Thursday, May 23, 2013

Early Educational Television: The Role of the Schenectady City School District

Anne Slack, modern language coordinator for the Schenectady City School District and host of the educational television program "Fun With French," on set with students from Schenectady public schools in 1955. Photograph from Schenectady City School District Records. 

Schenectady has served as a site for innovation in television since the origins of the medium. The first ever successful television broadcast was made by Dr. Ernst Alexanderson to the homes of four General Electric executives in Schenectady in 1928, and Schenectady's WRGB is one of the oldest television stations in the country. As the popularity of television soared during the early 1950s, both nationally and locally, it seems natural that educators would be drawn to the possibilities of this medium.

The origins of educational television in Schenectady began during the 1952-1953 school year. Robert Hanna, manager of broadcasting for all GE projects, including WRGB, offered the city's school district one hour of TV time per week for educational programming. Regional interest was building in educational television. By May 1953, 120 organizations had organized the Mohawk-Hudson Council for Educational Television. The Schenectady City School District became a member. The Council employed a producer, Angela McDermott, to handle programming. By 1954, all Schenectady schools had television sets.

Third-graders at Lincoln School sit down for TV Schooltime. Photograph from Schenectady City School District Records. 

In the beginning, Mohawk-Hudson produced educational programs on WRGB, many under the series TV Schooltime. Several local schools and universities, libraries, museums, and other organizations created programming, and educational TV programs were shown in classrooms as part of the curriculum. Schenectady's schools didn't just receive educational TV programming in classrooms -- the district also had a hand in creating programming, and students from Schenectady schools often participated. The Schenectady City School District was responsible for a number of programs aimed at students, including "Science Adventures," "Conservation Road," "Our Friends," "Copy Desk," and "Teen Talk." The district also created programming aimed at adults, such as "It's Worth Knowing," a program aimed at homemakers, and "Let's Talk It Over," a program based on the discussion of public issues. After several years of broadcasting educational television on WRGB, the Mohawk-Hudson Council decided to form a non-commercial educational television station of its own. The station, WMHT, went on the air in 1962, becoming the second educational television station in New York State.

Alfred Hulstrunk during a taping of the educational TV program "Science Adventures." Hulstrunk served as coordinator of the Schenectady school district's elementary science resource program. In addition to his work on "Science Adventures," he worked with schools in the district to enrich their science curriculum, bringing animals such as iguanas, flying squirrels, and bats into the classroom for visits, and helping to set up science programming in elementary schools, and creating a weekly "Elementary Science Topics" bulletin. Photo from Schenectady City School District Records.    

The district's most successful program -- and the one that received the most media attention -- was "Fun With French." The TV program was the first in the United States to provide foreign language instruction to children. The series was hosted by Anne Slack, modern language coordinator for the Schenectady City School District. The program debuted in September 1953. The first studio class consisted of six third-graders from Euclid School and an estimated TV audience of 200,000, including students tuning in at 16 local elementary schools. After viewing "Fun With French," teachers carried on the information learned through activities and by using conversational French as part of the regular school-day routine. To facilitate this process, 32 elementary-school teachers in the district took night courses at Union College in French and in the teaching of foreign language. Teachers reported that the TV programming helped to engage the students, as it used a means of entertainment the students were all familiar with. The students themselves were also enthusiastic; 9-year-old Muriel Furbeck claimed that "Fun With French" was "much more fun than the cartoons on television." Some children carried the language experience out of the classroom, counting in French while playing hide-and-seek in their neighborhoods or wanting to speak the language at the dinner table.

Euclid School principal Virginia Day observes first-grade students participating in a French-language classroom activity after watching the educational TV program "Fun With French." Photo from Schenectady City School District Records. 

Slack's enthusiasm and gift for engaging students was an immediate hit. Voice of America, impressed by the quality of the program, requested transcripts of the program for overseas broadcasting. "Fun With French" was also featured in a 1956 issue of Parade magazine. Parade reported that Slack "squeeze[d] the agony" out of learning a foreign language, noting "students have no grammar drills, conjugate no verbs, practice pronunciation not letter by letter but only as they meet it in words . . . they do not see a French word until late in fourth grade, often not until fifth. By that time, French accent is embedded so deeply that few trip over English accents." Taking notice of the success of "Fun With French," the Massachusetts Modern Language Project recruited Slack to relocate to the Boston area to present and help to direct "Parlons Fran├žais," a new television program for Boston's WGBH-TV, in 1959. The program went national. Following her television work, Slack taught advanced French courses at Boston University and Harvard University, served as president of the American Association of Teachers of French, and presented workshops throughout the country.

Cover of "Television: An Instructional Tool," produced for teachers by the Schenectady City School District.  The guide discusses the benefits and limitations of TV instruction, and provides tips for teachers in using TV in the classroom, from readiness and follow-up activities to the physical arrangement in the room when showing a TV program in class. From Schenectady City School District Records. 

In addition to the educational television programming on WRGB, the district also experimented with closed-circuit television (CCTV). under a $10,000 Ford grant, the district experimented with closed-circuit television programs at Mont Pleasant High School in 1956. The pilot program was the first of its kind in New York State. The system used a communication system so that students in the remote classrooms could ask questions of the teacher in the "studio" classroom. "We have the students to teach - in science we need more of them," said teacher Joseph F. Collins. "Is it better to have inexperienced, perhaps uncertified teachers, or to accept CCTV problems and have an experienced teacher keep the students on their toes and really learning?" CCTV courses were offered in mathematics, science, English, and French. Non-certified teachers, such as college students pursuing degrees in education, could serve as proctors in the remote classrooms.


  1. y French teacher Anne Slack. In the pic Karen (Sahr) Corvino! Later my Science teacher Mr Hulstrunck and a pic of 3rd grade at Lincoln School. I remember the French program and our play Hansel & Gretl that we performed. I was the announcer since I was so poor in French. How ironic since later as an adult I had a very easy time learning a second language. This experience must have given me what they talk about in the article, an appetite and ease towards another language. This is amazing to me and shows that Anne Slack's method really paid off, at least for me.

  2. I was one of the students on the French instructional show. I was so afraid in the first show, but discovered it was fun and looked forward to it each week.