Chicagoans go global on U.S. schoolchildren

February 15, 2005


We Americans are big talkers about globalization, bringing freedom to the world, and using our renowned salesmanship to chop our record trade deficit of $688 billion.

But how can we get to first base when 30 percent of our young adults don't know where the Pacific Ocean is? How can we hope to compete in world markets when our youth (age 18 to 24) ranked next to last among their counterparts of nine major nations in a Global Literacy Survey conducted by National Geographic and Roper? And how can we combat the swelling tide of anti-American sentiment being tallied by our Business for Diplomatic Action -- portraying us as ignorant snobs -- when only 17 percent of the same group of adults could find Afghanistan and, despite the headlines, only 13 percent could find either Iraq or Iran on the map, according to the same survey?

Our geographic ignorance already is hurting. A number of restaurants in Germany will no longer serve Coca-Cola or sell Marlboros or accept American Express credit cards. And 36,000 people responded to a recent Boycott Brand America Web site in Vancouver.

Climb out of the cocoon

If we're going to finally climb out of the cocoon and get to know our world, many authorities say we must attack the problem beginning in kindergarten.

It just so happens that this is precisely the quest of a remarkable Chicago duo that has launched a crusade to teach young Americans their least favored subject: geography.

Founding their Girdwood Partners only four years ago in a North Side apartment, veteran Chicago advertising jingle wizard Steve Wiebe, 37, and former Towers Perrin management consultant Howard Soriano, 42, produced what might be the most innovative, effective educational aid series yet for teaching grammar schoolers about what's beyond our shores. In creating a series of videos called WeeBee Tunes Travel Adventures, the pair has blended highly styled cartoon entertainment with solid education that introduces students to culture, countries, ecosystems and history across seven continents.

"As the millennium opened," Soriano said, "Steve and I could see that geography was the one stepchild of U.S. education. With the No Child Left Behind program, it received almost zero funding, support or attention."

The first step was to develop seven distinctive "travel friends," hilarious cartoon characters that would escort viewers throughout the series. Each representing a continent, the little hosts include Mae Lin the Yak, who welcomes visitors to Asia, a fat wombat in Australia, a gawky crane in Africa, Alexander the Salamander in Europe, Sven the Penguin at Antarctica, Osvaldo the Otter in South America, and the Raccoon Twins for North America. After scripting, Wiebe called upon his vast Chicago talent pool of 80 musicians, singers and commercial broadcast voices to do the soundtrack, and the famed Atomic Cartoons of Canada to do the animation.

The series was launched in a low-key, low-cost marketing effort, with videos available on DVD, CD and VHS. They were offered with a "class pack" that also contains "passports" in which kids can record their visits; a large classroom map featuring the seven characters, and a teachers' guide loaded with writing assignments, vocabulary words and map exercises.

The goal goes far beyond merely teaching locations, Soriano said. It emphasizes cultures and history as well. Each of the 29 video travel episodes has an original Wiebe-composed score with words and lyrics easily picked up by kids. Soundtracks include a Maori haka chant in New Zealand, and indigenous instruments like a sitar in India and an Australian Outback didgeridoo.

Amazing results

"The results have been amazing," said Pat Princehorn, a second-grade teacher in suburban Olympia Fields. "You don't just show it once. You keep revisiting. The kids would view it every day if they could. They know the songs by heart, and sing along. And we make it relevant to their lives through current events like Iraq and the tsunami tragedy. Every American school needs this."

That same realization dawned on Chicago map mavens Rand McNally, which recently added the entire WeeBee line to its nationwide sales effort, joining Amazon, Borders and National Geographic. "While we're now in 900 schools in 35 states," Soriano said, "it's only a start. Our aim is to be in 5,000 schools soon, and eventually in all 90,000."

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