Sesame Street started the year I was born, 1969. It was created when Joan Ganz Cooney, a former documentary producer for public television, wanted to create programming for preschoolers that was both entertaining and educational. She wanted to use TV as a way to help underprivileged 3-5 year-olds prepare for kindergarten. It was the first children's television program that used a curriculum with clear and measurable outcomes, and it was the first to use research in the creation of the show's design and content. Cooney is quoted as saying, "From the beginning, we-the planners of the project-designed the show as an experimental research project with educational advisors, researchers and television producers collaborating as equal partners."
Sesame Street is currently in its 54th season. By its 40th anniversary in 2009, Sesame Street was broadcast in over 120 countries and 20 independent international versions had been produced. I recently read a book entitled "Muppets in Moscow: The Unexpected Crazy True Story of Making Sesame Street in Russia" by Natasha Lance Rogoff. The title did not exaggerate the crazy path that led to a Russian version of Sesame Street. The lessons I learned from the process they followed to create a Russian version can apply to our schools today.
Be Culturally Relevant: In the US, the set for Sesame Street was based on the inner city and the human characters were culturally diverse. The Russian version had to figure out what that looked like for their country. The set, the human characters and the Muppets all needed to be culturally relevant for Russian viewers. Some Muppets were given Russian names, and some were replaced with new Muppets pulling from Russian stories handed down from generations. In schools today, we need to be culturally relevant so that all our students, regardless of their background, can achieve their full potential.
Do the Research: Research is what drove the creation of Sesame Street all those years ago and research continues to be the driving force today. New characters have been added to reflect changing demographics and the show has tackled difficult issues such as mental health, divorce and death. In Russia, they tapped a leading children's researcher to conduct research on what Russian children needed and what they would respond to. Following that research was a big reason why the Russian Sesame Street finally succeeded. As a teacher, I was constantly collecting and analyzing data from my students to determine how I needed to proceed. All good teachers do that, and we should let them. Having been a teacher for 30 years, I have a lot of tools in my "educational toolbelt" that I can pull out if I find a student struggling. There is NEVER a one size fits all approach. Unfortunately, too often districts push initiatives that assume to do just that- fix every student. Trust the teachers who are continually doing the research.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes: As they were getting ready for production in Moscow, the creative team flew to New York to work with the puppeteers, but also to work with a group of preschoolers. What they saw changed their perspective and the direction of the show. All administrators would benefit from teaching a class every year, just to remember what it's like in the shoes of a teacher. I truly believe that is part of the disconnect as some administrators have completely forgotten what its like in the classroom.
Sesame Street has been a source of joy and hope for so many children around the world over the past 50+ years. If we take lessons learned from Sesame Street into our schools, good things will follow.