frED Camp: The Legacy of Fred Rogers

Key Points

  • Gathering like-minded educators is a great way to push innovation forward.

  • “Fred didn’t focus on their accomplishments or awards. Instead, he focused on the things that lit them up, and that light created the joyful learning atmosphere that still resonates a half-century later.”

By: Norton Gusky

On a chilly Saturday morning this March, a sold-out crowd of more than 250 educators got up early and drove from towns all over Western Pennsylvania to gather in a primary school gymnasium at the Ehrman Crest Elementary School in the Seneca Valley School District north of Pittsburgh. The educators celebrated the teachings of Fred Rogers as part of frED Camp. The Ehrman Crest Elementary School is a 2022 Time Magazine award-winning building that is a living example of how “the Fred Method” is based on intentional learning. 

The “Fred” of this day-long workshop’s title is Fred Rogers, creator and host of the groundbreaking television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Though many adults remember Rogers as a kindly presence on their childhood TV screens, his legacy includes extensive research into child development and a commitment to leveraging the technology of his day in groundbreaking ways. Beyond entertaining America’s kids, Rogers left behind a body of work that a growing community of educators are now using to improve the ways they teach and mentor children. 

“There’s a growing recognition that we see among teachers that this person they grew up loving for all sorts of different reasons — but mostly because he made them feel good when they were kids — is now someone who can guide them to become better at their jobs as educators and even as parents. It’s a really joyful thing,” says Ryan Rydzewski, co-author of When You Wonder, You’re Learning: Mister Rogers’ Enduring Lessons for Raising Creative, Curious, Caring Kids. 

The book, co-authored with Gregg Behr, was the inspiration for frED Camp. Since its release in 2021, teachers around the world have been applying “The Fred Method” in their classrooms, using technology — and findings from the science of learning and child development — to spark joyful, welcoming learning experiences. “We’ve been talking to teachers for three years now, and they’re always showing us their incredible work, saying ‘Oh, here’s the Fred-like thing I’m doing in my classroom,’” Behr says. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we bring some of these folks together and see what happens?’”

The program started with an opening plenary session highlighting how “Environment Drives Behavior” led by Anne Fullencamp from the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh and Lauri Pendred, the principal at Ehrman Crest Elementary. They explained how every part of the building was designed to engage learners. Hallways become extensions of the classrooms. Even the playground incorporates space themes so play becomes an intentional activity. The center of the building, a spiraling staircase from the first to second floor showcases student artwork and provides opportunities for student voice. The staircase is also an example of how students were incorporated into the design process. It was the students who made the case for the pathway. 

The majority of the morning educators interacted with presenters at educator-led workshops. The educators shared great examples of the Fred Method in action throughout the Pittsburgh region. Anna Blake, a STEAM teacher for the Elizabeth Forward School District, and Melissa Unger, a STEAM teacher for the South Fayette School District, conducted a workshop “Capturing Creativity: Leveraging Engagement and Deepening Reflection through STEAM Learning.” According to Anna, “We are so honored to present at frED CAMP! I felt inspired as I walked in the door at the doors of Seneca Valley. So many chances to wonder and collaborate with Mr. Rogers in mind. So excited to connect and share learning! PD like this IS what fills up my bucket of love for teaching.”

“It’s refreshing because it’s not, ‘here’s one more thing you have to do,’” says Rydzewski. “Instead, it’s ‘here’s the value in what you already love to do.’ If you can do that in front of your kids, it’s going to elevate their learning. We know from science that when kids get swept up in the vortex of a teacher’s interest, then they get excited about learning all kinds of other things, too.”

It’s a lesson Fred Rogers knew well. For more than 30 years in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he introduced viewers to countless guest stars: think Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Julia Child, and beyond. “Whoever it happened to be, we remember their visits because we saw their passion for what they do,” says Behr. “Fred didn’t focus on their accomplishments or awards. Instead, he focused on the things that lit them up, and that light created the joyful learning atmosphere that still resonates a half-century later.” 

“What we’ve tried to do is make Fred’s lessons and his blueprints more accessible,” Behr says. “But it’s the practitioners who are going to make this stuff matter — and they are. They’re running with it. And their students are running right along with them.”

Jennifer Wachs, a media teacher for the South Allegheny School District, reinforced the impact of the day for practitioners, “What an absolute privilege it was to attend this year’s frED Camp! There was a tremendous amount of warmth and sense of community from the participants. We were all united by a profound love of children, and of course, Mr. Rogers. It was inspiring to witness the collective passion and dedication as presenters shared a host of innovative ideas for sparking curiosity and joy, and participants engaged in hands-on activities and meaningful discussions.  frED Camp reinforced the importance of creating a warm, inclusive, and stimulating learning environment that nurtures children’s social and emotional well-being. The day recharged my batteries and reaffirmed my belief in the transformative power of education.”

Next year’s frED Camp will be held at another venue that embodies its namesake’s legacy: Theperfy Fred Rogers Institute in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Open to educators of all kinds — including teachers, early learning educators, librarians, parent leaders, afterschool directors, coaches, mentors, and more — frED Camp is set for March 15, 2025.

Norton Gusky is an educational technology broker and uses technology to empower kids, educators and communities. You can find him on Twitter at @ngusky.

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