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The End of the Rainbow

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It's the end of an era -- another good kid's show bites the dust.

Levar Burton

Brett Berk: After 26 years on the air, "Reading Rainbow" has finally hit the end of its polychromatic arc. But there's no leprechaun, wizard, or pot of gold there, just ... a blank stretch of nothing. This saddens me. First, as an early childhood educator and preschool director, and then as a consultant to some of the biggest producers of educational media aimed at young children, I've always been a big fan of the Rainbow -- and not just because they have hired me on multiple occasions. "Reading Rainbow" reflected just about everything I believed in, in terms of encouraging and teaching literacy skills to preschoolers: exposure to quality literature, immersion in a story as an end in and of itself, promotion of shared reading experiences, the notion that books could be a means to delve deeper into a subject that interests you, and the sense that ideas introduced in books could encourage greater interest and further exploration -- in the real world!

So what caused the Rainbow to lose its brilliance? Well, a combination of things. First, the program originated in 1983, a year universally agreed upon as one of our nation's aesthetic low points (unlike 1969, when Sesame Street started, arguably a creative peak), and it stayed there. And while I adored its direct immersion in the world of its featured book, and its signature low-tech animation, it had started to look dated about 20 years ago. Additionally, RR premiered at a time when there were very few options for children's programming. This also changed radically in the years after its introduction, with the advent of channels like Nick Jr. and Playhouse Disney -- as well as new offerings like PBS Kids -- dedicated to creating a breadth of programming for young children that focused more on edutainment than education. They were softer, sillier, or just plain fun.

But what really flattened the Rainbow was the disgusting Bush administration, and its forced focus on the mechanics of literacy instruction. Actually, this swing in the pendulum, away from a more holistic concept of literacy and back to the bland (and often removed and meaningless) focus on the mechanics of the ABCs, began in the Clinton era, but reached its apotheosis shortly thereafter, with the introduction of No Child Left Behind, brought to you by the letter W. The result? No one wanted to fund a program that was meant to foster an adventurous, passionate, and joyful love of books and reading. They wanted to fund shows that taught kids that "A" makes the "ah" sound.

But it wasn't all just bad luck, bad timing, and the worst political situation ever. I spearheaded a major (and perhaps final) research project for "Reading Rainbow" back in 2003, aimed at revamping the show, and made major recommendations to narrow their focus onto a narrower target audience, to speak directly to this audience in more genuine voices, to update their look, and -- perhaps most importantly -- to draw more attention to the fact that the stories being featured were not just made up of images, but also of text. But while the producers wanted to change, they resisted many of the major findings. Plus, they lacked the money or support to implement them. The show lasted in syndication for a few more years and shot a couple more episodes. Happily, it will live on in DVD and online formats. It's a rich resource for anyone who loves good kids' literature, who believes in the transformative power of a story, or who wants to use books as a way of furthering understanding. We can only hope that this style of immersion exploration will swing back into vogue. Next time you see a rainbow, do me a favor and make that wish.







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14 comments so far | Post a comment now
anonymos September 2, 2009, 10:51 AM

I loved this show, and had no idea it was still running otherwise I’d have my children watch it. We were just discussing a few weeks ago that it’s a shame it’s not around, and here we had no idea that it was (even if just in syndication). I’d rather watch this then one of the newer kids shows on TV. Our children only watch at most one episode of Sesame Street a day (and sometimes not even the full episode).

birdsfly September 2, 2009, 11:44 AM

Having a 4yo that reads at a second grade level, the “A makes the ‘ah’ sound” shows just don’t cut it.

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