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Published: Saturday, 8/25/2007

A pair of shows look at learning in very different ways


If it hasn't happened already, it's just about time for the school bell to ring and classes to resume, both in the real world and on TV. The world of education is at least the backdrop for two series this week, including the surprise spring hit Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

A 5th Grader rerun airs Thursday before the show has its sophomore season premiere Sept. 6 with a two-hour special. In addition to original Thursday episodes in September, Fox will air new episodes at 8 p.m. Friday for four weeks starting Sept. 7.

A new class of fifth-graders, chosen from a nationwide search, will be introduced in the new season but the show's concept remains the same: Embarrass adults who can't answer questions culled from textbooks prepared for students in grades one through five. Comedian Jeff Foxworthy acts as instructor.

Last month, Foxworthy said the students aren't coached about how to answer the questions ahead of time, but they are in classes that may provide the answers as a matter of course. (Legally, producers must be able to prove their questions and answers come from a textbook created for the specified grade level, Foxworthy said.) Foxworthy noted that contestants on this game show are in a more precarious position than on other programs.

"On this show, if you're winning, you're beating 10-year-olds, so you really can't gloat about it," he said. "And when you're losing, you're not answering questions that 7 and 8-year-olds answer every day. So, you know, you gotta have fun with it as well."

Foxworthy said the question he's most asked is why he and the kids wear the same clothes week-to-week. It's a matter of production and being able to chop up the rounds and end an episode with a winner and a loser.

"It's kind of weird to continue on in the middle of the game a week later," he said, "so that's why we wear the same things."

As for the students who matriculate this year, Foxworthy said he didn't want to get attached to this group the way he did the last group, but he couldn't help himself.

"We just started this year up and they come in the first day, and you're like a teacher, going, 'Oh, they're so little.' And by day three or four, I knew their pets' names again. And I knew what they liked to do. And it's happened again. I love this group of kids. I think America is going to love this group of kids."

For a more sobering, documentary approach to school, Sundance Channel follows first-year teacher Monica Groves, a recent 21-year-old University of Virginia graduate, as she leads a sixth-grade language arts class at an Atlanta middle school.

The Education of Ms. Groves begins with idealism, as the teacher aims to have a purpose and impact in the lives of her students. She's enthusiastic and determined, but by the third week, her classroom is in chaos, with students "off task" and constantly talking.

"I take it very personally when you don't take your education seriously," Groves says in a video diary entry she records. "It's like seeing somebody throwing away a diamond, that's how I feel."

Four half-hour episodes - airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday - follow Groves through part of her first year of teaching, the good days and the bad. In the course of the series, viewers get to know some of Groves' students and their families and see her struggle, especially with discipline. For anyone aspiring to be a teacher, The Education of Ms. Groves offers a realistic look at the rewards and pitfalls of being an instructor.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.

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