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Drs. Bill Cosby (left) and Octavia Tripp (middle) discussed the lessons contained within "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids'' cartoons during a Character Education Partnership Summit in D.C.
With his oversized red sweater and rumbling greeting of "Hey, hey, hey,'' Fat Albert ambled into the living rooms of American children in the early 1970s as a jovial presence who loved chowing down on a good burger, playing sports and making music on instruments cobbled together from junkyard remnants.
Created by Dr. Bill Cosby, "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids'' represented an animated representation of the comedian's childhood experiences in Philadelphia. Fat Albert and his friends, from wise-cracking Rudy to pink ski mask-wearing Dumb Donald, transcended the stereotypical cartoon shtick of slapstick humor during its 109-episode run from 1972-84.
"There are some very strong moral tones in it,'' said Dr. Octavia Tripp, assistant professor of elementary education in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching. "At the end of each episode, there was a lesson to be learned.''
Tripp joined the discussion of how the cartoon and its lessons could be relevant to both students and teachers during the "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Character Education Partnership Summit'' held in Washington, D.C., May 1-2. Dr. Marilyn Irving, an associate professor in Howard University's School of Education, invited Tripp to give a presentation on the TV show's handling of self-esteem related topics. Tripp explored an episode in which a character named "Pee-Wee'' is excluded from playing basketball because of his lack of height. Pee-Wee later becomes a star of a neighborhood football game because he proves he can kick a football better than any of the older children.
"It talks about differences and feelings and, at the end, it talked about looking at your strengths,'' Tripp said. "Pee-Wee's strength was that he could kick a football. They began to accept him and it left a message that, no matter who you are, you have something that you can offer.''
While at the summit, Tripp met Cosby, the actor, author and activist who earned his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts in 1976 and based his dissertation on the incorporation of "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids'' into elementary school curriculum as a teaching aid. Recently, the cartoon has been used as a teaching tool in D.C.-area schools for grades K-5 and has spawned Character Leadership Clubs, collectives of students who look for solutions to such problems as bullying and intolerance. During its heyday, the cartoon explored a variety of themes, from "puppy love'' and stage fright to the dangers of gun violence and crime. As Cosby lyrically told viewers of the show during its opening, "This is Bill Cosby coming at you with music and fun, and if you're not careful you may learn something before it's done.''
Cosby spent one morning at the summit meeting with children and teachers and learning what they were doing to make their schools better places.
"I saw him talking with children about what they were doing in their schools,'' Tripp said. "He gave a very dynamic speech - not only about kids being strong, but he also talked to the teachers in the audience. These kids have come together to identify problems and help other kids see that it's not good to tease.''
Tripp said aspiring teachers can learn as much from "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids'' as can young children. She said the cartoon provides lessons on understanding children, their insecurities and fears as well as what inspires them to learn. Tripp is hopeful that the character development and social responsibility themes explored by "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids'' can eventually become a part of the K-5 curriculum in Auburn and Lee County classrooms.
"I want to integrate it into my classroom management class because first-year teachers have so many things they have to deal with and do,'' she said. "A lot of times, we overlook issues that are going on in the classroom. Before you teach, you have to deal with the (students') problems.
"It's not just teaching content nowadays. You have to have relationships with your students and understand their personalities and learning styles. You have to understand their background, their character, the environment they're coming from.''
Last Updated: May 17, 2011