Welcome to Midlandia, a mystical land where learning and fun go hand in hand.
The residents of Midlandia include Wilda, the zookeeper, Scannit, who runs the general store, Builda, who owns a bicycle factory, and Dewey, a young librarian who is a superhero in his daydreams.
Never heard of them? You would if you were a kindergarten student enrolled in the Little Lincoln curriculum in PA Cyber Charter School. You would go to school with them every day.
Children came to the Midland gymnasium to find it transformed into Midlandia, a mystical place created for the new Little Lincoln online curriculum. (Submitted Photos/Special to The Review)
"We wanted to create an online community where kids would feel they were part of a small town, a town with diverse and interesting characters, each with a different job and a distinct personality," said Kellie Hamilton, director of elementary curriculum for Lincoln Interactive. "Lincoln Interactive began in the town of Midland, so we chose the name Midlandia."
The Midlandian characters are only part of an engaging and highly innovative standards-based kindergarten course created for Little Lincoln, the grade K-4 curriculum under development by Lincoln Interactive, the locally based online curriculum originally created for the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.
Designed with the flexibility to be taught either in a classroom or at home over the internet, Little Lincoln is light years ahead of classrooms where Dick and Jane watched Spot run.
Midlandia came to life recently for 150 young children through an activity-rich environment set up inside the Midland gymnasium. Children of PA Cyber employees, kindergarten and first grade students from Midland Elementary, along with PA Cyber students from the region who are currently enrolled in Little Lincoln, were invited to participate in either a morning or afternoon session.
One PA Cyber student, Melanie Edwards, came with her parents all the way from Harrisburg for the event.
"She hasn't stopped talking about it since," said her father, Brian.
"The videos and the characters of Midlandia keep her engrossed. She loves the lessons because they're new and fresh and answer some of her ten-zillion questions," said Chere, Melanie's mother, who selected the online school so she could stay home and help her daughter learn.
"I love that I get to be here to see that light bulb come on in her head when she grasps a new concept. I wouldn't trade that for anything."
Kids got their faces painted as zebras, tigers or Midlandian characters. They had their pictures taken with Harvest the farmer, and placed the photos in frames they decorated themselves. They nibbled fresh fruit at Scannit's general store, puzzled out answers to new video learning games (hosted, of course, by Midlandian characters), and laughed at the antics of "Super Dewey" in a skit acted out by reading specialist Elizabeth Callen and storybook writer Michael Scotto.
"It's really fulfilling to see the stories resonate with children," said Scotto. "Our aim was to tell stories with basic lessons of sharing and fairness, without being heavy-handed or preachy."
Little Lincoln represents more than two years of work by 50 people, from graphic designers to writers, elementary teachers, curriculum specialists, animators and technicians. The kindergarten course was piloted this school year at PA Cyber, and first grade is to be introduced in fall 2009. Within two or three years, the plan is to have all five K-4 courses available.
Lincoln Interactive employees who hosted the Midlandia event, Hamilton said, felt a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment in how children have embraced the educational world they created.
Among them was Evette Gabriel, the illustrator whose distinct graphic style is evident in the characters she drew for Midlandia.
"They had a lot of ideas written down but no images," she said. "Originally they were supposed to be bears and live in treehouses. They wanted 40 characters, and told me this is what they like and what they don't like."
After she drew the animal-like characters, they were given to Eric Hardman's simulation team to transform them into 3-D animations. Another artist, Joshua Perry, drew the backgrounds - the world in which the Midlandians live.
Midlandians are not the only unique characters populating Little Lincoln curriculum.
Children visiting Midlandia met star performers who appear as teachers in 720 video podcasts. Each podcast teaches a lesson in math, reading, writing, social studies, science or visual arts. There's Dr. Algae (Tom Schaller), the amazing science teacher, the rhyming Mr. Reed Moore (Gavan Pamer), often in character as a reading detective, and Mrs. Triggle (Gwyneth Welling), who has a superhuman way with mathematics.
Mrs. Walden (ala Thoreau) the writing teacher, is portrayed by Sharon Schaller, and Maria Becoates Bey is Ms. Mapple, the social studies teacher.
In real life, these actors are associated with the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, a sister educational organization to PA Cyber and Lincoln Interactive.
Students watch four of these podcasts every day, so they know the characters.
Star-struck, they stood in awe as the actors chatted with them and signed their autograph books. The autograph stand was one of the busiest sites in Midlandia.
Hamilton said it's wonderful to know students are being engaged and entertained by the new curriculum, but the bottom line is, are they learning?
"Every lesson taught in Little Lincoln is based on national standards and cross-referenced with standards in Ohio and Pennsylvania," she said. "We test the children at the beginning, middle and end of the school year using the nationally recognized DIBELS test. This is the first year, but the preliminary test results show great improvement in student learning and achievement with this curriculum."
The characters of Midlandia will continue to be featured as curriculum developers write courses for first and second grades. A new imaginary world, however, will be created to capture the attention of third and fourth graders, said Hamilton.
What will that world be like? Who will be its characters? What adventures will they have? All is yet to be written in the next chapter of the Little Lincoln story.