An Education Scriptwriter Who's Canned the Spinach
Published in Campaign for TC
By Joe Levine
Scott Cameron was no stranger to pressure when he took on the challenge of scripting TC’s 125th Anniversary Gala.
Early on in his career, he was assigned to work on a joint Israeli-Palestinian production of “Sesame Street.” Writers, producers and others from both groups assembled in New York City for a big creative meeting, and by day three, a plan was hashed out for a show featuring two streets – one Israeli and one Palestinian – with residents meeting at a shared well. It seemed a fitting reflection of reality, neither too bleak nor too rosy-hued.
Then disaster struck: Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, had been assassinated. At first it was not known that an Israeli extremist was the killer.
“It was a very powerful moment,” recalls Cameron. “This terrible tragedy had occurred, but within just a few hours, everyone said, ‘We have to keep going.’ I was still a student at Teachers College in the International Education and Development program, still learning how the political and the personal shaped educational policy and materials. And when I heard those producers and educators from Israel and the Palestinian Territories say, ‘Now, more than ever, we have to teach mutual respect, despite the ongoing violence at every level,’ it made me look at the rest of my TC studies in a new light. You have to find the personal amidst the political; that’s when meaningful work gets done.”
Obviously, the pressures Cameron faced in scripting TC’s gala show last fall were nowhere near as intense. Still, it would be hard to imagine someone more perfectly qualified for the job.
“I felt I really understood what TC needed and wanted – I got its mission and its language and I knew it had just 45 minutes to tell its entire story,” says Cameron, who began interning at the famed Sesame Workshop through one of his TC professors, Rosemarie Truglio, who went on to become the Workshop’s Vice President for Education and Research. “But I also understood the perspective of AE [About Entertainment, the company that produced the gala], who wanted to be sure that we were putting on a really entertaining show. And that’s the exact conflict I’ve always felt with educational entertainment. On the one side, you’ve got the show people saying, ‘Here’s this really funny joke.’ And then you’ve got me as the education guy saying, ‘Yeah, it’s funny, but it models the wrong behavior for kids,’ or ‘Our audience won’t understand this.’ or ‘Do you have any idea how unintentionally offensive you’re being to Group X, Y and Z?’
“When I started out in the mid-90s, a lot of people still called educational programming ‘spinach TV,’ meaning that it was good for you, but boring. I used to think my job was to fight that perception. But eventually I learned that, really, my job was to constantly update the definition of ‘boring.’ Because what was engaging and dynamic for kids three years ago isn’t necessarily what’s engaging to them now. And if we’re trying to affect kids’ lives, we have to meet them where they are, right now.”
For Cameron, applying educational ideas in context has been the key to not only bridging the education-entertainment divide, but erasing it entirely. As he sees it, the two sides meet – like Israelis and Palestinians at the well – around crafting something that will engage the audience by virtue of being personally relevant, connected to a prior frame of reference and genuinely stimulating and fun.
Cameron has spent a significant chunk of his career using precisely that yardstick to develop and assess programming of different kinds. He’s tested curricula in preschools in China and Japan, developed multimedia projects for companies like Disney and Leapfrog, and evaluated whether certain well-known cartoon characters could be adapted for educational purposes. Most important, he served as a producer, writer, and Director of Education and Research for the second incarnation of Sesame Workshop’s “The Electric Company,” which ran as part of the PBS Kids Ready to Learn series from 2009 through 2013. Backed by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the effort was charged with helping to improve literacy – and vocabulary in particular – in children ages 6-9.
As a first step, Cameron and his team conducted viewer tests of segments from the old 1970s-era “Electric Company” with kids in low-income communities.
“We did pre- and post-viewing interviews with each child, and also measured what’s called ‘eyes on screen’ – when kids are actually watching the screen as opposed to \picking at a shoelace or talking to a friend,” he says. “I’d grown up on the original show, with Rita Moreno and Bill Cosby and Morgan Freeman, and I thought it was great, but we learned very quickly that we would have to make some changes for today’s kids.”
One basic change was moving away from the original show’s sketch format to a narrative format that allowed characters to use vocabulary within the context of an ongoing storyline. Dozens of other changes came about after extensive brainstorming sessions with award-winning novelists, cartoonists, musicians, and, of course, a board of literacy experts -- including one of Cameron’s TC mentors, Education Professor Charles Kinzer. And through testing some of the early pilots, which were shot with rising stars such as Lynn Manuel Miranda and Reggie Watts, they learned to put aside their own preconceptions of what kids might find cool.
“A six year-old who sees a character with a crazy, unkempt haircut isn’t necessarily going to think that character’s cool. In fact, he may think he’s scary. And if your target audience thinks your lead character is scary … well, you have a problem. So, we constantly had to check our assumptions and talk to kids.”
Eventually, through an unusually tight working relationship between the creative people and the education people, the new Electric Company found its groove and went on to win three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Children’s Series, as well as numerous awards for its innovative website and outreach activities. Cameron believes the project has been a milestone because it engaged kids with a curriculum across all media – video, online games, print, community activities, even music-making.
Nowadays, Cameron is branching out into other venues. He continues writing for television, and he currently has a novel and a couple of scripts for grown-up musicals in the works. Still, his love for education – and his sense of debt to TC, in particular – remain career touchstones.
“I moved to New York City to come to Teachers College,” he says. “My first night in Whittier dorm, with all the crazy traffic noise outside, I lay there thinking, ‘I’ll never be able to sleep in this town let alone get work done.’ Now I’ve been here nearly 20 years, and TC was the launching pad.”
Cameron says TC gave him context, so that he ended up “doing a deep dive instead of feeling like a tourist. It gave me an ecosystem of people that became my world, and they still are.”