"The secret of the program is repeating, repeating, re…"
--The New York Times
IN COLOR FOR BLACK AND WHITE
It was clear to the CTW staff that Sesame Street had to entertain. If the show couldn’t keep the preschoolers coming back for more, it couldn’t possibly accomplish its real purpose of educating them. But before the staff could work on making teaching interesting, it had to first find out what to teach.
CTW organized a series of advisory seminars in which every possible interest group had a chance to say its piece and tell what it thought was top priority educationally. The staff met with a cross section of the nation’s leading educators, writers, artists, child development experts and classroom teachers to establish the educational goals of the project and to suggest possible techniques for teaching preschoolers via TV.
How much, it was asked, can preschool children be expected to learn about numbers, letters of the alphabet, shapes, sizes, people, animals, places? How could we introduce them to reasoning and problem-solving? How can we stimulate their interest in many new things without confusing or frightening them? What sort of materials will hold their attention?
Out of these meetings came specific suggestions: stay away from the anthropomorphism of letters and numbers; gear the program to boys rather than girls (boys don’t like girls’ activities but the reverse isn’t true). Teach upper and lower case letters but don’t say upper and lower case, say capital and small.
The group listened to most intently was the ghetto parent. This group stressed practical goals such as counting and reading readiness. Joan Cooney comments about their request: “Ghetto mothers wanted us to teach letters and numbers because they’ve observed that most middle-class kids start school knowing that much already and they wanted their youngsters to be able to compete. I often say kiddingly that the ghettos are Jewish again. What I mean is that Black mothers today are just as tough as Jewish mothers of fifty years ago in the awareness of the need to educate their children.”
While her staff was back in New York groping with its problems, Joan Cooney—part pitchman, part architect—traveled around the country asking questions and stirring up interest in the right places for Sesame Street.
One story she likes to tell about her wanderings is how she discovered a 5-year-old black boy in Georgia who was astonishing his teachers with a third-grade reading ability. The teachers found out his parents had little education and never read aloud to him. But the boy had to read by reciting along with the TV commercials, “reading” the words as they flickered across the screen. This was a trick Sesame Street was quick to adopt.
Six months after CTW first began its blitz research, the aims and goals were established. The aim of Sesame Street was to reach and teach as many as possible of this nation’s 12 million, 3-,4- and 5-year-olds through a color, 5-day-a-week hour long show. From the list of suggested basic instructional goals emerged the following three categories:
1. Symbolic representation of letters, numbers and geometric forms. This would include counting objects, identifying and labeling numerals, beginning recognition of the letters of the alphabet, use of letters as sounds and as patterns for words.
2. Problem solving and reasoning
3. Familiarity with the physical and social environment.
CTW felt emphatically that Black and other minority-group children grew up seeing few people of their own race or group on television, a situation which was bound to have an effect on them and on their perception of themselves and of the world around them. CTW decided that they would go beyond just being an integrated show. They would also reflect minority-group interests by presenting programs that these groups could relate to and understand, believe in, and take pride from. Sesame Street would bother to teach “tolerance” for people of other races and backgrounds by preaching. Instead it would create a positive stance. It would have attractive adults and children of various skin colors and backgrounds taking part in all aspects of the show. Most of the children who appeared on the show would not be professional actors or models.
CTW’s goals would be accomplished through a variety of carefully researched and tested audio-visual techniques designed to catch and hold the attention of preschoolers, and to entertain while teaching. The show would have a magazine format composed of short segments, designed to hold the child’s attention. Each short, zesty segment would never be longer than six minutes. The camera would constantly break away, unexpectedly, to animated cartoons, films of children playing, brief scenarios enacted by puppets. Each segment would carry a sound educational message. Because many young children learn by repetition (such as used on TV advertising), one-minute spot “commercials” would be especially created for the Workshop as a device to teach letters, numbers, ideas and concepts and would be used over and over again. Well-known celebrities would make guest appearances (to keep parents interested as well).
To attain these goals, pratfall humor was employed in the last sequence of every number segment—such things as the cook falling down the stairs smearing whatever he’s carrying all over him. “I don’t like it,” Joan Cooney says flatly of this banana peel humor, “but the show is definitely male oriented and that’s what they like from the age of four on.”
An adult watching a Sesame Street segment called “Relational Concepts—Empty/Full” would see it as a series of little lessons in symbolic representation, cognitive organization, reasoning, problem solving. The child sees the same bits a bunch of quick, funny, entertaining moments that go something like this:
The camera fades up to an empty set. The set is a simple backdrop showing a door, window, and some pictures on a wall.
LITTLE BOY ANYTHING MUPPET (Off Camera): This room is empty. It is an empty room.
First Monster, who is a small one, enters.
FIRST MONSTER: Now this room is not quite empty.
Second Monster enters.
SECOND MONSTER: Now it’s even less empty.
Third Monster enters.
THIRD MONSTER: Now it’s half full.
Fourth Monster enters
FOURTH MONSTER: Now it’s even fuller.
Fifth Monster enters.
FIFTH MONSTER: And fuller!
Sixth Monster enters.
SIXTH MONSTER: And even fuller!
Seventh Monster, who is huge, enters.
SEVENTH MONSTER: And now it’s really full!
The monsters stand quietly looking into the camera. Slowly the Little Boy Anything Muppet starts edging his way into the frame, squeezing in between the monsters. When he gets to the center of the frame, he looks them over carefully.
LITTLE BOY ANYTHING MUPPET: Boo!
The Monsters all scream with terror and stampede out of the room.
LITTLE BOY ANYTHING MUPPET: That’s better.
Little Boy Anything Muppet exits quietly.
LITTLE BOY ANYTHING MUPPET(Off Camera): As I was saying, this room is empty. This is an empty room.
Using “commercials” as part of an educational TV format without actually trying to sell a toy or game had the ad men on Madison Avenue betting the idea would fall flat on its face. But Joan Cooney feels she has handily won the bet. “Two-year-olds,” she says, “who can’t even say the show’s name—they call it Tet-a-mee Tweet—have watched our alphabet commercials and called out ‘Momma—X! X! X!’
“You know, we bet that these abstractions would be just as meaningful as products to children, and a lot of Madison Avenue-ites doubted it. They thought the efficacy of commercials was in their being about concrete products you could see on supermarket shelves.
“But we’ve shown that ‘X’ can be just as meaningful to a child as a box of cereal!”
Adult, and child alike snap to attention when they hear, “And now here’s a message from the letter “X.”