Turns out Interpol had Carmen pegged wrong this whole time.
Netflix recently debuted Carmen Sandiego, a re-make of the celebrated kids’ geography series Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? In the first two episodes, viewers find out that she has actually been working to foil all those criminals that international law enforcement had assumed were her henchmen.
So now that Carmen is known to us as one of the good guys, should intermediate elementary teachers like myself be promoting the show? It depends.
Initially when I heard the show was coming back, my excitement was based on my assumption that the show would provide entertaining geography factoids. After all, previous iterations of Carmen Sandiego were designed to support learners’ general knowledge development while simultaneously boosting their critical thinking abilities and love of learning.
After checking out the first five of the nine-part series, I conclude that in the earliest episodes, the new show is overly heavy on the entertainment factor. But throughout, the illustrations and music are fabulous. The dialog reflects the sarcastic, figurative language of the original works. The action is driven by lots of impossible one-to-one combat, clever devices, the dark doings of VILE, and the clever triumph of good over evil. Here is an episode run-down of those I have viewed so far to help you decide how the new offerings might fit into your curriculum.
Episodes 1 and 2 – Becoming Carmen Sandiego: Part 1 and Becoming Carmen Sandiego: Part 2
In a detailed backstory, we find out that Carmen, called Black Sheep, was orphaned and raised on an island run by a school for thieves, VILE. From a young age, she was cunning and curious about the world outside her island fortress. By chance she gains an on-line friend, a White-Hat hacker, Player, who gets her thinking about options outside of a life of crime. After some instruction in criminality, she finds herself off the island with a VILE heist team. Instead of working with her thief classmates on the mission, however, she decides that what they are doing is wrong. Here begins her life fighting crime. There is very little overt geography content in these episodes.
Episode 3 – The Sticky Rice Caper
Here the Netflix series begins to redeem itself. Carmen teams up with newly introduced good-guy and good-girl characters to shake misguided Interpol agents and thwart VILE trouble-makers. In this case, they travel to Indonesia to stop the use of a bio-weapon that destroys rice. Aided by engaging graphics and maps, watchers learn that Indonesia is composed of over 17,000 islands and holds the world’s fourth-largest population. Other geographical and cultural details showcase the concept of rice as a staple food, komodo dragons, Wayang shadow puppetry, and durian fruit.
Episode 4 – The Fishy Doubloon Caper
In this episode, Carmen and friends are on the search for a famous Ecuadorean coin, touching on the theme that important historical items can have cultural value without having monetary value. As in the previous episode, graphics and maps support geographical information including the concept of the equator, Northern and Southern Hemispheres, the major agricultural exports of Ecuador, and the elevation of Quito with its thin air. Fans of classic Carmen Sandiego will be thrilled with the re-emergence of Chief, leader of ACME, a mysterious crime-fighting operation that trumps Interpol.
Episode 5 – The Duke of Vermeer Caper
The Interpol agents of earlier episodes are now full-fledged employees of ACME, investigating thefts of Vermeer paintings throughout the world. Meanwhile, Player and Carmen recognize that VILE is replacing Vermeer originals with fakes, so they head to The Netherlands to prevent the theft of the last remaining original Vermeer. Episode factoids include the 17th century Dutch Golden Age painters, capital city Amsterdam, and its Rijksmuseum.
So will Carmen Sandiego become part of my classroom instruction? Yes and no.
There is no inherent value in the whole of the series to my social studies curriculum which focuses on the Western Hemisphere. However, I think I’ll use Episode 4 as a reward video since it touches on related geography. And knowing how difficult it can be for parents to make wise decision about their children’s media consumption, I will recommend it to parents in my next monthly newsletter. Beyond that, whether I use the remaining episodes of the series in my classroom will depend on how well they link to my social studies lessons. Regardless, I can’t wait to wear my new Carmen Sandiego t-shirt to school on jeans days.
What do you think about this latest generation of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? Does it have value in your classroom?