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'De-ALF' The Classroom!

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Let me make one thing perfectly clear. I love ALF. I enjoy the humor in the show, and I appreciate the character's underlying sensitivity. I am wholeheartedly in favor of keeping him on television. But visits to dozens of classrooms as a supervisor of student teachers have convinced me we should see a lot less of him in school.

Of course, in calling for "de-ALFing,'' I am using ALF to represent the vast array of cute, cartoon-like characters that range from the infamous California Raisins to the famous Walt Disney legends (the Smurfs are persona non grata these days). On bulletin boards and in learning centers in classrooms, these characters often monopolize the display space, both at the elementary and secondary level. The teacher's purpose in using these figures is usually motivational; in many instances, teachers believe the students become more eager to learn in class when inspired by Roger Rabbit. But the overabundance of these creatures in school, added to their presence in television, movies, magazines, and slick commercials, has elevated their status far beyond their real significance. It is time, therefore, to lessen their influence by replacing them in the classroom.

Replace the ALFs, Care Bears, and the rest with great historical and literary figures, real and legendary. We should see more of the heroes, the caring individuals, in classrooms-- the Benjamin Franklins, the Sally Rides, and the Albert Schweitzers. Moreover, recent studies by E.D. Hirsch Jr. and Diane Ravitch convincingly argue that young people today are not exposed enough to the great cultural heritage of mankind, including characters from myths, legends, and folktales. Heroes from these domains can likewise be used to replace the Madison Avenue fad creatures.

Opportunities abound to stimulate and teach through creative visual displays using historical and literary figures. Take the "Jobs Board'' used in almost every elementary classroom to indicate which child does which job (wash the chalkboard and distribute papers, for example) for the week. Names are switched to different jobs in either a Monday morning or Friday afternoon ritual. The display is often decorated with some cartoon character, usually with the caption, "Do a good job for me'' coming from its mouth.

Imagine, instead, that the display centered around Benjamin Franklin, "the man of many jobs.'' Small drawings representing his various occupations (inventor, writer, mailman, fireman, and so on) could be scattered throughout the bulletin board. When classroom jobs were changed, a few minutes could be taken to discuss briefly one of Mr. Franklin's jobs. By the end of the school year, the students would have learned about a great American as they accomplished a weekly routine. And, every day, instead of looking at Goofy, they are looking at Ben.

Another example: Teachers in elementary school often give names to their reading groups. The California Raisins read one thing, while the Snoopys and the Gummi Bears read something else. Why not name the groups the Madame Curies, the Susan B. Anthonys, and the Harriet Tubmans or the Olympians, the Titans, and the Persephones?

It is simply a case of reordering priorities and deciding to extend learning through visual materials teachers use all the time. It really doesn't matter if Sacajawea is part of the 3rd grade curriculum--she can still help the students "find the correct path'' in a multiplication center just as she helped Lewis and Clark. The 3rd graders will not only learn the mathematical operations; they will also learn about a real heroine.

Think about a classroom and what it reveals. It should stimulate and enhance learning, not merely reflect modernday commercialism. It is time to have at least a balance between the ALFs and the Franklins. Portraits of Washington and Lincoln were once standard in American classrooms; now they appear only for about two weeks in February. But ALF and his compatriots are usually visible all year! So, de-ALF the classroom and begin using its environment to teach about the great women and men of our world. Every time ALF comes down and Ben goes up, another step toward cultural literacy will be taken.

Dennis Denenberg is the director of student teaching at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

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