For Rachel Baker, the BIG Brave Broadcast is a lot more than 20-minutes of slapstick humor, gags and key words pasted across screens.
The program she has written, produced, edited and acted in since the Mastery Charter Molina Lower School in Camden went to all-remote learning in the spring is a lifeline to her kindergarten to second-grade students who thrive from the interaction and care they get from a program geared to their needs.
“We all know the statistics, or at least we should, that students of color get kicked out of class too much, they have behavioral diagnoses too much and get really punitive discipline, more than they need to,” she said. “A lot of the time it’s a lack of social, emotional learning in school, not necessarily for the students, but also the teachers.”
Baker typically produces two 20-minute news broadcasts broken down into 5-minute segments featuring stories, detective work, weather and sports geared to the mind of an inner-city, kindergarten to second grader.
“Make more mirrors – more things in the lessons where kids can see themselves and their families,” Baker said. “It’s culturally relevant narratives about people of color and people that don’t get highlighted, including Latino, Native American, actually giving kids words to express their feelings and social, emotional learning (SEL) strategies that kids and teachers need to get through the day without yelling and being negative.”
Baker, 38, who grew up in North Plainfield and has an undergraduate degree from La Salle University and the University of Pennsylvania, joked that she sees herself as a mix between a teacher and a standup comedian. But humor is just one of the vehicles she uses to get through to her students.
She also includes her former students and other teachers in the show.
One of the hosts is Detective Ortiz, played by Ja’Quan Ortiz. Baker taught him in grade school in Camden. Now he plans to attend Rutgers University next year.
Ortiz lives in the Northgate I high-rise public housing complex that rises over the base of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, leading from Camden to Philadelphia. Mastery Molina Lower School sits between the Northgate I and Northgate II developments.
The neighborhood is in the center of a city that has frequently been cited as one of the poorest and most dangerous in America.
“That was super important to me, to make sure kids were seeing someone that lived in Northgate, right across from our school, in their community who is super successful, passionate and positive,” she said. “The goal was for me to not even be in it. I wanted it to be all people that my students could see themselves in the community.”
Other characters include a colleague, Sydelle Chase-Rosario as Correspondent Chase, who reminds students to “chase their dreams and change the world.” And Lutfi Sariahmed plays The Professor, who provides “big answers to little people.”
Baker plays Grandmother Nature, who explains feelings with weather analogies and Coach Fran, who breaks down strategies to solve problems and manage anger. She also drops in for cameos as a news anchor and sidekick for Detective Ortiz, who leads viewers on a scavenger hunt of who, what, when, where and why.
“We needed to find creative ways to make sure students (were) learning virtually and still able to get the same day-to-day social lessons they did before COVID,” said Mina Lee, the Acting Principal of Molina Lower, who gave Baker the green light to produce the show as part of her job. “She is one of the most creative, innovative (people) that I have ever met. She brings something special to the Mastery Molina family.”
Baker said the broadcast is a labor of love. She said she sometimes doesn’t get to sleep until 4 a.m. on production days, which includes writing, acting, filming and editing.
She even pulls in her husband Shane Baker for some acting bits with Grandmother Nature. She films the program in a spare room of his Tiger Schulmann Karate School in Cherry Hill. Shane is the school’s chief instructor, the sensei.
“The passion she has for it is the reason I love her so much,” Shane said. “She’s a hope builder in time when there’s not a lot of hope.”
Rachel said that’s one of the reasons for the name of the show.
“I wanted to make sure that all students had a chance to feel big and be brave – and that requires an honest commitment to making more mirrors than windows,” she said. “My small step in that direction is ironically called the BIG Brave Broadcast.”
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Bill Duhart may be reached at [email protected].