The First TV Studio in an Elementary School

Murray Avenue Elementary in Larchmont, NY was featured on the Today Show in 1967

In the early 1960s, as television began to implant itself in the lives and living rooms of families around the country, some were alarmed. But others began to ask if television couldn't be harnessed in support of educational objectives. During the period 1965-1975, the Larchmont-Mamaroneck public schools in Westchester County, New York, established a reputation as pioneers in bringing television into the school.

Through an extraordinary confluence of geography (Larchmont is an historic village north of New York City and home of many commuting professional media executives); timing (Marshall McLuhan's writings were influential); talented teachers and visionary administrators (Superintendent Calvert Schlick told the school board in 1966: "Understanding media is a basic skill. Anything that equips students to deal with the barrage of information beamed at them by TV is a valid part of the curriculum."); grant money from the state and the Ford Foundation, and generous commitment of time by dozens of parent volunteers (stay-at-home moms active in the Junior League), the school system created perhaps the earliest documented program of media literacy in the United States.

The first major project was the TV studio at Murray Avenue Elementary School.

It Started with a Gift
In 1962, a small industrial TV camera was donated to the school. It sparked the imagination of Jean Baity, a parent volunteer who had been formally educated in speech and television at the University of Michigan. The Murray Avenue School would become the beneficiary of not only her training but also her effervescent personality. She would reflect years later: "We played around with the camera and eventually hooked it up to all the rooms. It was a toy…like computers are now for a lot of kids."

A year later, in the fall of 1963, David K. Stewart, a former educational radio announcer from Iowa, was hired as principal. He and Baity were a perfectly matched team. She wrote to a former professor at Michigan that instead of droning out the morning announcements on the PA system like most principals do, he initiated a morning broadcast - 'a show.' "We also did a current events show weekly and a language development show for kindergartners. Many of the teachers became quite enthusiastic and, of course the students thought it was great fun."

But it was more than just fun. These activities created the impetus for Stewart to apply for a grant from the State Education Department to construct a "complete TV system" for experimental purposes. In addition, a TV distribution system was to be installed in five other buildings in the school district. According to a front page report in the local newspaper, "The entire installation will cost $28,387, but half will be paid by the State."

On the Set with Sixth Graders
When school opened in September 1966 a modern 3-camera studio had been installed in the school basement. Looking like "the set for Captain Video — all pale gray equipment with buttons, lights, and levers glistening in primary colors - the studio was to be entered through a soundproofed door with a red light above," recalls Baity.

Here The Morning Show, patterned after The Today Show, was developed by the students under the guidance of Jean Baity and parent volunteers she trained. Each of the school's fifth- and sixth-grade classes took turns serving as talent on the program, after which they would be invited to join the technical crew. The show included numerous segments, such as "Today in History," "Happy Birthday Wishes," "Local News," "Sports," and "Murray Avenue News and Views." A visitor to the studio observed:

It's 8:30 in the morning at the television studio. The technical crew has arrived and is busy checking out the equipment. Performers straggle in. A camera man shinnies up a pole to adjust a light. Thirty staff members move purposively back and forth across the floor of the set. There is remarkably little noise. At 8:45 sharp the set is cleared; the show begins.

In a glass-enclosed control room a nine-year-old blond in a mini-skirt sits at the console efficiently pushing the green and red buttons. The boy on her left is running the sound machine … The producer/director, wearing a Girl Scout leader's uniform, looks at her Mickey Mouse watch.
On the floor, two cameras zoom in and out in a carefully prearranged sequence: close-up on the announcer, shift to the newsreporter; back to the announcer; swing left to the weather forecaster. Fade. The International news of the day is delivered in Brinkley manner by an appropriately serious fifth grader. Four earnest first graders discuss housing; "There are four kinds of housing: shingle housing, trailer housing; ranch houses; and apartment houses. Apartments are very big. They have many windows." End of exposition and on to the school treasure hunt: A boy reads the two clues for the day. "It's above the floor, below the lights and near Miss Schneider's homeroom."

8:55. The show ends. The children troop into the control room and the show is re-run. Performers watch intently as their images dance across the monitor. During the screening, one girl says to the announcer, "You know, you're very good." Adjusting her vinyl jumper, the announcer replies, "I know." The producer in the Girl Scout uniform looks at her watch. It's time to go. Fade.

Training took place on lunch hour and after school, crew assignments being rotated weekly. The students had to have parental as well as teacher permission to participate; both were routinely granted. Mrs. Baity said that parents were enthusiastic about their children's participation. There were a few who thought this was "just fluff," but, she said, "We just put their children on television once and those parents changed their minds."

Fifth-graders began using the school's TV studio as active television producers. In a short time each had been trained to use cameras, lighting systems, and the special effects panel. They learned the lingo: pan, dolly, scoop, fade, super, cut. They learned how to write a script, to interview "on camera," and to organize visuals. Sixth-graders saw themselves as executive producers, managing all aspects of three-camera production. Visitors to the studio saw 10 and 11-year olds working almost with professional aplomb among tape decks, cameras, scoop lights, spotlights, and the flashing console. Adults were generally stunned by the lack of awe or awkwardness among the students.

Integrating TV into the Curriculum
Stewart and Baity both felt that the new studio was a facility that should not only be used for morning news but also be integrated into the school day in order to help children understand television and to support and extend the curriculum. To do that Baity and her small group of parent volunteers needed more help. She tapped the Junior League, a women's volunteer organization that required its members to commit at least four hours a week to a regular "placement" on a year round basis. All were required to take her semester-long course in how to manage educational production activities in the studio with the children. They set about helping the teachers develop a variety of productions:

  • Studio Five - Fifth-graders present science experiments enhanced by close-ups and unusual camera angles.
  • Read Me a Story -first-graders read a short story on-camera after rehearsing it many times. The reading is enhanced by the child's drawings and self-selected props and music.
  • Community Helpers -interviews with individuals such as the fire chief, school board members, and local authors and artists.

According to a New York Times report, Raymond W. Graf, supervisor of educational TV in the state's department of education, said of the Larchmont project: "This type of program is unique…Most closed circuit operations are teacher oriented. We have realized from the Murray Avenue project that there is another value of TV (in the school)."In a letter to her mentor at Michigan, Baity also expressed amazement about the kinds of progress children made: (indent next)

"Unlike most closed circuit systems where the teachers do all the programs, ours emphasizes children doing the work (although they think of it as fun). I am amazed daily by what a little first grader can do as the announcer on a program. Perhaps most rewarding is what it does for a child's confidence...A child with a severe stutter worked for three weeks and when the speech teacher watched his show she had tears running down her face. She said his speech on that show would have taken her six months to develop. We feel as though we watch a miracle a day. This isn't even mentioning the many children who are so creative in both performing talent and technical aspects."

Teaching the Teachers
Baity's carefully prepared teaching materials reflected her background and attitude. For example, in "How to Prepare a Television Program: A Guide for Elementary School Students," Baity describes in detail how to make a title card, select opening music, write the script, create visuals, and even choose performer's clothes. Above all she emphasizes to students in the manual: "Use your imagination - we can try anything - have fun!!"

The companion piece for teachers and curriculum developers, titled "Suggested Uses for Video Systems in Elementary Schools," outlines ideas for "student involved programs" dealing with such areas as social studies, science, spelling, interviews, field trip reports, individual hobbies, and more.

A manual on curriculum ideas included in-service teacher education projects such as: teacher self-evaluation (tape yourself in action); math single-concept ideas (recorded on tape for math lab); basic science (tape a well-planned and concise demonstration, explanation, or review); parent conference (show on tape a difficult or delicate situation that is handled well); and other ideas for staff development and public relations. In just a few years TV had become respected as a potent teaching tool, which trained individuals could use with playful imagination.

In November of 1966 NBC's Today Show came to Larchmont to do a feature on the Murray Avenue School. Barbara Walters, Hugh Downs, the show's hosts at the time, and David Stewart, the principal engaged in a lengthy 30 minute conversation that included a film segment of the children at work in the studio.

In 1972 the studio was moved to the Mamaroneck High School to allow for broader utilization by the older media students -- many were the same students who had started their media education at Murray Avenue Elementary School.

What was Accomplished
A follow-up study conducted in the early 1990s (Moody, 1993, Columbia U.) showed that many of these students had successful careers in communications including a number of producers for major networks. A far greater number had benefited from new insights into the medium of television and critical thinking skill developed in the process of using it.

David Gumpel, who had come to the TV studio when he was in the fifth grade, was an Emmy-award winning producer with Jim Hensen in the year the follow-up was done. Gumpel recalls, "I was at a twisting point in the 5th grade-failing everything in the regular classroom." He said that his teachers thought of him as less capable than some of the others because he could barely read. What the teachers did not wish to deal with was David's dyslexia. However in fourth grade, David had been in a play that performed in the TV studio. Gumpel says that he remembers only one thing about that experience: "LIGHTS! ...and the black and white flickering monitors." Talented at problem-solving, he soon found his niche repairing and reconnecting things in the studio.

Indeed, the uniqueness of the Murray Avenue school experiments lay in the fact that students made things with their own hands. Gumpel recalls that, "the value of the program is -- to do television is -- the physical involvement in creating something. I think we were always making something or figuring something out. Regular education doesn't have a discovery mode, really. It's not that the things we discovered didn't exist, but we were discovering what we could do with what we had. We could stretch things. "

It would later be proposed, during the 1970s, that the path to "understanding media" was learning "critical viewing skills" which could be taught by lecture, observation and discussion. The question would become: Is the best way to understand media through critical viewing or hands-on production? For those who would track this question across the 1960s, 1970s and beyond, it would appear that both are needed; they complement, nurture and enrich each other - like reading and writing.

By the end of the 1960s, the educators in Mamaroneck tended to feel that the most important use of television in school was as an instrument of writing -- that is, giving expression to students' own thoughts, feelings and visual imagery. Students who synthesize and express learning through television learn the grammar and syntax of the medium in the process of doing production work.

And what about young David Gumpel, the one who couldn't learn to read by the "usual" methods?

When he went to Los Angeles to accept the Emmy Award, Gumpel was given one ticket for a guest. His wife? No. He took Mike Witsch, his television teacher from Mamaroneck.

Author Bio: 

As a parent, teacher and resident of Larchmont, NY, Kate Moody witnessed and participated in the early experiments with television production in Larchmont schools in the 1960's. She tells the full story of those days, the challenges involved and what became of the young people who participated in The Children of Telstar: Early Experiments in School Television Production (#1018) She holds an EdD from Teachers College / Columbia University in New York City.