Meet Zeerak, the Newest Afghan Muppet

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street isn't just an American show—it has co-productions around the world, localized for kids in different countries and cultures. In Afghanistan, Baghch-e-Simsim ("Sesame Garden") just began its sixth season. Last year, the show introduced 6-year-old Zari, the first Afghan Muppet. Now, Baghch-e-Simsim adds its second Afghan Muppet, Zeerak, to its cast.

Zeerak, whose name means "smart" and "talented" in Dari and Pashto, is Zari's younger brother. He's 4 years old. He enjoys painting and playing games, and is just learning to read and count—though he's not going to school just yet. Zeerak marks the first time a male Afghan Muppet has ever existed, and he will likely become a role model for kids in the region. Baghch-e-Simsim is the most-watched TV program among young children in Afghanistan.

Zeerak sits with his older sister Zari. They're reading together.
Zeerak sits with his older sister Zari. They're reading together.
Sesame Workshop

Like Zari, Zeerak has multicolored yarn hair. He's orange, with a purple nose, glasses, and an outfit appropriate to the region. In a press release, the Sesame Workshop explained early interactions between Zeerak and Zari:

In one segment called “Going to School,” Zeerak eagerly awaits Zari’s return from school and is excited to hear about her day. Zari explains that Zeerak will have the opportunity to go to school too someday, and that working hard in school will help him achieve his dreams. Zari encourages Zeerak to think about what he might become when he grows up, and offers to teach him a few lessons before he’s ready to go to school himself.

It's hard to overestimate the impact of this TV show on Afghan children. The Sesame Workshop reports:

...[A]mong children who watch TV, over 80% report watching [Baghch-e-Simsim]; 3.1 million children ages 3-7 are tuning in, up 45% from 2015. And Baghch-e-Simsim isn’t only engaging children—more than 70% of parents and caregivers watch the program alongside children, with Baghch-e-Simsim surpassing other Afghan children’s shows in terms of adult-child co-viewership.

Zeerak is on the show now, and you can catch up on segments via YouTube if you happen not to be in Afghanistan. For a look behind the scenes of the show's production (in English), check out this delightful video in which (among other things) Muppeteers in the US videoconference with their counterparts in Afghanistan. Enjoy:

Texas Is the Latest State to Bring Cursive Writing Back to Its School Curriculums

iStock.com/narvikk
iStock.com/narvikk

The 2000s weren't a great decade for cursive handwriting. As computers became mainstream, many school districts dropped cursive lessons in favor of keyboard proficiency. But in recent years, the trend has been moving in the opposite direction, and Texas is the latest state to reinstate cursive writing in its public schools, ABC 25 reports.

Because Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (the state's curriculum standards for grades K through 12) didn't require it, cursive has been absent from many Texas classrooms for years. In 2017, the State Board of Education made it mandatory, but the new requirement won't take effect until the 2019 to 2020 school year. Starting with next year's second-grade class, all grade schoolers in Texas's public school system must be taught to write legible cursive by fifth grade.

Though opponents argue that learning cursive is a waste of time in the digital age, supporters of the writing style say it promotes clearer thinking. Elizabeth Giniewicz, executive director of elementary curriculum for the Temple Independent School District in Texas, tells ABC 25, "It's important that our kids are able to communicate through the written word and through the spoken word."

Texas is just one state that's reversed its stance on teaching cursive. Ohio came out in favor of cursive in 2018, making it mandatory starting in kindergarten.

[h/t ABC 25]

LEGO's New SPIKE Prime Is Designed to Teach Kids Coding and Confidence

LEGO Education
LEGO Education

LEGO isn’t just a company that makes cool toys (though it does that in spades). The company also has an education arm that brings LEGOs into the classroom. And its latest release is designed to give kids a lesson in more than just brick-based engineering. SPIKE Prime provides lessons in coding, hands-on building, and—most important of all—confidence.

Aimed at middle school classrooms, SPIKE Prime features LEGO bricks, a programmable hub that can control sensors and motors, and an app where kids can learn to code the functions that will be performed by their LEGO creation. The app, which uses the block-based Scratch coding language, features a variety of lesson plans for teachers, each one designed to be completed in a 45-minute period.

The LEGO creations themselves are relatively easy to put together—they’re designed to take 10 to 20 minutes apiece—so that kids can focus on the coding and experimentation they’re supposed to do rather than putting together bricks. (This also helps kids feel more free to break apart their prototypes and try again, since they didn’t spend an hour putting the original model together.) However, unlike many coding toys aimed at teaching kids computer science skills, the lessons are designed to be facilitated by a teacher, rather than being self-led by students.

A LEGO Spike Prime build
Spike Prime's "Break Dance Model"
LEGO Education

One of the main goals of SPIKE Prime isn’t just to teach kids STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) skills. It’s also to help them build confidence in those areas by teaching them to problem-solve, prototype, and experiment. According to a LEGO-commissioned poll of more than 5000 students, 5000 parents, and 1150 teachers in five countries, fewer than one in five students feels “very confident” about their STEAM abilities. Half of the students surveyed said trying new things in school makes them nervous. “With SPIKE Prime and the lessons featured in the SPIKE app, these children will be inspired to experiment with different solutions, try new things and ultimately become more confident learners,” LEGO Education president Esben Stærk Jørgensen said in a press release.

SPIKE Prime comes with 523 pieces, most of which build on the beams and gears offered by the more advanced LEGO Technic line. Some pieces, however, are entirely new LEGO elements that merge some of the functions of Technic pieces with regular LEGO bricks, like traditional-looking rectangular bricks that also work with Technic axles.

LEGO plans to work with local teachers to release the SPIKE Prime system across the world, in 17 different languages. The company also plans to release a version that uses Python, which is a more practical coding language for real-life programming than Scratch. And going forward, the company will add new functionalities and curricula to expand SPIKE Prime’s offerings, so that teachers can have new lessons to bring to their classrooms.

SPIKE Prime will be released in August, but it’s available for pre-order now on the LEGO Education website. Kits start at $329.95, with additional elements available separately.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER