Innovating with The Electric Company — Words from a Cooney Center Prize Winner

by Jay Schiffman
September 27, 2010

I was asked by the Cooney Center to share my thoughts about winning this year’s Prize for Breakthroughs in Literacy Learning: Innovate with The Electric Company. When I found out we won, I immediately called my wife and kids to let them know. I have four kids and the three oldest — Hannah (7), Isaac (5) and Josh (3) — are huge, I mean really huge, Electric Company fans. My youngest, Gabriella (1), is too young for TV, but I’m sure she’ll be an Electric Company groupie too. So, when I first told them I won, it was kind of like…I was a rock star!

 

But my rock star status was short-lived. My kids quickly realized that there were limits to my newfound fame.

Hannah:            “Are you going to meet Jessica?”

Isaac:                “And Hector.”

Josh:                 “And Manny Spamboni.”

Me:                   “Well…I don’t think I’ll have a chance to meet the cast. But I think I’ll meet the producers of the show.”

Hannah:             “The producer!  Who wants to meet a producer?”

Isaac:                “What’s a producer?”

Me:                   “The person who makes the show.”

Josh:                 “You mean Manny Spamboni.”

Isaac:                “No, not Manny Spamboni. He’s a Prankster, not a producer.”

Hannah:             “You won the prize. They should let you meet Jessica.”

Me:                    “I’ll see what I can do.”

After winning the award, I knew my mission was to meet Jessica, because like most dads, I don’t like to disappoint. With Jessica in my sights, I decided to start out by meeting a bunch of extremely talented individuals, including The Electric Company‘s Executive Producer, Karen Fowler, and Supervising Producer for Broadband, Erica Branch-Ridley. One meeting led to another and before I knew it we were brainstorming different ideas about how to build interactive stories and innovative games that would promote The Electric Company‘s educational curriculum.  During my Sesame Workshop meetings, I consistently met people who were dynamic, intelligent, and most of all, super nice. I must admit, the cynical New Yorker in me, more Oscar than Elmo, wondered how so many smart people could be so nice. Were they fabricated in some secret Sesame Workshop lab?  Were they cloned pursuant to a clandestine Department of Education grant? No. It turns out they were all real people.

After my first few meetings, I was excited to tell my kids about how great it was to work with the people who created their favorite television show. My daughter, part 7 year-old, part 17 year-old, impatiently asked, “Well, have you met Jessica yet?” Slightly deflated, I admitted that I had yet to meet the young star of the show. My company and I had won the first ever Cooney Center literacy prize and we were about to be awarded with our first contract to work for Sesame Workshop, but my status as a rock star dad was quickly fading.

I had another meeting scheduled with the creative team at The Electric Company. Karen Fowler told me that Jessica was in the building. An hour passed brainstorming different transmedia ideas, curricular goals like decoding and virtual world play patterns, but Jessica slipped out of the building before I had the chance to meet her. Maybe she sensed my desperation, or worse, that I was a celebrity stalker. It was time to confess to Karen that the real reason I was so aggressive in pushing my idea for a virtual world literacy curriculum was so that I could meet Jessica to stay in good standing with my kids.

We had one last meeting to discuss our ideas, and not more than15 minutes into it, guess who walked through the door. It was none other than Priscilla Diaz aka Jessica. My introduction to Priscilla was short, but memorable. Priscilla was just as engaging and bright as the character she plays on TV. I let her know that my kids were big fans of hers. We shook hands and I told her I may never wash that hand again. Mission accomplished!

I went home that day and immediately told my daughter that I met Jessica. She smiled for a few seconds, satisfied just long enough to want more, and said “well, how come you didn’t meet Manny Spamboni?”

* * *

In fairness to my children, as well as The Electric Company, I’m not sure everything happened exactly the way I suggested. But you get the basic idea. Dad accomplishes something he thinks is cool and kids think something else is cool. It’s the story of any parent’s life.

In winning the Cooney Center Prize for Breakthroughs in Literacy Learning, my company, Dreamkind, and I were able to accomplish our real mission. We are currently working with The Electric Company to build an awesome game that is based on hysterically funny characters. The game promotes The Electric Company‘s connected text curriculum and encourages kids to “follow-through” when reading. The game should go live on PBS Kids’ website in January 2011. We are very excited to have this opportunity and hope to continue to grow our relationship with Sesame Workshop. And secretly, I hope this game will finally give me a chance to meet Manny Spamboni.

 

Jay Schiffman is the founder of Dreamkind, an entertainment studio that develops video games and digital media for kids and their families. In collaboration with the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), Dreamkind has recently released its latest iPhone/iPad app, Sproutster. This educational video game is free and all the proceeds from advertising go to the WFP to feed malnourished children. So please download it and play, because the more you play, the more rice Dreamkind can donate. To learn more, go to www.dreamkind.com.