Nancy Casolaro managed product development at Disney Educational Products for over twenty years. During this time, she created and produced original educational and entertainment programs in a variety of formats, including films, videos, computer software, comic books, laserdiscs, DVDs and websites for children of all ages. She has presented at educational conferences and won numerous awards for her work. In addition, Nancy is the author of several books, including some from the Gifted & Talented series. As a freelance writer and consultant, she has worked for an assortment of companies including Leap Frog, Knowledge Adventure, America Online, Knowledge Kids, Mommy & Me and Disney InterActive. Nancy has a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Northwestern University, and taught elementary school in suburban Chicago and Washington, D.C.
Your work has melded education and entertainment seamlessly; how do you inject curriculum into an entertainment property without creating something that feels like homework to kids?
“I think that learning has to be fun. I look at math as puzzles to solve. The most important part of what I do is getting the learning right. When I was teaching second graders number facts, I taught it by playing blackjack. Everyone had to be able to add and subtract quickly in their heads. The motivation was to win the game but the outcome was that everyone learned their math facts.”
How seriously do creators take the educational content? Is there ever a tendency to tack on a math problem or a geography lesson where it might not naturally fit?
“I can’t speak for other creators, I can only speak for myself. To me the education is most important part. I can easily add the characters. The idea is to integrate the learning and the characters so that they work together.”
What kind of feedback have you received from parents? Are there areas of concern they wish would be addressed more deeply?
“I don’t have much contact with the parents who buy my books, however I can tell you about one review that was left for my gifted and talented math workbook:
By Karen B. Moore on March 17, 2003
I originally bought this workbook for my homeschooled 6 yr. old son who is an accelerated learner. Math has been hisleast favorite subject until this workbook. He has been quite bored with traditional math programs that focus more on drill than creative thinking. This workbook is completely new and different from any traditional math program we’ve experienced. Its focus is creative problem solving. We’re only sorry the workbook is as thin as it is.
Also, the Disney books in China for learning English were very well received by parents.”
Surely your work has encouraged and perhaps even taught kids around the world to learn how to read. Does it ever strike you how deeply some of these projects can burrow into the lives of kids, that what you do in an office in California might make life better for children in some faraway place?
“I hope it does. I have been very fortunate in my life and I would like to give back to kids. I recently did a project where I took a third grade class from East LA on a virtual trip with me to India. The kids were really touched by what they saw and had many questions. It was one example where I could see the learning had changed the students.”
When you watch movies or TV shows, do you ever find yourself looking for the educational content? Is there much of it in the average TV show for kids?
“There is great TV and then there is ho-hum TV, and even destructive TV. I think TV, like the new technology, has the power to really reach kids. It’s all what we do with it. Kids can really learn information, culture, stories and more from TV, however they can also learn very disrespectful ways of speaking to and treating others.”
Where are we headed with the marriage of entertainment and education? Does the proliferation of hand-held devices make your job easier or more difficult to figure out all the permutations?
“I am extremely excited about handheld devices. I have been involved with educational computing since 1981. For years I have listened to others talk about how one-on-one computing would change education, but there was never enough money to try. Now we have the opportunity to put the devices into everyone’s hands. Basically, these devices are computers and with them kids can follow whatever they’re interested in and learn more.
The key to this course, is training. Kids need to know where not to go and what not to do. They need to learn how to find reputable sources and how to determine if a source is reputable. If we teach kids to use these devices correctly there is so much they can do and learn. We can have young scientists experimenting in virtual labs, aspiring photographers can edit and create new art, and the list of possibilities continues. I find it very exciting.”