He is also often to be found in a teaching role, instructing the young in a variety of subjects.
• Le Gros (Jumbo) – Jumbo is a strong redheaded young fellow whose best friend is Peter (see below). A hulk of a person, with tremendous strength, albeit a bit on the clumsy side, Jumbo frequently is called upon to help defend Peter and Pierrette from the evildoers in the community.
• Pierre (Peter) – Peter is a good looking and brave fellow, the archetype of the good person.
• Young Jumbo and Young Peter – the characters mentioned above occasionally have younger versions of themselves that appear at times in the series in order to follow typical maturation process of a person of the era being dealt with as we see them grow from children to teens. Young Jumbo and Pierrot are cousins and young Jumbo is his cousin’s guardian against bullies.
• Nabot (The Dwarf) – Nabot, the dwarf with the evil little laugh, is ‘The Pest’s friend and fellow bully. He is weaker than The Pest but more intelligent and calculating. One can count on the two of them to ignite an argument among the kids.
• Le Teigneux (The Pest) – ‘The Dwarf”s friend, this big powerful bully always likes to attack and pick on others. Luckily, he is offset by Jumbo who is stronger than he is and provides a counterforce to his behavior. The Pest and the Dwarf always fill the roles of negative archetypal characters. At their best they’re provocateurs, naysayers or duplicitous. At their worst they portray the killers, plotters, treasonous louts or other similarly degenerate character types that have existed throughout history.
• Psi – Dark haired Psi is the archetypal nice, kind young girl. She generally fills the role of her male counterpart Peter’s girlfriend or wife.
• Pierrette – Blonde Pierrette is an archetypal nice, kind young woman. She is generally cast in the role of Jumbo’s wife or Peter’s mother.
• The Clock – The Clock appears to show the years as the events unfold. Generally it’s just a clock but at time it takes on anthropomorphic tendencies and adapts itself, taking an interest in the events being shown or expressing annoyance if too great a gap appears in the historical narrative.
In addition to the repeating characters, every generation has its actual major historical characters that are key players on the world scene for that generation. Sometimes the characters above play those figures, such as young Peter and Pest facing off as David and Goliath. At other times these historical figures have their own individual characters and appear only in their historical context.
What Your child can learn from the show:
Obviously the main thing your kids (and you) will learn from this show is history; specifically the history of Western civilization. In addition to this however, one also learns some geography simply as a result of seeing which countries are arguing over what borders. On the social side the use of a repeating cast of archetypal characters in each period makes the show a useful tool for parents to show how different people react to the same situation as well as how the same person reacts in different situations and to consider how times and circumstances affect people’s behavior.

Site review:
Once Upon a Time… Man is wonderful in that it lets you actually see history as it unfolds. Think of those “this year in review” type shows that news stations now routinely do at the end of December and then (while albeit shrinking the number of events you might see for a given year) expand that to include all of Western history from its early roots in the east to its expansion westward to Europe and the Americas.

Another impressive feature of this show, is its objective approach to history. Rather than taking a moral stand, as many historians are wont to do when reviewing events, the show carefully attempts to steer clear of judgment. Every set of countries, cultures and ethnicities display a set of prejudices and fears, and are motivated by goals and desires that are shown to be not that different from those of their (often constantly changing) enemies and friends. Rather than attempting to create some sort of polarized view of Western history the creators offer us a holistic view of the various periods and allow us to see the positive and negative inherent in the various events.

My kids review:
My kids have constantly watched and rewatched this series ever since their mother got it for them. This was actually a series that she had grown up with and that I was unfamiliar with until she brought home the DVDs. While this is a rare occurrence with us I was thrilled that thanks to her I discovered it at all. Once Upon a Time… Man wasn’t well known in the US (perhaps because of the Eurocentricism) and so I missed out on it in my youth. My older son who’s very into anything to do with history (and even if only for what it has given him I’m planning a review of Little House on the Prairie for this site somewhere down the road) especially took to it and made sure we got all the DVDs available. All the older kids especially liked the group of archetypal characters and discuss them in different situations amongst themselves, laughing at the amusing parts and saying things like “you remember when the big good guy did such and such.”

Anecdotal:

My son was so taken by the history series, that he naturally gravitated towards the medical series Once Upon a Time…Life put out by the same people in the same style. Instead of going to soccer or basketball camp, my little jock has been begging all year to go to “young doctors camp” this summer. When a talented athletic third grader begs to spend his summer doing things like dissecting pig’s hearts and lungs (yes they really did that among other things) you know that something’s made a strong impression on him. Clearly the producers of these series know how to capture a child’s imagination.

Similar shows
Once upon a time… life, Liberty’s Kids, This is America, Charlie Brown, Histeria!, Schoolhouse Rock