For Violet Wanta (M.A. ’17), Research & Evaluation Manager with the New York City Department of Education, the word “program” has generally meant academic courses, afterschool initiatives and the like.
Now, thanks to the COVID pandemic, it also refers to Let’s Learn NYC!, the daily television program that Wanta co-produces for WNET’s THIRTEEN and WLIW21 stations, which connects New York City’s youngest remote learners to foundational lessons in math, science, music and, especially, reading.
How did Wanta, who freely admits to having “no TV experience” and a seriously wonky background (she graduated from Teachers College’s Education Policy program and her mom is Jessica Wolff, Director of Policy & Research for TC’s Center for Educational Equity) become a key player in a broadcast project? The answer speaks to her own versatility and that of her DOE colleagues in the weeks after COVID abruptly shut down the city’s schools last spring.
“We immediately recognized that most people used laptops and smartphones to interact with remote learning,” says Wanta. “But since that assumed every student had the ability to navigate those spaces, we decided to follow a road that would allow us to deliver education in a different realm.”
The hunch proved right on target, with tens of thousands of viewers tuning in each day to Let’s Learn NYC! during its initial run from May through August.
Wanta oversees structural content and ensures that segments are completed in a timely manner, reviewing each show for “production worthiness.” Her main job is “to look at the big picture to make sure it is consistent with the DOE mission in terms of diversity and content that is accessible to a wide range of student abilities, including different languages.”
We immediately recognized that most people used laptops and smartphones to interact with remote learning. But since that assumed every student had the ability to navigate those spaces, we decided to follow a road that would allow us to deliver education in a different realm.
—Violet Wanta (M.A. ’17)
But she and her fellow DOE colleagues also take star turns at the head of the class.
Their approach is to break each lesson into segments that align with the attention span of children in the three-to-eight-year-old age brackets.
The emphasis is on reading skills. But episodes also set aside time each day for math, science, social studies, music and movement exercises.
To support social and emotional learning, the show transports viewer on virtual field trips to dance performances, zoos and botanical gardens.
The writing and performing is done by the educators themselves. It is a credit to the star power that exists in the system.
—Violet Wanta (M.A. ’17)
“The content areas all pull from a research base that is compatible with the subject matter,” Wanta says. “But the writing and performing is done by the educators themselves. It is a credit to the star power that exists in the system.”
Wanta, for one, has found herself doing on-camera, acappella renditions of children’s songs. She credits her chops to singing lessons she delivered as a first-grade classroom teacher, to her performances with the TC Community Choir, and to Blues Clues, her favorite TV show when she was a kid and the brainchild of two TC alumnae, Alice Wilder (Ed.D. ’98) and Angela Santomero (M.A. ’95).
“I’d always played instruments and had no experience singing before joining the choir,” she says. “The experience has helped me feel comfortable performing solo before a camera.”
After a three-month hiatus, and with uncertainty hanging over NYCDOE’s plans for keeping schools open as the virus spikes again, Let’s Learn NYC! resumed broadcasting in November, airing weekdays at 11 a.m. on THIRTEEN and at 9 a.m. on WLIW21. Starting this month, the show is airing on public television stations across the nation.