Q&A: Jennifer Pena, PBS Kids

Starting May 19, and to kick off its third season, PBS Kids will introduce original Spanish-language music and content, including Miss Rosa, a bilingual teacher who will help kids with their homework and introduce phrases and words in Spanish throughout the network’s English-language programming. After auditioning over 3,000 people nationwide, PBS tapped Jennifer Peña, a teacher turned actress, as the real-life Latina role model who will appear in special segments within two-hour on-air blocks throughout the entire season. Peña, a 27-year-old Florida certified teacher, spoke to Hispanic TV Update about her new role and the role television can play in helping children understand other cultures and languages. An edited transcript follows:

Q: How did you land the role of Miss Rosa?

A: I have a teacher certificate and have taught middle school and high school, but I am also an actor. So, back in April [2007], my agent called and said PBS was auditioning actors for this role. I went to five auditions altogether. I didn’t know this then, but before they picked me, they had auditioned 3,000 people throughout the country.

Q: You live in Florida but the program is taped in New York City. Do you have to travel back and forth?

A: No. We already filmed all of season three at once. We filmed all the blocks and segments I do. These segments are a few seconds long but are shown over the course of two hours. We have a bunch of really fun themes. We did a segment on healthy cooking, for example, where we show kids how to make a vegetable pizza on whole wheat dough. Then we do the pizza dance, with a song about healthy meals written by Mr. Steve [Roslonek]. It’s a lot of fun. Other segment is about Safari animals, so I introduce these animals to the children and tell them their name in both English and Spanish.

Q: Why do you think bilingualism is important?

A: To teach children as much possible is an amazing opportunity. The world is becoming so much smaller that everyone in the world is going to have to know another language. So, in the case of the U.S., with the Latino population being as big as it is, why not start with Spanish? Besides, this is a great opportunity to show and expose non-Spanish-speaking kids to the Spanish language and culture, so when they have a kid in class that is Hispanic they might not be afraid or realize he is not so different. It’s a way of showing children that learning a different language can be fun.

Q: In your experience, do you think shows such as Dora the Explorer, Go Diego Go or Maya and Miguel are having an impact on non-Hispanic children?

A: Oh my God, they are huge! When [PBS] was auditioning children to be on the show with me, I saw a lot of non-Hispanic kids speaking Spanish. I was amazed, and surprised, at how many kids raised their hands when I asked them “who speaks Spanish?” And it was not only small things, they could count in Spanish and say words that went beyond the obvious.

Q: As a teacher, what do you think television can do (and cannot do) for young children?

A: When I was in the classroom, I was always looking for resources and ways to educate my students. As a teacher, you know that everyone learns differently, so you have to make sure everybody understands what’s going on. I think television is just another resource; something that can be helpful to add to what is being taught, but it’s not supposed to do all the teaching by itself. As long as that is the way that is been used, [TV] can be a great resource. And the same goes to a computer, a radio, a tree outside...

Q: In anticipation to your May 19 debut on PBS, you have already performed as Miss Rosa in a bilingual DVD. What was that about?

A: The DVD is part of the Raising Readers program, a PBS show that tries to get 4-8 year olds to enjoy reading. The goal is to show them and teach how to read. These DVDs were distributed in January throughout ten cities, mostly to lower income families, which might not necessarily know about PBS and how it can help their children. In addition to introducing episodes of Super Why! And Wordworld, I encourage our audience to read and tell them how to make reading fun.

Q: What’s next?

A: Well, I can tell you I look forward to staying on and be Miss Rosa for a while. My heart is fully behind the program, although PBS has to make the final decision.