A cultural phenomenon

Focused as I am on my favorite obscure corners of popular culture, I usually miss the really big worldwide trends. So I was completely unaware of The Wiggles until I read about them on a science fiction fandom blog.

If you too have remained blissfully unaware of The Wiggles, they’re an Australian band that released their first album in 1991. The Wiggles write and perform songs for preschoolers (and their parents); three of the four of original members of the band had degrees in early childhood education.

I did a deep dive into Wiggles subculture today. I listened to a bunch of their music. I read about how children would come to live shows dressed as Emma, the Yellow Wiggle, complete with yellow dress and yellow bow in their hair. More importantly, while watching their videos, I saw how they create developmentally appropriate live performances and videos. Yes they’re primarily entertainers (not educators), yes there are problems with what they do, but on the whole I’m impressed with the way they treat young children with respect.

As one small example of what I mean about treating young children with respect: When they begin a live performance, they do not say, “Hello, boys and girls” — a vaguely condescending formula that leaves out parents — they say “Hello, everyone.” That’s really thoughtful.

I’m also impressed with the way they’re changing with the rapidly chaning culture around them. Take, for example, their video “Di Dicki Do Dum” released last August. In the dance routine, Tsehay Hawkins, the yellow Wiggle, and Simon Price, the Red Wiggle, combine Euro-folk dance with urban dance moves. This kind of cultural mash-up is A Big Thing in the obscure world of folk dance. The venerable Cecil Sharp House in England, center of the universe for many who do Anglo-American Euro-folk-dance, now mixes all kinds of folk dance traditions:

“‘Hip-hop is the folk dance of today,’ said Natasha Khamjani…. They’re both social dances created for crowd participation, both also existing on the fringes of the mainstream, she added. Khamjani was taking a quick break during a rehearsal of a high-energy performance blending Bollywood moves and English country dancing with the unmistakable bounce of hip-hop moves.” [As reported by the BBC]

The Wiggles also make pretty darned good music. Both the singing and the accompaniment in the “Di Dicki Do Dum” video are really well done. The music has to be good. Preschoolers are going to listen to recordings of the sings over and over and over and over again. If the music sucks, parents are going to tear their hair out, and never buy any more Wiggles music or go to any more Wiggles shows.

Looking at The Wiggles videos makes me think about what we do in our Unitarian Universalist religious education programs and in our worship services. Unlike The Wiggles, we’re not in the entertainment business. But if we really want to welcome families with young children, I realized I can learn a lot from them: awareness of developmental appropriateness, respect for audiences, use of dance and movement, respectful cultural mash-ups, and so on.

Having said that, I’m now done with The Wiggles. And trying desperately to forget their songs.

A screen grab from the video, showing a young woman wearing yellow and an older man wearing red dancing, while off to one side a man wearing blue and a man wearing purple play musical isntruments.

Thinking about Abigail Eliot

Abigail Eliot was a member of the Unitarian Universalist church I grew up in. I have only vague memories of her, but somehow knew she was someone important. I didn’t realize just how important she was until I read No Silent Witness: The Eliot Parsonage Women and Their Unitarian World by Cynthia Grant Tucker.

It turns out that Abigail Eliot was a pioneer of early education in the United States, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Eliot first trained at Margaret McMillan’s famous nursery school in England. McMillan developed the nursery school for children who lived in English slums; her school was designed to educate the whole child, mind and body, including nurturing health through outdoor education. Eliot returned to the United States and founded the Ruggles Street Nursery School in Boston.

While Eliot was not the first person to bring the nursery school concept to a city in the United States, she was one of the most influential pioneers of American nursery schools. She founded her school in 1922, and four years later turned her school into a training center for other nursery school teachers. Eliot’s training center for educators continues in the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School, a lab school that’s part of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University.

In addition to the material on Abigail Eliot in No Silent Witness, here are links to more information about her life and work:

I think Abigail Eliot has become a spiritual exemplar for me. She dedicated her life to child-centered education, and in so doing used her significant intellectual talents for the betterment of humankind. I wish I had better memories of her, but all I really remember is seeing her walk down the driveway to her house near the church. My friend Alison, who is my age and grew up in the same Unitarian Universalist church I did, is lucky enough to retain vivid memories of Abby Eliot. Perhaps not surprisingly, Alison went on to a lifelong career as a kindergarten teacher, and now Alison’s daughter is a schoolteacher in East Boston.

Those older Unitarian Universalists, people like Abigail Eliot, inspired many of us younger Unitarian Universalists to devote our careers to making the world a better place. Many of those older Unitarian Universalists worked in fields that are mostly ignored by the public. (Sadly, Abigail Eliot’s contributions to humankind receive far less recognition than those of her famous poet cousin, T. S. Eliot.) Yet what I learn from those older Unitarian Universalists is that public recognition is less important than doing good work in the world. That’s one of the reasons why we should continue to hold them up as spiritual exemplars.

REA 2013 conference: remembering Grace Mitchell

The location of this year’s Religious Education Association conference has a peculiar significance to me. From the window of my hotel room, I can just see Winter Street where it crosses Route 128 and heads into Waltham. Back in the summer of 1973, I used to commute along that road on the way to my first paid job in education, working as a very junior counselor at day camp of Green Acres Day School in Waltham. Technically, I was unpaid staff — after all, I was only thirteen years old — but at the end of the summer the camp gave the junior counselors an honorarium of, I think, fifty dollars.

The founder and executive director of the camp was Grace Mitchell, a progressive educator; she is probably best to known to other educators for her long-time column in Early Childhood magazine. Looking back, I realize that I absorbed quite a bit from her approach to education, especially her sense that the timing of education should not be set by the ringing of bells, but rather by the engagement of the children themselves.

So being here in this part of Waltham brought back a lot of memories of that first job in education (including many uncomfortable memories of my early failures as an educator). Green Acres Day School was sold many years ago, and the land has been built up with condos. But there are quite a few of us who worked there, who continue to work in education, and who carry Grace mitchell’s legacy of progressive education forward.