Sixteen years teaching preschool, kindergarten, and first grade have given Sarah Falkiner an understanding of gaps in school readiness that students bring to the table.
“There’s some research that says that kids should’ve heard a thousand books before they enter kindergarten,” Falkiner said. But not every family can meet this mark. Falkiner doesn’t fault anyone for this, running off a long list of possible reasons (multiple jobs, busy surviving, doesn’t enjoy reading, etc.), but acknowledges that children who come from “book rich” families are more prepared.
While educators can diligently send books home with children in an effort to promote literacy, that doesn’t guarantee any read-aloud sessions. A healthy dose of creative thinking is necessary.
“We have to start really questioning what education can look like and feel flexible and pivot with the needs,” the teacher said. While we don’t know what comes next amidst the pandemic, “we can continue to expose kids to rich learning opportunities in different ways.”
Falkiner wants to do this using her experience as an educator and skill as a filmmaker. She is currently working with collaborators including Grace Pisula (Gold Point Studio), Sivan Spector, and Jackie Smook (both from Oddbox Theater) to bring a “T.V. show with a curriculum” to life.
The show, “At the Garden,” was originally imagined at the Altgeld-Sawyer corner farm, but the idea outgrew its location. Ambient noise, bad weather, and more make it difficult to film on a Chicago street corner. So the team is now raising funds to shoot a four-scene concept video on a soundstage. They will use this video to pitch to networks and explore various avenues to get the series onto kids’ screens.
Growing the Show Indoors
The set design department is working hard to retain the magic of outdoors in a sustainable way inside. The set will include cardboard tree trunks, plus leaves made from newspaper and green plastic bottles; details which will lend an “eye-spy” element to the show. Additionally, to maintain the feel of the city, the team is working with So Midwest inc. to render a street full of all types of Chicago homes. The rendering will be projected onto a set wall.
The care the team is pouring into the set runs over to all aspects of the show. The writers’ table has already completed a pilot and four episodes and is now working on mapping out an entire season. Each episode will begin by posing a social-emotional problem, and then include a read-aloud, the problem being solved, plus puppets and original music.
Bridging Social-Emotional Divides
“Kids aren’t getting the social-emotional attention that they need,” Falkiner said. “When somebody grabs a toy out of somebody’s hands or somebody calls somebody a bad word or whatnot, then a teacher can get involved and also help the kids solve the problem by themselves. Give them the language to use.”
This is difficult to do over Google Meet though, she said.
“At the Garden” would supplement this gap by demonstrating problem-solving onscreen between both puppets and adults. “Kids see a lot, even though we want to protect them. They are much more knowledgeable than we know,” she said. “I don’t want to dumb things down. I don’t want to be afraid to take on topics.”
Falkiner is excited to explore tough themes through books that young viewers can recognize themselves in. She maintains that “books should be mirrors for kids, not windows.” On March 6, to secure full funding the following day, the “At the Garden” team will host a virtual read-aloud of “Something Beautiful” with author Sharon Dennis Wyeth at 2 p.m.. The team will also join her in a discussion about youth empowerment.
“Every year when I’ve read that book, kids relate and feel empowered that they can create change,” Falkiner said.
In order to create change through “At the Garden,” Falkiner and her team need to reach their funding goal. You can register for the virtual event here. You can donate through their GoFundMe or get in touch with Falkiner at firstname.lastname@example.org to explore sponsorship options.
“At the Garden” has the team, the vision, and even the puppets — now they just need some generosity in order to create an accessible resource for teachers, kids, and their adults.