Even though they are totally different ages and stages, both of my kids love the PBS kids TV show Martha Speaks, based on the popular book series by Susan Meddaugh. And I do, too. It builds vocabulary, comprehension, and spelling all while entertaining. It even offers a parent and teacher's guide.
WGBH-Boston, producer of the show, contacted me with the opportunity to interview the author of the books and also the producers of the TV show. I thought it would be great to instead let kids be a direct, interactive part of the interview, and the incredible third grade class of St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal School in Nassau Bay, Texas took on the project.
This is a fantastic opportunity for kids this age, by the way. Third, fourth and fifth grades focus on a lot of key journalism skills including research, critical thinking, evaluating the process, forming questions, getting answers, reconsidering the information once they have more answers, and then compiling it into a coherent package. It's extra neat to do it with a celebrity the kids really admire, such as Susan Meddaugh, but parents and teachers can do this exercise based on anything or anyone, for any subject!
First, start with an idea, such as "interview the author of Martha Speaks." Next, do some research, such as reading several of the books and watching a couple of the shows. Read and watch critically; don't be afraid to pause and interrupt to note something or ask about something. Keep a pad of paper on hand and jot these things down. Third, brainstorm and review your notes to decide what things are interesting, what you need more information about, what is good to share, and so forth. Formulate some questions and work on getting the answers. Finally, compose an article that includes the questions, answers, and summary.
Here are the fantastic questions the St Thomas the Apostle third graders posed after doing this exercise, and the wonderful answers from Martha Speaks author Susan Meddaugh and the production staff from the television show. Read through it with your own child and see what questions or ideas it sparks! Ask your child if he or she knew any of this, whether any answers were surprising, what he or she might have asked, and what else he or she might like to know. It's always interesting to hear what kids think!
St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal School's third graders interview Martha Speaks author Susan Meddaugh:
Jack: "How do you come up with the funny ideas for Martha Speaks?"
Author Susan Meddaugh: "I think the funny ideas in the Martha books come from wondering what a dog would say or do if she could speak. She'd still be a dog, so she would react just like a dog would react. She would be honest and straight-forward, and speak her mind. But she would still love to eat items from the trash that you might not find very tasty, and roll in stinky smelling stuff. For the Martha books, I had the real dog Martha, so I based her behavior on our real-dog-Martha's personality. (See question # 2.)"
William: "Is Martha modeled after a real dog?"
Susan: "Martha was our first dog. She was a stray, and a mix of different breeds. Perhaps it was the combination of breeds and her early stray dog experience that gave her such an interesting, expressive, smart, and opinionated personality. It certainly gave her a very drawable body. She was so wonderful that I knew she needed to be in my books. Skits was also our real dog, and his personality was very different from Martha's. In the books, as in real life, Martha was always the alpha dog."
Micah: "Is Martha a good speller? If she could go to school, which grade would she be in?"
Susan: "Although Martha knows how to say the words, she cannot yet spell them. I guess she might be in kindergarten, but I bet she would be hard worker. I know she would really like to be able to read, if for no other reason than to erase the word "NO" in signs that say "NO DOGS ALLOWED."
Joe: "Why did you name the dog Martha?"
Susan: "One of my friends, Martha (a person, not a dog), was working in her front yard when a very skinny dog sat down next to her, and refused to move. It soon became clear that this dog was a stray who badly needed a home. Martha, the person, already had some pets and couldn't take in this new dog. So she called me to see if our family could adopt her. We did, and I named this dog Martha after my friend, Martha. The rest is history."
Caitlyn: "How did you think of the idea of a talking dog?"
Susan: "When my son Niko was 7 years-old, just a few years younger then most of you, he was eating alphabet soup for lunch one day. Having been a stray dog, Martha never really lost her desire to eat everything in sight. She was sitting next to Niko, trying her best to look sad and hungry and in desperate need of soup. At that point, Niko asked me "Mom, if Martha dog ate alphabet soup, would she speak?" He was joking but that idea was like a lightbulb clicking on in my head. I had been hoping to find the right story for Martha, and this was it. It goes to show that no matter how old you are, you can come up with great ideas. In fact I think kids have the very best most imaginative ideas of all, so keep thinking."
Grace: "Are you the illustrator for the book? If so, is it difficult to draw the pictures perfectly?"
Susan: "I am the illustrator of the books, but I don't really worry about making a "perfect picture." The most important thing I hope to get right in my drawings is making them expressive and illustrative so that they help to tell the story. It's fun to figure out how best to move the plot along with the combination of words and pictures. The words tell part of my stories and the pictures tell the rest. That's why I love picture books."
Maggie: "Where did you get the idea of the alphabet soup going to Martha's brain?"
Susan: "I guess you could say it was a "brainstorm"! It was the image that flashed into my mind when Niko asked about Martha and the soup. A funny way to show how the soup got to the brain, and one that I can't explain. Where do ideas come from? Since I do picture books, I often see ideas as images. It's a creative mystery, but fun."
Helena: "What happens after you write the book in order for it to appear on bookshelves in the bookstores?"
Susan: "There is a long process between finishing the writing and illustrating of a story, and its appearance as a book on bookstore shelves. The story goes through many stages. The text is edited, designed, and printed, while the art is also printed, and all is proofread by the people in the publishing house. Then they do it again. And again. When the final printing of type and art is done, it is bound into a book. The author and the publisher hope that any mistakes have been corrected and that they have together created a good book. Then it begins to get good or bad reviews. The sales people for the publishing house will try to sell it, and you hope the bookstores will want to put it on their shelves. But hearing about this process, I hope you feel lucky when your teacher tells you to redo a paper. She or he just wants you to do your best work and get a good review."
Erin: "How many Martha Speaks books have you written?
Susan: "There are 6 original Martha Speaks books that I wrote and illustrated. [Martha Speaks, Martha Calling, Martha Blah Blah, Martha Walks the Dog, Martha and Skits, and Perfectly Martha.] There is also a book called The Witches' Supermarket, which came before the Martha Speaks group. It has Martha and Helen in it, but Martha does not yet speak. There are also a growing number of books such as A Pup's Tale and Shelter Dog Blues based on the Martha Speaks PBS KIDS series.
St. Thomas the Apostle Episcopal School's third graders interview Martha Speaks television show producers at WGBH:
Jack: "Are the characters and scenes drawn on the computer or computer-generated?"
WGBH producers: "The style of the characters and scenes originated from Susan Meddaugh's illustration style (from her book series), translated into a computer-based animation program called Flash. The characters, props, and scenes are drawn with a stylus and reviewed (and sometimes edited) on computer by Susan Meddaugh. Then the final work of coloring them, etc. is done on the computer using Flash."
William: "How many people does it take to produce Martha Speaks?
WGBH: "A lot! Around 200 or so."
Helena: "Who speaks the part of Skits in the show?"
WGBH: "A Canadian actor who also plays the part of dad."
Micah, "Do you wish you had a talking dog?"
WGBH: "Well, it would be great if my dog could tell me when he needs to go out and tell me what he ate that made him sick, but I wouldn't want him complaining about what he's given for supper!"
Joe: "Why did you decide to make a show from the book Martha Speaks?"
WGBH: "That's a long story. But it all started when the executive producer began reading the books to her children and loved them. She had just launched the Arthur series and was looking for the next project."
Caitlyn: "Is it hard making shows like Martha Speaks?"
WGBH: "It's definitely challenging but a lot of fun and very rewarding."
Grace: "Do you speak a character's part in Martha Speaks?"
WGBH: "No. We hire professional actors to do all the speaking roles. However, some of our dogs have appeared as animated characters on the show."
Maggie: "Who speaks Martha's voice? How would you replace that person if she/he quit working?"
WGBH: "A Canadian actress (who also plays the part of Mom and Jake!). To replace her, we would audition actresses who have a similar voice."
Erin: "Who do you show the script to before deciding how to produce a Martha Speaks show?"
WGBH: "Each script is reviewed by all the members of the production team at WGBH, Susan Meddaugh, a professor who specializes in vocabulary development, and our animation studio."
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