Raising Kids Who Love Math — Even If You Don't Up to 93% of American adults have some degree of math anxiety. The problem often starts in elementary school, but parents can do a lot to fix it. We talk to experts to get some unexpected strategies for children of all ages, with a little bit of help from Sesame Street and, of course, the Count.
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Raising Kids Who Love Math — Even If You Don't

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Raising Kids Who Love Math — Even If You Don't

Raising Kids Who Love Math — Even If You Don't

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

MATT VOGEL: (As The Count) Aha. Greetings, class, and welcome to counting school, where what you learn really counts.

ANYA KAMENETZ, HOST:

So we want to start today with a little story about an old friend from "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

VOGEL: (As The Count) I am your teacher, The Count. You know why they call me The Count?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Because you love to count things.

CORY TURNER, HOST:

I love The Count. And Ken Scarborough knows him really well because he's head writer at "Sesame Street."

KEN SCARBOROUGH: His whole identity is wrapped up in being a count and being a guy who knows his numbers really well.

KAMENETZ: Now, of course, for The Count that we all know and love, numbers give him nothing but joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

VOGEL: (As The Count) Eight, nine - nine sandwiches all together (laughter).

TURNER: But on this one day, it's different.

SCARBOROUGH: The Count makes a mistake, and he sort of cannot believe it. He's crushed.

KAMENETZ: What number did he forget?

SCARBOROUGH: Well, somebody interrupted him. It's really not his fault. He was counting sandwiches. He was really being helpful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

CHRIS KNOWINGS: (As Chris) Nine sandwiches? Are you sure, Count?

VOGEL: (As The Count) Oh, but of course, I am sure, Chris. I am The Count.

RYAN DILLON: (As Elmo) The Count?

VOGEL: (As The Count) Hm?

DILLON: (As Elmo) Elmo thinks The Count made a little mistake.

VOGEL: (As The Count) A mistake?

DILLON: (As Elmo) Uh-huh, yeah. See...

SCARBOROUGH: It really struck him to his core, and he decided he wasn't going to be The Count anymore.

KAMENETZ: Whoa. So The Count screws up. He makes a mistake.

TURNER: Yeah, and he couldn't get over it.

KAMENETZ: And you know what, Cory? That means he's pretty similar to you and me.

TURNER: Yeah, because math anxiety is a real thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: Estimates range up to 93% of American adults. That's a lot, Cory.

TURNER: Yeah. I don't even need to know any math to know that that is a lot.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, 93% of American adults feel some degree of anxiety that is specific to math. So if you avoid doing your budget or investing, well, we got a LIFE KIT for that.

TURNER: (Laughter) Yeah.

KAMENETZ: But also, math anxiety could be part of the reason why.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

DILLON: (As Elmo) What should Elmo and The Count do next, The Count? (Laughter).

VOGEL: (As The Count) Nothing.

DILLON: (As Elmo) Ah?

VOGEL: (As The Count) Nada, zero, zilch. I shall never count again.

DILLON: (As Elmo) What?

TURNER: And The Count's not alone. On tests, math anxiety can cause students to perform as though they were a whole year behind in school.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. Obviously, this is a real problem for schools and for how we teach math. But what can we, as parents, do to shape our kids' attitude towards math? We sat down with Rosemarie Truglio.

ROSEMARIE TRUGLIO: Math is everywhere.

KAMENETZ: She's a senior vice president of curriculum and content at Sesame Workshop. And I put the problem to her this way.

I feel like as a parent, I understand pretty well how to promote early literacy. I understand we're supposed to be reading bedtime stories, supposed to be singing the alphabet song. But when I think about the equivalent on the math side of things, I just draw a blank, and I want you guys to help me fill in that blank. What does it mean to promote the love of math early on?

TRUGLIO: You're saying that we have to get them to love math; they already love math.

KAMENETZ: What?

TRUGLIO: Yes. They're not coming into this world not liking math.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: So let's figure out if we can solve this little math equation here.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: You're listening to NPR's LIFE KIT for parenting, with Sesame Workshop. I'm Anya Kamenetz. I'm not afraid of a corny joke.

TURNER: I am Cory Turner. And after the break, we're going to give you some tips that you can use, starting in the early years.

KAMENETZ: But also, strategies you can keep returning to, even when you're grown up and no matter how old your kids are, as well as what to never, ever say to your kids about math.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: You're listening to LIFE KIT for parenting, with Sesame Workshop. In this episode, we're going to do the equivalent of flipping to the back of the book to look right at the answers.

TURNER: Yep (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Because we know that by listening to this math episode, you had to overcome some anxieties, I bet, of your own.

TURNER: Yeah. So let's get right to our takeaways. And No. 1 - don't let your math anxiety hold your kids back.

KAMENETZ: Math anxiety, as we mentioned, is a real phenomenon all over the world.

TURNER: Yeah, and it's pretty clearly related to how we teach math in school - things like timed practice and memorization and high-stakes testing. And oh, my gosh. I'm getting hot flashes and sweaty palms just thinking about fact (ph) tests.

KAMENETZ: Ugh.

TURNER: And here's the really upsetting thing, is that math anxiety - it's not equal opportunity.

KAMENETZ: That's right. It's tied to stereotypes - race and especially gender. Research shows that mothers and preschool teachers who are overwhelmingly women, they can pass that feeling onto their kids, especially to their girls.

TURNER: But there is some good news.

TRUGLIO: Children are not born with math anxiety, all right? It's passed on to them. So I think that's why we have to check ourselves in when we're talking about math.

TURNER: This was kind of a surprise for me because I thought that, you know, if my kid had a problem with math, I could bond with him by saying, hey, you know, it was tough for me, too. But actually, Rosemarie says...

TRUGLIO: Saying, I don't like math, I can't do math, that will get conveyed to your children.

TURNER: And the solution instead? We need to reframe math.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. Rosemarie says think about the fun activities that can back up and reinforce what they're learning in school.

TRUGLIO: Math is very much an integral part of your life. Do you love music?

KAMENETZ: I do.

TRUGLIO: OK.

KAMENETZ: I love to sing.

TRUGLIO: All right. If you love music, then you love math. Do you like to cook and bake?

KAMENETZ: I love to cook and bake.

TRUGLIO: OK. Then you love math because you can't do music and you can't cook and bake without math.

TURNER: So I can't cook or bake, really, and I definitely cannot sing. But I love baseball, for example, and my boys and I, we talk about baseball statistics all the time. So what's important, Rosemarie says, is recognizing math as part of many things that we like doing together.

KAMENETZ: Exactly. And so to see more about how adults can weave math into our everyday moments of life, even with really little kids, you and I and our producer, Lauren Migaki, visited a really special preschool.

AMIE LOPEZ: Whoa. They came to watch us play today.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Hi.

KAMENETZ: This is the Center for Early Childhood Education. It's a research preschool at Eastern Connecticut State University. The lobby has this giant, super realistic oak tree.

TURNER: Yeah, which I climbed inside - very cool.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter).

Nice to see you. Good morning.

TURNER: We should also say, Anya, about a third of the kids at this school speak Spanish at home.

KAMENETZ: That's right. And at the preschool, we sat down with one of the lead researchers, Sudha Swaminathan, and she helped us understand a lot more about how to grow children who love math.

SUDHA SWAMINATHAN: The minute we say math, we try to think of the big picture, you know - big old theorems, big old geometry concepts.

KAMENETZ: Instead, Swaminathan says, think Small. She's a professor in early childhood education at Eastern Connecticut State, and her special focus is on early math learning.

TURNER: And Sudha and her colleagues have done lots of research to see what kinds of childhood experiences lead to better performance in math later on. And one of their answers makes up our second takeaway - takeaway No. 2.

KAMENETZ: Talk about math. Take this really ordinary moment.

SWAMINATHAN: You ask them to put their books away and then say, it doesn't fit in the shelf. So why doesn't it fit? Maybe it - the book is too tall, too big.

TURNER: Sudha says, you're actually talking about a math process; it's problem-solving.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, and we heard lots of this by the way math talk at the preschool.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Unintelligible).

LOPEZ: Does the duck fit in there, too? He didn't fit when he was standing up. So you decided to lay him down. Does he fit now?

TURNER: That's Amie Lopez, the lead teacher for the toddler classroom. It's a sunny room with a cozy reading corner. There's a play kitchen and blocks.

KAMENETZ: And near the center of the room, there's this table, and Amie's sitting with the children. They're building together with Magna-Tiles, which are these colorful plastic blocks with different shapes that stick together. And they also have little plastic farm animals. And one of the kids is kind of putting together a house.

LOPEZ: Now you're using triangles and squares. (Speaking Spanish).

TURNER: Naming the shapes in both English and in Spanish? When we played this tape for Rosemarie, she said...

TRUGLIO: What I heard there is the teacher using descriptive math language, and that is so key for children to understand math concepts. You can't understand the concepts without the language.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And Amie's not building the blocks for the kids; she's actually making observations and kind of, like, narrating their thoughts in real time.

LOPEZ: The more blocks you add, the longer it gets. Kohen (ph), I noticed that when you added more, your line gotten longer and longer.

TRUGLIO: When she said, more blocks to make it longer, I mean, longer is a complex word for children. And they need to hear that language, and they need to hear that language in a very concrete way.

KAMENETZ: She wasn't even afraid to use really technical words, like when this little boy was trying to make his little corral stand up.

LOPEZ: Now you can put them all around the perimeter, all around the edge.

TURNER: Perimeter (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

TURNER: Another great occasion to talk math, as Rosemarie said earlier, is in music class.

LOPEZ: I'm going to give everybody two rhythm sticks, one for each hand. We have smooth rhythm sticks. You want to touch it? Feel.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: That one's a bumpy one. That...

LOPEZ: Yep. And we...

(LAUGHTER)

KAMENETZ: You probably remember the kind, Cory. They're perfect for hitting your friends.

TURNER: Yeah (laughter).

LOPEZ: Do we tap them on our friends?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: No.

LOPEZ: Do we bang them on the floor?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: No.

LOPEZ: What could happen if we...

TURNER: And after this moment, the children practice going faster.

LOPEZ: (Singing) Three green and speckled frogs sat on a speckled log eating some most delicious bugs. Yum, yum.

TURNER: And then they go slower.

LOPEZ: (Singing) One jumped into the pool, where it was nice and cool. Now there are three green speckled frogs. Glub, glub (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRUGLIO: Faster and slower are relational concepts. These are math words related to rhythm.

TURNER: So when we were talking to Rosemarie, I had an epiphany, Anya, that my all-time favorite "Sesame Street" moment - and I watched a lot of "Sesame" as a kid.

KAMENETZ: That's not obvious.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: It was a math moment. And it's with my favorite character, Grover.

KAMENETZ: Mmm hmm.

TURNER: And he's - so he's standing there in the foreground, and he says, near.

KAMENETZ: Uh-huh (laughter).

TURNER: And then he goes way back here - far.

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: And then he comes back - near, far - epiphany.

KAMENETZ: (Laughter) So the point is parents get approximately 1 million, billion chances all day long, every day, every night, to talk about math.

TURNER: That is, of course, a rough estimate. But think about it. There are calendars and clocks, money, maps, measuring, crafts.

TRUGLIO: It's very broad, and I think that once parents understand the breadth of how we define math and how they are already doing it, they go, oh, that's math? I didn't realize that was math. Oh, if that's math, then I could do that. Setting the table, one-to-one correspondence - that's math. Ordinal number - first, second, third - that's math.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. And if you need even more chances, roll the dice on our next takeaway - takeaway No. 3.

TURNER: Play math. Find ways to keep math in mind when you're playing with your kids. Sudha says, you may already be doing this.

SWAMINATHAN: Just play. And research has shown that when parents just play, they're actually really, really good at pulling out these deep concepts from children, much better than even teachers.

KAMENETZ: There's so many ways to play math with kids of all different ages.

TURNER: Right. There are puzzles, of course, and blocks, like we heard with Amie.

KAMENETZ: There's video games and apps, card games and especially board games. Research has shown that the more kids play any game with dice and numbered squares, the better their basic math skills get.

TURNER: You can even play math outside.

SWAMINATHAN: I can give a big push to the swing, or I can hop three times to go there.

KAMENETZ: At Sudha's house, hopscotch had negative one.

TURNER: (Laughter) Which was kind of mind-blowing to me.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

TURNER: And she says, you know, play can be the foundation even of advanced subjects, like algebra.

SWAMINATHAN: Algebra is - you know, of all the math concepts, algebra seems to (laughter) shake many people's nerves. But what is algebra, really, if you think about it? It is recognizing that there are patterns in numbers, there are patterns in equations, and you know, you're trying to balance the two sides of it.

KAMENETZ: Take this little moment in Amie Lopez's toddler room.

LOPEZ: Look. When you put your triangles together, it makes a square. Look.

LUKE: Same, same.

LOPEZ: Same, same - they match.

LUKE: Like this one.

LOPEZ: Just like that one. You made one that is the same.

LUKE: (Unintelligible).

LOPEZ: Great discovery, Luke (ph).

TURNER: Same, same.

KAMENETZ: Exactly. So as you know, Cory, I have a 2-year-old at home, and I was getting so excited at this point because I felt like, hey, I'm ready to be the A-plus, AP, extra-credit mom.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: I'm going to narrate every moment of block time. I'm going to use perimeter and quadrado.

TURNER: (Laughter) Rein it in, Kamenetz

KAMENETZ: Ugh, what? Come on. I'm raring to go. Let's get into those flash cards. Come on.

TURNER: No, no, no, no, no. Remember; Sudha warned us, and this really rings true for me.

SWAMINATHAN: One thing I would tell parents not to do is to become the teacher in the house.

KAMENETZ: Ah, hm.

TURNER: (Laughter).

KAMENETZ: All right. I get this.

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, for one thing, it's kind of annoying.

SWAMINATHAN: You know, when we play with our friends, we're not constantly asking them, let's count how many there is. This - what does this shape - we don't do that.

KAMENETZ: She doesn't know what I do with my friends. I might quiz my friends.

TURNER: (Laughter) I don't want to hang out with you.

KAMENETZ: Oh, fine.

TURNER: All right. The most important reason to not be so heavy-handed when we're playing with our kids is takeaway No. 4. Math, like life, is so much more interesting and fun when we can get beyond right and wrong answers.

KAMENETZ: For example, Sudha said this.

SWAMINATHAN: We are sitting at a round table, and I could ask you, Anya, what's the shape of this table? I know it's a circle; you know - I mean, so it's - but a better question would be to say, Anya, why did you choose the circle for our table?

KAMENETZ: That is better because she's actually interested in my answer. She doesn't know what I'm going to say.

SWAMINATHAN: I don't know why you did that, right? But that gets us talking about shapes. It's a real conversation.

TURNER: Yes, and it's the kind of conversation that you could have with kids at almost any age. Or another interesting question, Sudha says, might be, how do you know the table is round?

SWAMINATHAN: It's going to make them look at that circle one more time and to see that, you know, it feels curvy, and the other one feels sharp on the edge.

KAMENETZ: So the key here is to keep things open-ended. So we saw another great example of this in one of the other preschool classrooms. There was a 4-year-old boy named Achilles (ph) kind of messing around with some blocks. And the teacher, Karla Alamo, was a master. She just backed off and let him do his thing because you know what he's doing. He's trying things out. He's testing out hypotheses. This is data. It's probability. It's not about getting to a certain place in the end.

KARLA ALAMO: Do you want the wheel to go under it or over it?

ACHILLES: Over.

ALAMO: Over it?

TURNER: Yeah. And remember, this is play. It's open-ended. There's no right or wrong. She's letting him figure it out.

ALAMO: Do we need to change any blocks or add anything to make it jump higher?

TURNER: And Rosemarie says there's a social and emotional point we're making that goes deeper even than the math here.

TRUGLIO: There should be no fear in making a mistake.

TURNER: Let's say that again - no fear in making a mistake.

TRUGLIO: That's basically how children learn. It's all trial and error for them. And they're also looking to us how we react to making a mistake, and that's part of resiliency.

TURNER: And it's really helpful to communicate this attitude when our kids are a little older, like mine are, and they're learning math in school on somebody else's schedule.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. I mean, the pressure just gets higher from year to year, and so the most helpful that we can be as parents is not to be frog-marching them through their homework, but try to make it feel OK to mess up sometimes and also to keep going because it's all part of the process.

TURNER: Yeah. Failure is important, which is a lesson The Count had to learn.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

VOGEL: (As The Count) Oh, I cannot believe it. I, The Count, made a counting mistake?

DILLON: (As Elmo) Well, just a little one. Oh, The Count...

KAMENETZ: So as we said in the beginning, you know, he messed up. It wasn't his fault. He decides to quit being The Count.

TURNER: Yeah, and he goes in search of other employment.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) All right, construction workers. All right, we're going to have to hammer five nails into this here beam.

SCARBOROUGH: It turns out there's things you've got to count in doing construction and measuring and all this kind of stuff. So there's no escaping it there.

TURNER: Again, this is Ken Scarborough, the head writer at "Sesame."

SCARBOROUGH: So he left that. He became a rocket guy. He'd have to count down.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

VOGEL: (As The Count) Ten, nine, eight...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Hey.

KAMENETZ: And what finally gets The Count back on track is actually another mistake.

TURNER: Yeah. His friend Elmo steps in and pretends to mess up his own counting just to help The Count know that it's OK to mess up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

DILLON: (As Elmo) Five, six, seven, eight, nine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Mr. Hopper) But I need 10 carrots.

VOGEL: (As The Count) Wait. I believe you made a mistake, Elmo.

DILLON: (As Elmo) Oh, a mistake?

VOGEL: (As The Count) Yes. You said four twice. You should count the carrots again.

DILLON: (As Elmo) Oh, Elmo can't do that to Count. Elmo made a mistake, so Elmo's going to give up counting.

VOGEL: (As The Count) Give up?

DILLON: (As Elmo) Give up.

VOGEL: (As The Count) No, no, no, no. Elmo, no. Elmo, everybody makes mistakes. You cannot give up. The important thing is to keep trying.

KAMENETZ: Sudha actually told us this is a good tip for parents to try, too - you can make a mistake and give your kids a chance to correct you, with math or, you know, anything else.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

VOGEL: (As The Count) I did give up, but I shouldn't have. I must keep trying, and you should, too.

DILLON: (As Elmo) Yeah.

VOGEL: (As The Count) So come, let's count the carrots together.

DILLON: (As Elmo) Oh, cool.

MATT VOGEL AND RYAN DILLON: (As The Count and Elmo) One carrot, two carrots...

TURNER: And just the way Elmo did, you can build up their confidence.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

VOGEL AND DILLON: (As The Count and Elmo) Nine, 10.

VOGEL: (As The Count) Ten carrots altogether.

(LAUGHTER)

KAMENETZ: So we started off this episode talking about a topic that I don't particularly love - math - but we ended up somewhere really great, Cory, because I feel like, all of a sudden, I realized that through exploring the world with my kid, I can spark my curiosity, I can look at stuff with new eyes, and I can go back and get a redo on something that wasn't so fun for me when I was a kid.

TURNER: Yeah, and I got to do my Grover impression.

(LAUGHTER)

KAMENETZ: Great. Same, same. Even-steven.

TURNER: Same, same. All right. Time for a recap - we got to go through all our takeaways. But gosh, I can't remember how many we had. Anya, do you remember?

KAMENETZ: No, I don't think I remember. Can - maybe we can get some help.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

VOGEL: (As The Count) One, two, three, four (laughter).

TURNER: (Laughter) I've waited...

KAMENETZ: Yes, very good.

TURNER: I've waited all season to do that (laughter).

KAMENETZ: Awesome.

TURNER: All right. So takeaway No. 1 - don't let your math anxiety hold your kids back.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. Find math in everyday activities that you enjoy together. Takeaway No. 2 - talk math.

TURNER: Yeah. Triangle, square, perimeter, near, far, up, down, longer, shorter.

KAMENETZ: Faster, slower.

TURNER: Ah (laughter). They're all talking math. Takeaway No. 3...

KAMENETZ: Play math.

TURNER: Chutes And Ladders.

KAMENETZ: Candyland.

TURNER: Puzzles.

KAMENETZ: Books.

TURNER: Hopscotch on the playground - these are all ways to practice numbers, shapes, problem-solving.

KAMENETZ: Even probability and algebra. And takeaway No. 4 - let's stay away from the right and wrong answers. Keep things open-ended.

TURNER: Because math, like life, is so much more fun and interesting that way. And so you know what? I'm inspired. I'm going to do like The Count. I'm going to put my cape back on, and I'm going to go rediscover my love of math.

(LAUGHTER)

KAMENETZ: Our special thanks to Sudha Swaminathan, Jeffrey Trawick-Smith, Julia DeLapp and the whole team at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University. I also have to thank the math learning researchers who helped me process my math anxiety - Jo Boaler, Manuela Paechter and Ann Dowker.

TURNER: Last but not least, special thanks to Rosemarie Truglio, Ken Scarborough and all our friends at Sesame Workshop. For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our next episode, where we'll talk about self-regulation, which is just a fancy way of saying, helping your kids manage their big feelings.

KAMENETZ: If you like what you hear, make sure to check out our other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming every month on all sorts of topics.

TURNER: And as always, here is a completely random tip, this time from NPR listener who just put his name as Bert.

ERIC JACOBSON: (As Bert) Wait. So am I really talking to NPR listeners? Oh, boy. Hello, LIFE KIT. This is Bert, and I'm here to give you a tip about my very favorite food - oatmeal. Yeah. If you don't have enough time to make your oatmeal at breakfast, try soaking the oats overnight in a jar with milk. In the morning, your oatmeal will be ready to eat. Some people ruin that perfect bland flavor by adding jam, nuts or even fresh berries. But I like to keep it nice and plain. Oh, when I'm feeling really wild, I use almond milk, but, you know. Bon appetit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAMENETZ: If you've got a good tip or a parenting challenge you want us to explore, please let us know. Email us at lifekit@npr.org. I'm Anya Kamenetz.

TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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