It’s Monday night at WKAR-TV, Michigan State’s new educational station. Studio A is a mad hubbub of voices, a tangle of TV cameras and props. “One minute . . . quiet in the studio,” barks the director over the PA system. And out of the unbelievable, hour-long chaos of rehearsal comes a weekly half-hour show spotlighting the best in current teen-age leisure activities. Produced and acted by high-school students from the Lansing, Mich., area, “Rec Room,” as the program is called, is a showcase of hobbies and creative work of all kinds, a forum for movie and pocket-book reviews, a place for displaying the latest fashions—male and female—and, in general, a clearinghouse for new angles and ideas on anything and everything young people do with their free time.
How did the program start? As part of a summer curriculum workshop sponsored by the East Lansing Board of Education. Two high-school English teachers, as a result of their study of the present curriculum, wondered how they might tap for educational purposes the tremendous reservoir of energy and enthusiasm expended by teenagers in their spare time. The plan started with the aim of developing a flexible program—after the “magazine concept” show developed by commercial TV—which would begin with our students’ obvious interest in popular culture and proceed from that point to suggest ways that might lead everybody to find new and stimulating leisure horizons.
In any one show, we figured, we ought to appeal to as many levels of taste as possible. To avoid that fatal mistake of talking down to teenagers, we found the best way was to include them in the planning and production. Indeed, as the program concluded its first series—after twenty telecasts—the teenagers were actually producing it. They outlined it, made arrangements for guest talent, created title cards, and acted in it. It has been a brilliant confirmation of our hunch that teenagers can produce marvels, given a little direction and encouragement.
The pivot of the series was an articulate hot rodder. He was the M.C. of the show, and he made the program run smoothly from one segment to another. And sensibly enough, the first program was on hot rodding. He brought a hot rod into the studio and explained what went into its construction. We went to the Michigan championship hot rod races (“drags,” to the initiates) and took twenty minutes of sound film. Edited, this became an exciting, eight-minute segment of authentic documentary—screeching tires, roaring exhaust, careening cars, and interviews with contestants, police, and safety officials. The rest of the show was devoted to a discussion of manners at football games, and previews of good books and jazz records. The first program was kinescoped for publicity purposes.
This kine was extremely useful to us, because a conflict in studio schedules made it impossible for us to go on with the series for about two months. While we waited for an opening in the schedule, we went to work trying to get the bugs out of the program. We showed the kine to English classes and asked the students to criticize it. And they did! First to go was the teacher-conceived title, “Spare Time for Youth.” The old title was much too condescending, and the students told us so. Next went the section on manners; it was too preachy. Finally the format gelled into a basement recreation room, complete with pennants, “no parking” signs, and stuffed deer head. Into the “Rec Room” each week would come teenagers who had done something outstanding with their leisure; they would be the features of the program. Standard fare included three movie reviewers, a book editor, and a boy and a girl fashion expert.
What are the sources for a program like this? We are lucky in our community to have a well-sponsored youth talent show. Each year, under the combined auspices of the Lansing State Journal and the Lansing recreation department, hundreds of local youngsters enter their best work in an area-wide competition. Enough talent shows itself to run several programs like ours. The grand prize winners for 1955 were a girl who wrote a book on her family’s trip to Japan and a boy who built a complete four-cylinder internal-combustion engine. Other youth talent prize winners who have appeared on our show include sculptors and painters, entrants in graphic arts, fly tying, clothing construction, and furniture, and an amazing young man who had constructed a radio-controlled airplane.
Music was another activity we thought important. Our theme was a moving bit of modern jazz by Shorty Rogers, called “Boar Jibu.” When the Jazztone Society—a new jazz-record-of-the-month club—offered an introductory sampler of all the styles of America’s own art form, from New Orleans to bop, we asked a jazz pianist studying music at Michigan State to explain the evolution of this kind of music. With the use of a piano, our record, and his musical background, we developed a short series, “Introducing Jazz.” Student quartets, dance teams, and soloists added variety on some programs. A high light of our telecast Valentine party was a series of popular love songs rendered by local young people. We even tried, with considerable success, telecasting a cello solo by a girl from one of the local high-school orchestras.
Fashion is something close to the hearts of teenagers, so it had a legitimate place on our show. One week we would have a profile on some phase of girls’ fashions—sweaters, blouses, spring dresses, sportswear; next week would be the boys’ turn—shirts, cuff links, sports coats, sweaters. Esquire, the New York Times fashion supplements, and local merchandise provided ample material for discussion. We tried, or rather the fashion editors tried, to stress how to buy wisely and how to take care of clothes chosen to fit one’s personality and physiognomy. Some of the drawings conceived to illustrate points were artistic triumphs in themselves.
Movies may not be better than ever, but our youngsters are better movie-goers because of the discussions they have had in their weekly reviewing sessions. The downtown theaters gladly gave us all the passes we wanted for our reviewers, who fortified themselves for the program by checking their reactions with those found in Time, Newsweek, the Saturday Review, the Commonweal, and other quality magazines. We even talked the managers into supplying a few film slips for our program and frequently had movie stills to focus the viewer’s attention on our remarks.
And I suppose no program could be complete, from an English teacher’s point of view, without book reviews. We were especially lucky to have as our editor an attractive girl who is equally at home in the buzzing confusion of the adolescent world and in the more staid atmosphere of top-quality academic work. She reviewed the monthly Teen Age Book Club selections in a particularly fresh and imaginative way. Occasionally she and others would move into less charted waters—with great results. We reviewed the Museum of Modern Art’s collection of photos, “The Family of Man”; several photo essays from Life, particularly the series on religions; and similar cultural material. These forays into the domain of the high-brow (for teenagers, it’s high-brow) came off very well because they were done in a relaxed and casual way that fitted in with the rest of the program.
What suggestions can we give to others interested in extending the idea into their communities? Choose “all-American” boys and girls for the M.C.’s. They should not only be bright and attractive but also free from stiffness and stuffiness; they should be full of enthusiasm. Plan your programs ahead so that next week’s participants can watch a show rehearsed and aired before they try their luck. Have your talent outline their presentations and time themselves before the show. Always expect them to run through their material too soon and always have padding for the end of the show. Nothing can produce anxiety like running out of material with ten minutes of air time still to be filled. It’s best to keep some filler material ready; it can be used next week if you don’t need it the first time.
But by all means do get into TV. It’s fun and it’s good for the youngsters. Not the least satisfaction is that of receiving the fullest co-operation from a TV staff like that at M.S.C. While an ETV station is perhaps more eager to accept such noncommercial ventures as a youth-leisure show, there is not reason why a civic-minded commercial station could not find time for such telecasting and no reason why sponsors could not be obtained. We just never considered that phase at WKAR-TV.
What does this activity have to do with English teaching? A great deal. Although the program is strictly extracurricular, it is not extra-educational. TV is a mode of communication that, as Pat Weaver of N.B.C. suggests, could revolutionize the human situation. It could, if used imaginatively, raise mass man’s awareness to levels heretofore attained only by a very small elite. As the chief exponent of the liberal-arts tradition in the high school, the English teacher has a responsibility to see that the mass-communications revolution is humanized.
If we can show our students the many ways in which they can achieve maturity through creative use of their leisure time, our purposes as interpreters of the humanities are well served. If we can, in a program like this, telecast what David Riesman calls models of autonomous leisure—people who know how to enjoy their leisure creatively—then we are encouraging that total maturity of the personality which is the chief aim of the liberal arts.
I am convinced that what we do to help the high-school student raise his sights in his leisure life is the most crucial single factor in America’s forthcoming cultural maturity. If we can start a few dynamos of personal enthusiasm roaring the high-school years, the battle is won. “Rec Room” had aims like that.