AS THE TROOPS GO MARCHING IN
On November 9, 1970, Sesame Street began its 1970-71 season with an appearance on nearly 250 stations throughout America. Some changes have taken place. For one, the show seems to have a more relaxed, impromptu format. The children that appear are inclined to “spin out” whatever they are talking about and to explore things that interest them in greater depth. They are not encumbered as much by scheduled time slots. Also, their answers to questions are more novel and honest than those that were given on shows the previous season. For example, when Bob talked to a group of youngsters about fears people have and asked, “What do you fear most?”, one little boy exclaimed quickly, “Wetting the bed.” During a taping of another segment, a child asked folk singer Leon Bibb in mid-song, “How come you sweat so much?”
Another change this year is that the Sesame Street set is more active. The feeling of a living, throbbing neighborhood comes through more strongly. There are a greater number of outdoor sounds and people move up and down the set casually and freely. Although the main actors might be talking, the children will continue to play jump-rope, chat, and giggle among themselves. They go on doing their own thing.
Those who subscribe to the ideas of the Women’s Liberation Movement have been somewhat pacified by Sesame Street’s new role for Susan. Susan now has a job—she is no longer just a housewife! Also, a female writer has been added to the writing staff to make sure that the female image is not stereotyped or distorted.
A decidedly Latin beat has also been added to the show. Some Spanish speaking vocabulary is being presented and Spanish-speaking actor Jaime Sanchez appears as the occasional host, Miguel.
These changes appear to be for the better. One change, however, that does not appeal to adults who watch Sesame Street is Arte Johnson’s burlesqued portrayal of the dummkopf Nazi-type soldier. As a Laugh-In character he’s fine, but for anti-war, anti-violent, anti-stereotype Sesame Street, some feel he’s definitely nein!
Stereotyping seems to be the only thing that many people complain about Sesame Street. One New Jersey mother, according to a local newspaper article on the subject, was deeply concerned about the way her little girl, who was used in the film about supermarkets described in a previous chapter, was presented. The mother claimed that the voice that accompanied her child’s actions and expressions on the film as “a stereotyped Southern voice,” using poor grammar and enunciation, such as “poke chops” for pork chops. “Diane happens to be a very well-spoken child,” her mother said. “I found the voice used on the program disparaging to my daughter. Maybe the producers of Sesame Street feel this is the kind of voice their black audiences want, but they are very much mistaken…The question I want to ask is this: ‘Why did they feel it necessary to go to the ghetto to get a child for the sound track? Is this the kind of voice and language they feel is needed? Isn’t Sesame Street supposed to be an educational program?’”
Yes it is. And Educational Testing Service’s long-awaited evaluation of Sesame Street’s first series, released to the public in November, 1970, indicates that the program is having a powerful impact on children’s learning skills.
Educational Testing Service is a nonprofit educational research and measurement organization in Princeton, New Jersey. They conducted their study of Sesame Street’s effectiveness on 1,200 children chosen from disadvantaged inner-city, suburban, rural, and Spanish-speaking communities in Boston, Massachusetts; Durham, North Carolina; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Phoenix, Arizona; and northeastern California. In their sample, there were slightly more boys than girls; more lower-class than middle-class children; more of the disadvantaged were black than white; most of the children were four (although some were three and some were five); and more of the children watched Sesame Street at home than at schools. When all the data had been collected and analyzed, there were 943 children for whom complete pretest and posttest data were available.
The children in the study were given nine pretests before they watched Sesame Street. Eleven posttests were given after the children watched Sesame Street. The tests were given to each child independently in the child’s home or school by a specially trained adult from the child’s neighborhood. The items tested were: the ability to point to and name the parts of the body and to indicate their functions; the ability to recognize and name capital and lower case letters and to match them together; the ability to recognize and name forms and shapes and numbers; and the ability to solve simple problems, such problems as recognizing when someone is trying to put a shoe on the wrong foot or seeing that someone who is trying to put a light bulb into a socket cannot do it by turning himself around, but only by turning the bulb around.
Educational Testing Service’s major findings were:
1) Children who watch Sesame Street show greater gains in learning than children who do not. This is true for all subcategories: disadvantaged inner-city child, advantaged suburban child, isolated rural child, boys and girls, and children whose first language is not English.
2) Children who watch the program most show the most gains in learning.
3) Skills that are given the most time and attention on the program are the skills that are learned the best.
4) Three-year-olds who watch the show regularly learned more than four- and five-year-olds who watched the show less frequently.
5) Disadvantaged children who watched the program frequently make gains surpassing those of middle-class children who watch the program infrequently.
Since Children’s Television Workshop’s main thrust has been to reach disadvantaged children, this last finding of the Educational Testing Service report is most significant. Dr. Samuel Ball, head of ETS research said, “I think we have shown in this evaluation of Sesame Street that television can have a profound effect upon the learning of three-through-five-year-old children from widely diverse backgrounds, including a strong and positive effect on disadvantaged children.”
Some people object to the word “disadvantaged.” They believe it has been used so often that it creates a negative feeling about a group of poor people—people who may indeed be poor, but not necessarily disadvantaged. For after all, they claim, some well-to-do suburban children are disadvantaged also. They may have parents who don’t really care for them or are too pushy in their efforts to make them achieve. At any rate the term “disadvantaged” continues to be used. It labels those people who are poor and have been excluded from the mainstream of American life because of their poverty. In Durham, North Carolina, for example, the disadvantaged children studied came from homes where the average annual income is $3,000. Wage earners were frequently unemployed or underemployed. Underemployed people are people who are in job positions beneath what their experience or education would qualify them for. Educational Testing Service also learned from the parent questionnaire given to parents of the children studied, that the median educational level of the parents was just over the ninth grade. Many of these households were headed by a mother or another female, such as a grandmother.
The most interesting findings of the study was that children who watch Sesame Street the most (and hence learned the most), have mothers who watch the show with them and who often talk with them about the show. Parental interest, then, is highly motivational.
Long before the Educational Testing Service report—and the confirmation that parental interest aids a child’s learning—CTW’s Utilization Department was working to get more parents (as well as community organizations and local political leaders) involved in the Sesame Street educational program. The Utilization Department used a gift of 150 color television sets to start a mini “Open Sesame” street campaign in 56 cities. The idea was to use the initial gift to publicize a need for more sets and more viewing centers. Many individuals, organizations, and television distributors were moved by the presentations they heard and offered some free new and old color and black-and-white television sets.
Although the Tiger-rag strains of Sesame Street’s famous song, “Rubber Duckie,” is now heard wafting through the lushly remote mountain areas of Jamaica, across the luncheon tables of Bermuda and the Caribbean Islands, and throughout a number of African and Asian countries where English is taught as a second language, CTW’s main concern is still to reach as many of America’s ghetto and rural preschool children as possible.
One way to accomplish this aim is to increase the number of viewing centers where children can watch the program regularly and to get more parents involved. The Utilization Department of CTW increased their efforts in behalf of this important goal in 1970 by hiring local coordinators from 12 target cities. The people chosen usually had previous experience with community organization and had good relationships with the people and organizations in the communities they were planning to serve.
The first Utilization Coordinators’ Training Workshop was held at the Automation House Multitorium in New York City in October, 1970. This auditorium especially suited the workshop program because it was well supplied with projectors, screens, television monitors, and other audio-visual aids.
On the first day of the workshop, CTW’s “big guns” Joan Ganz Cooney and Dr. Edward Palmer discussed Sesame Street’s history, educational goals, and methods of research. CTW Department Heads also came to the meeting and talked about the work of their particular departments. The aim was to acquaint the coordinators with the people of CTW and the entire scope of the organization. CTW wanted them to become a part of the Sesame Street family.
Then the goals of the Utilization Department were discussed. In brief, these were:
1) To enable more preschool day-care, Head Start, and public school pre-kindergarten children to view Sesame Street regularly.
2) To provide those day-care, Head Start and public school pre-kindergarten classes who do not have television sets, with television sets that have been donated by local individuals and organizations.
3) To stimulate the establishment of neighborhood viewing centers and home viewing groups.
4) To develop the widest possible distribution of the Sesame Street Magazine and other CTW printed educational materials.
5) To orient parents and center personnel to the goals and objectives of CTW.
6) To stimulate direct and indirect involvement in the Sesame Street educational program by school, political, labor, religious, community, civic, and volunteer organizations on a national and local level.
The workshop continued in a more informal way, using film presentations, discussions and buzz groups. A question is posed to the main group, which then divides up into small buzz groups to hash the problem out. Each buzz group then presents its ideas and conclusions before closed circuit television helped to clarify questions and work out solutions to problems. Some of the questions and problems posed were: How to use volunteers creatively. How to address and reach a group that is varied in its composition: for instance, parents, teachers, and curriculum directors. What materials and funds are needed to set up a viewing center. How to follow up on a meeting. How to handle relations with the media. And what is the Sesame Street Day Camp Program.
The coordinators were particularly interested in the Sesame Street Day Camp Program. Before July 1970, the Utilization staff conducted workshops for 240 highschool teen-agers who came from all five boroughs of New York City. In a pilot program, these teen-agers were to be trained as “teachers” for 1,500 preschoolers who would attend a “Sesame Street” summer camp that summer. The enrollees come from the Neighborhood Youth Core, a program funded by the Department of Labor to provide work training for in-and-out-of-school highschool-age teen-agers. The camps themselves were funded by the Youth Services Agency of the City of New York. These shoestring operations were enormously successful, not only for the preschoolers but for the teen-agers also. Many of these teen-age “teachers” became so interested and involved in their work that they have decided to go into teaching as a career. Others are going to train a new group of teen-age “teachers” for another Summer Day Camp experience.
One of the first pilot summer day camps was set up in a Brooklyn brownstone. Phillip Smalls, a member of the New Generation who actually gets out and does something about changing the social conditions of the world, supervised the program. Smalls removed the furniture from his mother’s living room. He then brought in wooden boxes and crates to use as stools and desks for the 42 preschoolers entrusted to his care. This teen-age “head-master” used all parts of the brownstone or his school. The roof was used as a painting and coloring studio, and hot lunches were made in the family kitchen. When it got too hot for organized indoor learning, a water sprinkler on the street was turned on and the children romped around under the spray.
Smalls was assisted in his effort by ten teen-age “teachers” and many volunteer helpers. His weekly budget was $100, although many parents donated food and money that went to help provide the children with hot lunches and plenty of classroom supplies. Each child was supplied with a notebook, pencils, and crayons. The classroom itself was supplied with blackboards, books, bicycles, musical instruments (such as triangles and tambourines), and a microscope.
The teachers concentrated on the “Sesame Street curriculum.” They helped the preschoolers reenact what they had seen and heard on the Sesame Street program. They made up games using letters, numbers and geometric forms.
Most of the Summer Day Camps were set up in public schools. The day camp experience was so good for so many that the good feeling extended on to the school itself. Some believe that this will enable children and their parents to become more involved with the achievement possibilities offered through schools. One of the most popular day camps was held at Andrew Johnson High School in Queens. Enthusiasm was great—so great, in fact, that a large sign reading “Sesame Street Day School” was prepared and put over the high school’s real name. About 150 preschoolers—from 3 to 6 years old—became members of five classes. There was one “teacher” for every three children. The curriculum was based on viewing Sesame Street and on activities that would reinforce that experience. The children also played on school grounds and took field trips. The children at Andrew Jackson High School took a trip to the Catskills and to the Museum of Natural History.
Another important program at the Utilization Coordinators’ Training Workshop in October was how to deal with apathetic parents. One coordinator, for example, thought that the viewing time of the program should be changed from its nine A.M. slot to a later hour because some parents like to sleep late and do not encourage television watching so early. The Utilization Staff and the other coordinators threw ideas back and forth on ways to get parents more involved in their children’s welfare and how to have them realize the benefits of the nine A.M. viewing schedule. During these discussions it was suggested that one of the basic functions of a coordinator is to be sensitive to what is going on in front of their noses—in other words, to forget paperwork and concentrate on people. They were also told not to let anything throw them—that some things don’t have easy solutions.
One of the most definitive aids distributed to the utilization coordinators was a handbook prepared by the Reading Reinforcement Committee of the National Book Committee. The handbook, entitled Leading To Reading with Sesame Street defines the type of child Sesame Street aims to help and how coordinators and their helpers can reach them. To quote:
“Many children who watch Sesame Street live in rural areas, but since most preschool children in the United States live in or near big cities, our target viewer is the urban preschooler who most likely lives in the poor and crowded neighborhoods characteristic of the inner city. The child who lives in crowded urban neighborhoods has more than his share of confusion, noise, and pressure. He must sharpen his senses and be able to select those messages to which he must respond correctly the first time if he is to stay alive and healthy….So one of the great problems for the slum child in learning how to fit concepts and words together is lack of verbal interaction with adults who have the time, the self-confidence and the word power to try consciously to teach him something or to help him to sort out and relate the many things he is learning. Sesame Street tries to help him figure out what is happening, what is likely to happen next and what kinds of ideas, sounds, feelings and words go together. An important aim of Sesame Street is to introduce this child—wherever he my be found: at home, in other agencies, in the streets—to a wider variety of communications patterns and skills than that which he has learned, in order to lay the groundwork for reading and learning. He must move from his world of sights and sounds which he has learned to distinguish and respond to for their usefulness to him, to the world of symbols and abstractions that require more complicated interpretations. He must learn to move from the concrete to the symbolic, especially to oral use of words that stand for things and feelings, and then to printed representations. It is not easy for any child, but without a good deal of adult guidance it is next to impossible….
“But Sesame Street lasts for only an hour and the constant stream of happenings continues around the clock. That is why the help that Sesame Street gives him needs to be and can be extended by people around him who will take the trouble to find out what Sesame Street is trying to make clear to him and help to continue the process throughout the day. There are many adults surrounding the poor urban child who could do this valuable day-to-day teaching if they were 1) aware of its importance to the child’s future
2) convinced of their own ability to do it effectively and shown how to start. Nobody needs to be highly educated or trained teacher. They just need to be with the child and to be alert to the opportunity and the starting points provided by life and underscored by Sesame Street. Parents, or whatever adults are taking the place of parents—parent surrogates as they are called, including foster parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors—are of foremost importance as first teachers. They have the best opportunity to teach….Older children in the same building or in the neighborhood can also be very helpful. Brothers and sisters especially share the child’s world and have his confidence. Both professional and paraprofessional workers from libraries, schools, day-care or nursery or head start centers, churches and neighborhood centers, welfare and health programs, as well as paid and unpaid volunteers can work directly and indirectly on Sesame Street reinforcement. In addition there are community workers who see and talk with many of the children every day; shopkeepers, salesmen, gang leaders, postmen, and others around the area regularly.
“They are the people who are already unconsciously preparing the child for his later learning experiences through their interactions with him and other adults in many different daily situations. Your role is to identify them and get them involved in follow-up activities. The problem is to make them conscious of their relationships with the child, so that everyday patterns of living can become more positive learning situations to help ready the child for the demands society—and here, in the immediate future, the school system—will make on him. One of our tools to help them do this is the Sesame Street program.
“These adults, both professionals and nonprofessionals, form a web around the child. Through their interaction, they pool the best knowledge and experience that each of them has so that the person who is most often with the preschooler and works with him directly, can maximize the inherent capabilities of each child.”
The handbook goes on to explain different ways the coordinators could rally their “troops” around them. How to establish priorities and ways to get community interest were some of the concepts that coordinators thought about as they returned to their communities.
LaCharles James, one of three Utilization coordinators from the Los Angeles area, decided that his first step would be to ferret out community resources that already existed and to try to get them interested in setting up Sesame Street viewing centers. He contacted public agencies, elected officials and the Board of Education. Almost everyone he contacted was enthusiastic and expressed a desire to help. Project MOVE, a block to block improvement organization, offered to set up viewing centers and to staff them with parent and teen-ager volunteers. Religious organizations volunteered their facilities and some schools offered rooms and faculty participation. One school, in fact, obtained sixteen television sets, set them up in classrooms, and scheduled showings of Sesame Street three times daily.
Often, community response came faster than expected. Only one hour after LaCharles finished addressing a meeting of the Community Resource Council composed of a cross section of Black community leaders, a member called to say that she already had lined up the kids, the television set, the money, the volunteers, and the faculty—she only wanted to know when she should start.
Actually, the first viewing center opened in Elizabeth, New Jersey, only days after the October orientation meeting. Joshua Higgens, an assistant to the Mayor of Elizabeth, long had an interest in educational television, and particularly in Sesame Street. So he helped to arrange for Elizabeth to open the first viewing center in a local community house. The center is completely staffed with unpaid volunteers.
In Baltimore, Carole Hemmingway Slade, former Peace Corps teacher, writer, and television producer operates her coordination efforts from her living room couch. She was one of the first to follow the CTW staff advice—don’t let anything throw you—even a lack of materials from CTW. When Carole returned from New York she had almost nothing to get going with. She didn’t have an office, promotion films, or even good television reception from the local television station. So she followed the workshop advice—she improvised a lot. She contacted community people and lined up UHF converters, organized viewing centers, and went out to get individuals and organizations to donate television sets. At last count, she was nearing her goal of setting up 100 viewing centers and of obtaining nearly twice that number of television sets.
Richard Smith, a coordinator from Detroit, worked with Dr. Enzmann, Director of early childhood education in Detroit, to set up a most ambitious Sesame Street viewing program. The Detroit Board of Education invited 25,000 preschoolers who will be entering kindergarten in September, 1971, to come to the public schools each Saturday at nine A.M. to watch Sesame Street for fourteen weeks. After the viewing, certified teachers and aids will reinforce the language and counting skills emphasized on the program. This Sesame Street venture will cost more than $1 million. Yet the Detroit Board of Education deemed it well worth the cost.
The Detroit Board of Education’s contribution and the interest and efforts of many local politicians and community leaders is encouraging. Not so encouraging is the federal government’s 1970 announcement that it was cutting Head Start funds by 13.5 percent. While federal support for early childhood education seems to be waning, more and more Americans are becoming aware of the value and importance of the Sesame Street experiment. In fact, Sesame Street is big news these days. Big Bird appeared on the cover of the November 23, 1970, issue of Time magazine. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a canary has been so honored.