The Opaque Lens of Nostalgia

We tend to think fondly of the content we enjoyed as a child. I remember when my dad introduced the movie Cat Ballou to my sister and me. He touted it as the funniest movie ever, falsely predicting that we would laugh and laugh. Instead, in full teen fashion, we rolled our eyes at the corny jokes and struggled to stay awake. Yet a generation later, I’ve had similar experiences with my own kids. Sometimes they like the older films and shows that I’m excited to show them. Back to the Future, Freaky Friday, and Sister Sister were all hits. However, we also have the “groan” moments. Case in point, my children found Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles boring, thought Karate Kid had too much romance, and snoozed during the dialogue of Sound of Music.

The recent criticism over reducing hurtful messages of older cultural products brings up questions of this nostalgic drape that clouds our perceptions of the things we loved as children. Of course, I am not advocating that we keep playing Dumbo and Song of the South for new generations. Rather, I am wondering if the opposition to changing products of the past stems from an emotional attachment to products that brought us joy in our younger years.

If this is the case, how can we inject a critical lens into the protected space of nostalgia?

Assuming that those attached to these distorted views want to change, how could this be accomplished? First, we need nostalgic people to take a step back, aiming to more objectively looking at the pop culture products that they treasure from their childhood. If they were initially introduced to these products now, what would they think of [insert specific scene, character, song, or storyline]? What could be problematic if that message were repeated and repeated, with few contrasting messages? How would people feel if they were part of that group? If nostalgic person was a part of that group? These kinds of questions help get at the roots of stereotyping and perspective.

Next, we address why we can’t keep introducing these products to new generations. Children have little awareness of a product’s original cultural moment, its contextualization. All they see and experience is the toy/book/show/film as if it were just created for them. As such, these products shape the world views of children, including the reinforcement of stereotypes, conveying broad, skewed negative generalizations. As parents/teachers/adults/consumers/humans, it is our job to present a diverse array of content that encourages unlimited ways of understanding roles, relationships, family dynamics, and intersectionality. Pigeon-holing any group for children narrows perspectives on what they can be and can’t be. Not to mention the most obviously glaring issue: The insensitivity of perpetuating stereotypes of marginalized groups for children, who are either part of those groups or future friends, family members, coworkers, and fellow humans.

Lastly, I’ll state what is already apparent to everyone who openly agrees that Song of the South should be kept in the vault or that no one should rewatch the “Censored 11” racist cartoons, full of black face and anti-Japanese imagery. Toys and media content that is racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic have no place in society. They never have. It’s not “cancel culture” to eliminate toxic cultural products any more than it is to tear down buildings with asbestos. Neither have a place in society and it takes a lot of work to clean up what is left behind. In other words, if you are currently mourning the erasure of Speedy Gonzales, buck up and reevaluate your own attachment. Shift your nostalgic lens to your own personal sentimental objects and be thankful that contemporary audiences won’t have to explain the chromosomes of Mr. Potato Head. (Or just watch Amber Ruffin’s satire on vegetable gender identity, 48 seconds in).

Lessons from the past: Radio in the Chicago 1937 polio epidemic

This literacy activity is based off of my article for The Conversation, found here.

Until the last half of the 20th century, it was not unusual for schools used to briefly shut down for weeks or even months. I’m not just talking about holiday or summer breaks. Hunting season, the fall harvest, and inclement weather kept students at home. Times of crisis also impacted education, as coal shortages in the 1930s and 40s forced schools in cold regions to temporarily close, as illustrated in this newspaper article from 1936.

Herman Schools Close During Week. Herman Record (Nebraska). Feb. 20, 1936 -
From the Herman Record, Feb. 20, 1936

Before the advent of vaccines and treatments for scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, and polio, outbreaks of these common childhood illnesses also prompted officials to close schools.

School closings typically halted formal learning, granting kids extra time for play or work on the farm. Schools sometimes compensated for the additional closings by shifting the academic calendar or by mandating Saturday attendance once school was back in session.

The concept of distance-learning did exist, mostly through correspondence courses (classes taught by mail), but wasn’t commonly used during school closures. That is until Fall 1937, when school officials in Chicago decided to teach children at home using a relatively new technology: the radio.

It might seem weird to us now, but people in the 1930s were very used to just sitting and listening to the radio. By this time, over 90% of urban American homes had at least one radio — and they tuned in often, spending more than 4 hours a day listening to news and entertainment. (For an overview, watch this video). Individuals and families gathered around the radio much like we would a TV.

Radio had been used as an educational tool periodically since Penn State first offered broadcasted college courses in 1922. On a small-scale, radio programming occasionally served as a substitute for in-person instruction, as in 1932, when radio provided summer school curriculum in Chicago after budget cuts eliminated the regular session. Yet, no one had tried using radio to teach large groups of children.

Polio was a feared disease back then. While most people only had mild cases, the disease sometimes led to either temporary or permanent paralysis. Photos of children in iron lungs (machines to help them breathe) or using crutches frequently appeared in newspapers and magazines, making people more afraid of polio.

Pictures like this contributed to the fear of polio.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 1937, a polio epidemic erupted. On August 31, 1937, the Board of Health in Chicago ordered the start of school to be postponed due to the record number of polio cases (109, just for August). Instead of just keeping kids at home, a “radio school experiment” was launched, led by Assistant Superintendent Minnie Fallon. She worked with 14 principals to design the curriculum for 317,000 children in grades 3-8. (It was decided that those in lower grades might not do as well with radio learning).

On Monday, September 13th, students tuned in for their first day of radio school. Three radio stations broadcasted the lessons, with local newspapers printing daily schedules, like this:

The schedule for Sept. 14, 1937, printed in The Chicago Tribune

Over a week, students were taught math, English, social studies, physical education, and science, with each lesson lasting 15 minutes.

Unlike our video technology now, the radio was a one-way form of communication. Teachers couldn’t talk with their students directly, however, a telephone helpline was set up for questions. Similar to today, parents had to oversee the radio learning, captured in this photo of a mom helping her kids:

Printed in The Rock Island Argus on Sept. 14, 1937.

The experiment only lasted three weeks. Declining polio rates meant that children got to go back to school in person. Even with this brief time, the radio school was a success, demonstrating that the technology could be used to teach people. Radio stations began to partner with local educators and found more ways to make radio educational. By February 1938, radios had been placed in many classrooms and opportunities for kids to do their own news shows had begun.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why did the children of 1937 have to stay home? How is that similar to our need to have distance learning in the past year?
  2. What would it be like to learn through the radio? What do you think were some of the obstacles to this approach? How would that be different from lessons through Zoom or other video platforms?
  3. Not everyone had a radio then, just like not everyone has a computer now. What does it mean for the children who are left out in remote learning? What can be done to help families who don’t have internet access or computers?
  4. Radio learning led to the use of more technology in the classrooms. How will distance-learning now lead to new kinds of learning in the future?
  5. Media content from the past give us a glimpse into different cultural moments, like the radio school. After the COVID pandemic is over, what will people know about this time period from the news, social media posts, and other content produced in this time? If you only watched TikTok or Youtube videos from 2020-2021, what would you think that living through this pandemic was like?

Conversation-starters in the new Baby-Sitters Club series for parents and kids

The Netflix Baby-Sitters Club adaptation is delightfully engaging in such a way that parents and tweens can watch it together. And they should. The 10 episodes of season one are more than just a nostalgic nod. This adaption truly brings Ann M. Martin’s series to life, infusing the 1980s stories with contemporary characters and a surprising array of complex issues. Prosocial without the cheese, this show presents a number of topics that emerge naturally in the narrative. From a parenting perspective, these moments are great segues into discussions about (sometimes difficult) topics. Hopefully, you’ve had a chance to watch the series. Otherwise, spoilers ahead.

BSC Conversation Starters: Overarching Themes

  • Entrepreneurship and Innovation. An easy one since the whole premise is a 13 year-old’s business idea, plan, and implementation. You can discuss why the BSC ultimately succeeds, while the Baby-Sitters Agency does not. Ask your kids what kind of business they would like to have. What would it take to carry out the business (i.e. cost, supplies, people involved, marketing, etc.)? Is it feasible right now? Or in a few years? You could also read more about successful kid entrepreneurs.
  • Friendship. What are the characteristics of a good friend? How can you resolve a fight? We see several escalations smoothed out in the different episodes.
  • Adaptation. Fans of the books and graphic novels cannot resist discussing narrative and character adaptation in the series. What was kept the same? What was changed for TV? Why? In this conversation, you can talk the importance of diversity in representation and that subbing in different physical characteristics doesn’t mean that the character isn’t well-portrayed. Blue-eyed blonde Dawn in the books became a dark-haired Latina in the Netflix series — retaining and extending the traits of the original character. More broadly, you can discuss the process and challenge of adapting books into movies and TV shows (check out this post on adaptations).

BSC Conversation Starters: Episodic Themes

The Netflix adaptation doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. In fact, it seamlessly integrates many issues in a non-threatening, stigmatizing way.

  • First Periods & Menstruation. Given the age group of the BSC, it makes sense that menstruation might come up. It’s nice to see this natural part of growing up addressed, briefly in the pilot and then directly in “Kristy’s Big Day” (adding a second meaning to the “big day”).
  • Gender Identity. A topic that is so important, yet may be difficult to bring up out of the blue. “Mary Anne Saves the Day” by defending her babysitting charge, Bailey, insisting that the health professionals treating her use the correct pronouns. Not only does this moment highlight problems of trans-treatment and patient advocacy in health care, it also demonstrates the agency and empowerment of young people. Earlier in the episode, Dawn casually explains gender identity to Mary Anne in a non-judgmental, easy-to-understand manner. Their fictional conversation prompted a good real-life chat for my kids and me.
  • Internment of Japanese Americans. The forced relocation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II is often omitted in historical recaps of the era. In “Claudia and Mean Janine,” Grandma Mimi’s stroke leaves her painfully recalling memories of an internment camp as a child. This storyline naturally leads to a history lesson about what happened in the U.S. during WWII that isn’t usually talked about.
  • Protesting Injustice. Dawn and Claudia lead a peaceful protest against the staff in the “Camp Moosehead” episodes about the inequality of camp activities. It’s a relatable narrative that’s easy to connect to bigger, real-life issues of injustice.

We shouldn’t dismiss the value of enjoyable popular culture. Rather, we can use shows like The Baby-Sitters Club as a bridge to important discussions. Considering how hard to reach tweens and teens can be, it’s helpful to have a ticket into these conversations.

Screen-free, Low-groan Activities for Older Kids

Picking blueberries at a nearby farm. Fun, productive, and delicious.

Entertaining little kiddos can be pretty easy. “Here’s a box.” “Ooh, look at the bubbles!” “You found a lady bug. What’s its name?” Older children are not so easily amused. I can only imagine my 11 year-old’s eyeroll if I suggested that she paint a rock or line up sticks in the driveway.

It’s tough to figure out the days. We are so over the early quarantine theme days. No more “learning to sew” or baking artisan bread time, at least for now. Educational online classes have lost their appeal. At this point, what we really need[ed] are non-screen, fairly easy things to do that don’t feel like more work. With my delightful almost-10 year-old niece visiting, I’ve been trying to figure out activities to entertain and engage two tweens.

Non-screen Activities That Even Tweens Enjoy

I brainstormed ideas that we could do together, in town, that would keep us reasonably separated from other people. For our outings, we arrive close to opening, wear masks if we’re inside, and are willing to leave if it’s too crowded. We’ve been hiking, biking, and playing tennis for the last few months so I left them off the list.

Cooking Novelty Foods

Early in the pandemic, we had an unsupervised food-coloring explosion incident so I’ve been a little reluctant to let the kids cook again. When they asked to make a box of Jell-O, I agreed. AHA! The girls followed the recipe and had a good time in the process. Two hours later, we sampled the jiggly pan and then laughed about how Jell-O used to be a potluck staple. Even though most of it went into the trash, it gave them something to do.

Walkie-Talkies in the Yard

I’m not exactly sure what the appeal is, but apparently when you give walkie-talkies to kids, outside time is a lot more fun. The tweens have spent a few mornings testing out the walkie-talkies, inside and out.

Donut Picnic

This is something I’ve done since my kids were little. We bring donuts to the park and eat breakfast there. Still a favorite and easy to do even when everything was shut down.

Picking Blueberries

A great pandemic tween activity since it’s outside, away from others, and the kids are big enough to actually help. It took us about 40 minutes to pick more than a gallon of blueberries. Bonus activities: planning out and then making delicious blueberry treats.

Going to the Farmer’s Market

We go almost every week. It’s a bit different now, but still an outing that we all enjoy (even the tween). There’s something about choosing or growing vegetables yourself that makes you want to eat them more — except turnips.


Our local place does both a Monday special and a kids’ summer bowling program. We went right at 11. It wasn’t crowded, every other lane was kept empty, and the balls were already at each station. We really enjoyed getting to do something that wasn’t at our house.

Painting Pottery

I am not a crafting person and I’m pretty tired of trying to scrub paint off the dining table from crisis-schooling murals. Going to The Pottery Place on 1/2 price seating fee day provided painting fun that I didn’t have to clean up. We got there right at opening and had our own table and paint.

As you can see from the bowl I made, I’m not much of a painter.


We haven’t done this yet, but we’re all excited for our upcoming trip. There’s a few places nearby where you can rent boats for a reasonable price, either to paddle around one spot or to travel down the river and then take an open-air shuttle back to the car. It’s fun even to plan for our kayaking adventure.

Creating That “Summer Feel”

It’s been emotionally beneficial for us to try out activities that differed from our crisis-school isolation time. Adding to the list here, we intend to catch fireflies, make lemonade, and do many of our other regular summer things. Despite what the kids really want to do, they are not spending all day glued to their tablets.

Why We Need the Netflix Baby-Sitters Club Reboot (and Its Timeless Appeal)

As an avid (well, obsessed) BSC fan in my youth, I was excited when Netflix announced its reboot of The Baby-Sitters Club, scheduled for early July this year. Three months later, as I am drowning in the stress of working and parenting in a pandemic, paired with my school-aged kids needing something to do, the timing of this release has never been better.

From my days reading the original titles in the ’80s, Ann M. Martin’s concept has evolved into multiple series of over 200 books, a TV show (1990), soundtrack (1992), feature film (1995), video game (1996) and 7 graphic novels (2006 — ), with six more scheduled to be released over the next few years. Why do these characters continue to translate across platforms and generations?

To me, The Baby-Sitters Club was much more than just a series. I enjoyed other books, but only in Ann M. Martin’s world did I feel completely immersed. At one point, I even thought The Baby-Sitters Club actually existed. I dreamed about moving to Stoneybrook and joining Kristy and the gang, imagining which role I could take on in the club (snack-supplier? Poster maker?). My identification with these characters as I read, and reread (and reread) their stories helped me to escape my own reality, particularly when life became tough at home due to my parents’ divorce and subsequent remarriage.

I suspect that new generations embrace the BSC for the same reasons I did from age 8–13. While the technology has definitely changed from Claudia’s landline, the foundational themes of this series continue to be relevant. Most tween and adolescent readers can relate to making new friends, learning to be independent, dealing with a bully, living with a chronic condition, taking care of kids, dating, losing a grandparent, divorce, moving away, adjusting to camp, and the many other issues addressed in these stories.

The varying perspectives of the BSC also help to explain its longevity. Each book features a different central character as the narrator rotates among the seven club members, offering a variety of traits, fashions, and interests. As a reader, each character’s perspective interested me for different reasons. I was most like Kristy personality-wise, found Stacey’s diabetes and Mallory’s big family to be intriguing, envied both Claudia’s artsy style and Dawn’s natural ways, wanted to learn sign language like Jessi, and admired Mary-Anne’s journey toward independence. With so many characters, it’s easy to identify with one, even across generations.

Netflix couldn’t have planned for better timing. My 40-something age-group desperately needs a taste of comforting nostalgia that can be shared with our kids right now. Thankfully, they are well-acquainted with the BSC characters, thanks to the graphic novels — a genius marketing crossover that refreshed the series. As with Fuller House, it will be nice to step into another familiar narrative that I can view with my girls, allowing us to escape into (what appears to be) a 1990ish-type relatively carefree teen TV world. Unlike our current reality, the BSC is always predictable and optimistic — a perfect show for a pandemic. Plus, I still dream about its existence, especially as I work from home without childcare.

Adapting “Little Women”

Read the classic Little Women or the contemporary graphic novel, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy (an exceptionally good adaptation).

Now watch one of the film adaptations:

Compare the book or graphic novel to one of the film adaptations. How did the book characters come to life on-screen? What elements of the story were preserved? What was changed? How was the story modernized in the graphic novel? Which format did you like best?

Learning Through Historical Fiction: Books for Kids and Teens About Epidemics

Reading historical fiction can teach you a lot about experiences people may have had during outbreaks of the past. In this genre, authors weave facts into their fictional stories and characters. I recommend reading these works of historical fiction and then conducting your own research on the epidemic and disease featured.

A notable example is Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever 1793, aimed at readers ages 10-14.

She uses documents from the real yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia to tell the story of 14 year-old Mattie Cook. This book is an exciting read and so well-done that it is often used as a teaching tool. Here are study guides that go along with the book.

Joyce Rockwood’s young adult novel To Spoil the Sun explores the devastating impact of smallpox on a Cherokee tribe in the 16th century. More of the story is fictionalized in that it isn’t set in a specific outbreak, but provides a perspective that has rarely appeared elsewhere.

Smallpox Strikes! by Norma Jean Lutz (ages 8-12) and describes the real-life inoculation controversy in the 1721 Boston epidemic. A boy must choose between following his family’s wishes and protecting the town against smallpox through the practice of inoculation (intentionally infecting yourself with disease in hopes that you’ll get a milder case).

For younger readers, book #26 Balto of the Blue Dawn of the Magic Treehouse series (very) loosely tells the story of the sled dogs that saved the children of Nome, Alaska from diphtheria in 1925. Compare Jack and Annie’s tale to the real story as told here.

Here are other historical fiction works about disease:

What makes for a good work of historical fiction? How do authors use facts to create interesting fictional narratives?

Think about the current pandemic. How could these experiences be told in what will someday be historical fiction? Where would you set your story? What factual details would be important to include?

So you didn’t like The Sound of Music: Examining Generational Shifts in Viewing Preferences

As a kid, I remember my dad often hyping up a movie that he had seen years before. “I laughed so hard,” he told us repeatedly as we prepared to watch the 1965 western comedy Cat Ballou. My sister and I barely chuckled in the entirety of the 97 minute film. Yesterday, my girls had a similar experience with The Sound of Music. While they enjoyed the familiar music, they found the movie “too long,” “too romantic” and overall, “boring.”

20th Century Fox. Public Domain.

What shapes our viewing experience? First, let’s look at pop culture products that have made it through the test of time (in other words, contemporary audiences still “get” them). Watch this clip from Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 silent film The Circus:

What happened in the scene? How did Charlie Chaplin respond? Can we relate to his reactions? Why?

Many older films and TV shows aren’t quite as easy to understand. Some just haven’t aged well, meaning that what was considered funny, relevant, or appropriate when the film/show came out, is not now. Culture and technology changes so what seemed new, exciting, and acceptable at the time doesn’t always work for future audiences and may be offensive.

What about movies that parents love but their kids do not? Why do we have these differences in our consumption experience? One reason may be changes in how stories are told. Films used to slowly build a narrative, using plenty of dialogue to fill in each moment in the story. Although the kid and singing scenes in The Sound of Music move along, the adult exchanges are pretty slowly-paced and over-dramatized.

On the other hand, our post modern films and TV shows are more fast-paced and fragmented, assuming that audiences can fill in the pieces or that they don’t matter. Fewer lines of dialogue convey about the same thing. What is a film you didn’t like that your parents do? Why do you think that is?

Generation gaps happen the other way as well. You definitely enjoy books, music, games, shows, and movies that your parents either don’t understand or don’t understand why you like them. Here’s an example from our house:

I am not a fan of the books or movies, yet my kids love them because they can relate to the characters and have grown up reading graphic novels.

How about in your house? What do you like that your parents don’t? Why do you like the product? Ask your parents why they don’t like it. What explains the difference in opinion?

What movies from your childhood will you want to share with your future children?

My Favorite Things: Exploring the Story of the Sound of Music

The Sound of Music is based on a real Austrian singing family. Maria von Trapp wrote The Story of the Trapp Family, published in 1949, which was turned into a Broadway play. Its iconic film adaptation, starring Julie Andrews, came out in 1965.

How much of the story was changed for the film? Let’s research true story of the von Trapps, first in this Smithsonian article. Look at this interview with Maria von Trapp herself (who passed away in 1987):

What was the focus of the interview? What did you learn about the von Trapp family?

Movie time
Analyze the 1965 Sound of Music, exploring how the adaptation brought von Trapp’s story to the big screen. How does the opening song set the tone for the movie? What do you think of the main characters, particularly the depiction of Maria? How is Captain von Trapp portrayed? Identify some of the overarching themes of this movie. What does it say about childrearing and childhood during World War II? About sacrifice? How does the music bolster these messages?

“Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews on location in Salzburg during the filming of The Sound of Music, 1964″
20th Century Fox / Public domain

Compare the real story to the film. What details remained the same for the film? What was changed? How did these changes impact the narrative? If you were to do an adaptation of Maria’s story, what would you have done differently? Think overall how real-life events and biographies shift when they become fictional movies.

Watch the Carrie Underwood live version of The Sound of Music. What worked well in this adaptation? What could have been better? Why didn’t this version reach the same level of success as the 1965 film?

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: History of Technology Timeline

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” describing how his inventions (and those of others) existed because they built upon existing ideas and achievements. With this quote, he himself was improving upon an existing reference, paraphrasing from John of Salisbury’s 1159 Latin text Metalogicon.

Our current technology didn’t just emerge. Instead, technological developments evolve from prior technological developments. Media have played and continue to play vital roles in this innovation. Mass communication (or the ability to mass produce media content) isn’t just about providing books and newspapers. The ability to record ideas in a form that can be distributed profoundly affected all facets of life. With books, for the first time, people could build on others’ ideas then progress forward. You didn’t need to be within earshot to learn from another person. Many different people, often from different places, contribute to the success of an invention.
Let’s take the history of the car for example.

Depiction of 1908 Ford Model T Touring car, from Ford’s full-page advertisement of the first Model T in the Oct. 1, 1908 issue of Life magazine, volume 52, page 365.

The Ford Motor Company didn’t just magically create a working car in 1908. They relied and improved upon existing car designs, created by Karl Benz in 1885 and Charles and Frank Duryea in 1893. These designers depended on earlier inventions and conceptualizations to make their automobiles work: the internal combustion engine, the carriage design and parts of a car. Oh, and the concept itself–that a vehicle could be self-propelled (conceived and invented by Leonard da Vinci in 1478).

Leonardo da Vinci / Public domain

Moving forward in time, this video conveys the many people involved from bringing the first cars to our modern day automobiles:

For each of these inventions, people could read about what had been done and then improve upon the existing designs.

History of Technology Timeline Activity
1. Choose something that we use in everyday life (an appliance, item of clothing, your phone or other entertainment technology, or anything that you are curious about).
2. Research the roots of that item. Identify all the different “players” that contributed–those who invented earlier models (even if they didn’t work) or pieces of the technology.
3. Using a large piece of paper, create a timeline that shows the evolution. For the car, we would start with da Vinci and map it out to today’s car. You could also depict this progression through a drawing or photo collage.

We take for granted the technology that we have. It’s important to remember that Newton was right. We must stand on the shoulders of giants to move forward.