Lessons learned from LeVar Burton

Last week I had the absolute privledge to meet and speak with acclaimed producer/director/actor/educator Levar Burton (I’ve linked to his new exciting project, RRKidz!). He came to Tufts University to receive the Eliot-Pearson Award for Children’s Media, organized by the CD department here at Tufts. After the award, there was a luncheon and workshop for friends and students of EP.

I was such a nervous wreck when I met him initially–he, alongside Fred Rogers & the Sesame Workshop, have really served as longtime heroes to me for their dedication to meaningful children’s programming. It was truly an honor to be in the same room with him, but to actually have a conversation with him? I am still so star struck! Not only was he the nicest guy, but you could really tell he loved what he was doing, and was excited for the future of children’s media.

I was very curious to hear his thoughts on physical vs. digital books. As someone who was so passionate about [physical] books, I asked “What experiences are we losing when we use interactive books vs physical books?” His answer: Not much.

In short, he mentioned the experience of sharing books together and the quality of storytelling was far more important than a physical book, which eBooks/apps can also provide. I think that’s something that a lot of people need to hear–there’s a plethora of potential that can come from a more interactive experience, so long as the experience is being shared.

Mr. Burton’s enthusiasm for the eBook industry and interactive media was refreshing. I absolutely loved it.

Here were some of the other most important takeaways for me.

1. View your work as your ministry.

Mr. Burton & Mr. Rogers both had spiritual pasts and studied in seminary schools within their own separate faiths. This translated to their work with television–with every job, you have the opportunity to couple it with a positive message or experience. By viewing your work as your ministry, you can make sure that your work has meaning. Every day.

2. Storytelling is an intregal part of the human experience.

Mr. Burton touched on a variety of points relating to the importance of storytelling.
-For children, proper representation/diversity in media is absolutely critical to positive development.
-If you have a moral to your story (as you should, always), let it take place through the storytelling–don’t be preachy.
-Kids have a built-in “BS meter”. If you’re not enthusiastic about the message, they won’t be either.

3. “Everything is educational. But the question is, what are you teaching?”

Similar to point one, Mr. Burton emphasized the notion that one must have a sense of responsibility with what you produce. This point made me really think about a lot of the programming/games out there… are there positive messages and skills within most popular apps or shows? If one has an opportunity to create something for kids, we should make sure that there’s time dedicated to addressing the developmental/educational opportunities that come with it.

4. Your time/talents are a gift to those you share them to: “The giving of your gift is the most important thing you can do”.

Self-explanatory. And oh so beautiful, isn’t it?

All in all, it was a fantastic day. Thank you Mr. Burton for continuing to be so passionate about positive growth and change. There is so much potential for positive learning through new and evolving tech. I can’t wait to be a part of it!

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