Students at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee learned a lesson in math, self-discipline, family togetherness, and ac demic achievement this year.
They stopped watching television for a week.
They learned that one week equals seven days, equals 168 hours, equals 10,080 minutes, equals 604,800 seconds and equals, however you compute it, a lo-o-ong time.
They learned that it’s more fun to play games with Mom and go for a walk with Dad than to sit in front of the television.
Most important, as fourth grader Shemicka Free put it, “I learned that I am smart and that TV is bad for your health.”
Parents and teachers who organized the No TV Week, meanwhile, learned important lessons in how to conduct a successful No TV campaign.
Most essential, they learned the importance of setting clear goals. No TV Week was not designed as a gimmick or novelty, but as a serious approach to questions nagging many parents and teachers: How can one control a childhood pastime that, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, consumes more time than any other activity except sleeping? How can one counter an activity that fosters mental and physical passivity and that undermines creativity? That perpetuates sexual and racial stereotypes, promotes violence and encourages the buying of useless and/or expensive products and unhealthy food?
That presents a distorted view of reality? That robs children of the sleep needed to do the best possible in school? That too often replaces conversation and social interaction?
Equally important, how can one avoid the self-defeating stance of condemning the technology of television rather than its misuse in our society?
As many as two-thirds of the 350 Fratney students in kindergarten through fifth grade pledged not to watch television during No TV Week from Dec. 3 to 10. Those who didn’t sign pledges still took part in all No TV activities at the school, and generally watched less television.
“The purpose of No TV Week is not to attack television,” explained a letter sent to all families. “It is to help children and their families better understand why they watch television, and whether they control the television or it controls them…. We believe No TV Week can be an opportunity to discover if television watching might be having a negative influence on your family’s use of free time: on reading, on playing, on learning, on conversations, on mealtimes, on the quality of family life.”
Other key lessons from the No TV Week campaign were the importance of parental involvement, good preparation by the teachers, and the benefits of a school-wide effort.
Parents were involved from the beginning, and the parent-based Curriculum Committee helped organize the campaign. In addition, two parent meetings were held before No TV Week to answer any questions, and a parent meeting afterward evaluated the campaign. Families also received a follow-up questionnaire. Perhaps most important, No TV Week was seen as a family undertaking. All family members, not just Fratney students, were encouraged to turn off the television.
Teachers, for their part, spent weeks preparing the students for No TV Week and discussing other things the children could do with their time — with an emphasis on reading. In line with the school’s integrated curriculum, No TV Week was linked to a range of activities, from writing to reading, drama, art, math and social sciences.
Because it involved the entire school, not just some students or some classes, it was easier to build support for the campaign.
The students made No TV banners and put them up throughout the school. A contest was held to see who could design the best No TV bookmark. School-wide “pep” rallies included No TV skits by students and teachers. And all students wrote lists of things they could do instead of watching television — with the second graders’ list including 30 activities ranging from baking cookies to studying the stars and finding the Little Dipper.
All students and families received a No TV-Week contract to sign, and those who successfully completed their pledge received a certificate of recognition. All students also got a No TV Week button.
The school-wide nature of the campaign particularly helped children who might not have gotten the support at home needed to turn off the television. Second-grade teacher Betzaida Gomez-Cohn said that although only about 10 of her students signed the No TV agreement, twice that many ended up not watching TV.
“After the whole week got started and people were talking about it, a lot of kids started to do it on their own,” she said.
Like other teachers, she immediately noticed an improvement in the classroom.“I had kids that week who were better behaved,” she said. “They had more sleep. They had things that they did that they could share, other than ‘I watched TV last night.’”
Two of the most difficult questions from the beginning were how families would respond to the No TV Week, and whether it was appropriate to unplug the television rather than limit its use. Judging from comments at the parents’ meetings and in the follow-up questionnaire, parents supported the complete ban. Many also thanked the school for taking the initiative in helping them solve a problem they didn’t always know how to control.
“We’ve been wanting to have a TV-free dinner for a long time,” one parent wrote on the questionnaire. “No TV Week got us to finally do that.”
“At first I thought exceptions should be made for the news or very special programs,” the parent also wrote. “But now I think that keeping the project totally without TV probably works better because you get more of a chance to see completely how TV affects us and how we function without it at all.”
Many parents encouraged the school to do a No TV Week again next year. Some suggested there also be a stronger emphasis on how television shows foster stereotypes and violence and how commercials promote junk food and useless toys. The teachers at La Escuela Fratney have also talked about a more immediate follow-up, such as TV-free nights once a week. They note that, given television’s dominating role in our society, a year-round campaign may be needed.
“I know some of the kids are going back to watching more TV,” said first grade teacher Robbie McLoud. “It’s hard not to.”
The following books are useful for anyone interested in a No TV campaign:
- The Plug-In Drug, by Marie Winn, New York: Penguin Books.
- Unplugging the Plug-In Drug, by Marie Winn, New York: Penguin Books.
- What To Do After You Turn Off The TV, by Frances Moore Lappe and Family, New York: Ballantine Books.
The following organizations have worthwhile materials:
- Action for Children’s Television, 20 University Road, Cambridge, Mass. 02138, (617) 876-6620.
- The Media Foundation, 1243 West 7th Ave., Vancouver, B.C. Canada V6H1B7.
- National Telemedia Council, Inc., 120 E. Wilson St., Madison, WI 53703 (608) 257-7712.
- National Coalition on Television Violence, P.O. Box 2157, Champaign, IL 61825 (217) 384-1920.