How We Got to Sesame Street

Posted on May 11, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Simon and Schuster 2020

There’s a terrific history of Sesame Street by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, based in part on a terrific new book called Sunny Days: the Children’s Television Revolution that Changed America by David Kamp. I appreciated the mention of my dad, who, as Kamp’s book reveals, played a critical role in obtaining the first funding for the show. I remember his telling us about it at family dinners, and I was lucky enough to watch the very first episode, which I loved instantly.

Half a century ago, before “Sesame Street,” and long before the age of quarantine, kids under the age of six spent a crazy amount of time indoors, watching television, a bleary-eyed average of fifty-four hours a week. In 1965, the year the Johnson Administration founded Head Start, Lloyd Morrisett, a vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Yale, got up one Sunday morning, at about six-thirty, a half hour before the networks began their day’s programming, to find his three-year-old daughter, Sarah, lying on the living-room floor in her pink footie pajamas, watching the test pattern. She’d have watched anything, even “The Itty-Bitty, Farm and City, Witty-Ditty, Nitty-Gritty, Dog and Kitty, Pretty Little Kiddie Show.”

Not much later, Morrisett fell into a dinner-party conversation with Joan Ganz Cooney, a public-affairs producer at New York’s Channel 13. The first time Cooney had seen a television set was in 1952, when she watched Adlai Stevenson accept the Democratic nomination. She’d gone on to champion Democratic causes and had moved from Phoenix to New York to work at Channel 13, where her documentary projects included “A Chance at a Beginning,” about a preschool program in Harlem. As David Kamp reports in “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America” (Simon & Schuster), both Cooney and Morrisett were caught up in Lyndon Johnson’s vision of a Great Society, his War on Poverty, and the promise of the civil-rights movement, and they’d both been stirred by a speech delivered in 1961 by Newton Minow, President Kennedy’s F.C.C. chairman, which called television a “vast wasteland.” Minow, a former law partner of Stevenson’s, had gone on to rescue Channel 13’s public-broadcast mandate during a takeover bid. At that dinner party, Cooney and Morrisett got to talking about whether public-minded television might be able to educate young kids.

Educational television for preschoolers seemed to solve two problems at once: the scarcity of preschools and the abundance of televisions. At the time, half of the nation’s school districts didn’t have kindergartens. To address an achievement gap that had persisted long after Brown v. Board of Education, it would have been better to have universal kindergarten, and universal preschool, but, in the meantime, there was universal television. “More households have televisions than bathtubs, telephones, vacuum cleaners, toasters, or a regular daily newspaper,” Cooney noted in a Carnegie-funded feasibility study, “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education.” With that report in hand, Morrisett arranged for a million-dollar grant that allowed Cooney to begin development of a show with no other title than “Early Childhood Television Program.” In a fifty-five-page 1968 proposal, “Television for Preschool Children,” Cooney reported the results of a national study of the increasingly sophisticated scholarship on child development: she’d travelled the country, interviewing scholars and visiting preschools to find out about what was called, at the time, the “sandbox-to-classroom revolution”—the pressing case for intellectual stimulation for three-, four-, and five-year-olds.

That proposal brought in the eight million dollars in foundation and government funding that made possible the founding of the nonprofit Children’s Television Workshop and the production of the first season of the still unnamed “Early Childhood Television Program.” “Nothing comparable to such a program now exists on television,” Cooney observed. “Captain Kangaroo,” broadcast on CBS beginning in 1955, had educational bits, but it was mainly goofy. (Bob Keeshan, who played the captain, had started out as a Sideshow Bob clown named Clarabell on “Howdy Doody” and then starred as Corny the Clown on ABC’s “Time for Fun.”) “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a half-hour show produced by WQED, in black-and-white, had gone national in 1968, but reached mainly a middle-class audience. The new show would be broadcast nationally, every weekday, for an hour, in color; it would be aimed at all children, from all socioeconomic backgrounds; it would be explicitly educational, with eight specific learning objectives drawn from a list devised by experts; and its format would be that of a “magazine” made up of “one- to fifteen-minute segments in different styles”—animation, puppetry, games, stories. The “Early Childhood Television Program” would also be an experiment: its outcome would be measured.

Cooney put together a board of academic advisers, chaired by the developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser, and in 1968 she began a series of seminars loosely affiliated with the Harvard School of Education, where Lesser was a professor. To one of those seminars, she later recalled, “this bearded, prophetic figure in sandals walks in and sits way at the back, ram-rod straight, staring ahead with no expression on his face.” She thought that he might be a member of the Weather Underground. She whispered to a colleague, “How do we know that man back there isn’t going to throw a bomb up here or toss a hand grenade?”

“Not likely,” he said. “That’s Jim Henson.”

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Interview on the New Character with Autism on Sesame Street

Posted on April 13, 2017 at 12:00 pm

Julia, “Sesame Street’s” first character with autism, helps children and their families understand people on the spectrum. Jennifer Thorn, Ph.D., Associate Professor in the English Department of Saint Anselm College answered my questions about Julia and what she can teach us.

The autism spectrum includes a wide range of behaviors and capabilities. Is there a definition that describes everyone described as autistic?

The 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA-1990) defines autism as a category of developmental disability that significantly affects verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction. IDEA-1990 recognizes that autism typically, but not always, becomes evident in children before the age of 3.

By classifying autism as a developmental disability, IDEA-1900 makes clear that it is not a condition arising from emotional disturbance.

Behaviors associated with autism, but not strictly definitional of it, include
• resistance to environmental change;
• discomfort due to heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli; and
• engagement in repetitive actions.

Copyright Sesame Street 2017
Copyright Sesame Street 2017

Why is it important for children and their families to see an autistic character on television?

Current research indicates that half of American children live in homes where the television is on half of the time that family members are home, whether or not anyone is watching it. Three-fourths of American children now have access to mobile devices; one-fifth of these children use mobile devices daily. Children are awash in media, which carries messages, directly and by implication that children are more likely than adults to absorb, because they lack adults’ cognitive abilities.

TV shows offer visions of normalcy. Sesame Street has long recognized that the absence of certain kinds of people in programming conveys powerful messages about what lives are, and aren’t, valuable. Television models values and behaviors that children absorb. The absence of characters with autism suggests that their lives are less worthwhile than the lives of neurotypical people.

I say “characters with autism” rather than “autistic characters” because no one can be reduced to any one quality he or she might possess.

Why have a puppet with autism rather than bringing on a real child with autism as they do with other disabilities?

Sesame Street is to be commended (as it has frequently been, by numerous awards) for its inclusion of content relating to disabilities both to teach content and to model a “normalcy” in which people with disabilities are included.

For example, the violinist Itzak Perlman, who was born with polio, was featured in a 1981 segment in which a little girl ran up a set of steps that he then climbed with his crutches—teaching children about the obstacles that everyday life poses for so many. That segment offered content. In another segment, “Katie and the Baby,” a soon-to-be-big sister anticipated the arrival of a new sibling; the focus was on this ordinary, everyday experience. She had Down Syndrome, but the point was that she was an excited little girl facing an exciting new experience.

So both approaches are valuable—teaching, and taking for grant the presence of a person with a disability. The fact that Julia is a puppet (and such a very appealing one) also puts children at ease and gives them permission to have fun and laugh as they would watching any other character.

What can children learn from Julia about reaching out to people with autism?

Children can learn—and perhaps the older siblings and adults who might watch with them—that people with autism are people, too. First and foremost, including Julia in the gang, matter-of-factly playing and learning with friends and neighbors, shows that people with autism live lives as rich and individual and valuable as any other person’s.

What does it mean to be “culturally and linguistically diverse?”

This phrase means – being mindful of the complexity of “normal” and the ways that “normal” might be seen or experienced differently by different kinds of people. It involves recognizing that programming that shows children only one kind of person implicitly suggests that that kind of person is more normal, more valuable, than other people.

What are Julia’s special concerns and issues? Can she discuss her autism and guide others on how best to communicate with her?

I can’t speak for the writers (I can only trust and applaud them); my sense is that Sesame Street wants Julia to be “not a big deal”—one child with other children, having good days and bad days, problems one minute and joy the next. That integration is the real, and very powerful, value of the addition of Julia to the cast.

What will children with autism think about Julia?

Here I think of the words of Emily Perl Kingsley, the mother of a child with Down syndrome who began appearing on Sesame Street in 1977. In that era, it was widely assumed that children with Down syndrome could not be taught. She has written, of the power of Jason’s inclusion on the show: “Children with disabilities are pleased and proud to see other children like themselves represented on television as fully participating members of the community.”

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Julia — Sesame Street’s First Character With Autism

Posted on March 28, 2017 at 3:03 pm

Sesame Street’s television series has a new character. Her name is Julia, she loves bubbles, and she has autism.

Julia has already been a Sesame Street online character, and it is great to see her on ths whow, letting families see “the amazing in all kids” and learn how to make friends with different kinds of people.

And Sesame Street gets a visit from Sia, who shows a bit of her face for a change as she sings about songs!

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Julia — Sesame Street’s First Character with Autism

Posted on October 25, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Copyright 2015 Sesame Workshop
Copyright 2015 Sesame Workshop
Sesame Street’s newest resident is Julia, a green-eyed, orange-haired character with autism. There’s already a book about Julia online. It is a wonderful way to teach children not just about autism but about how to think about the best way to communicate with all different kinds of people.

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Sesame Street’s Maria Says Goodbye

Posted on July 2, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Sonia Manzano has announced that she is leaving Sesame Street after 44 years.  She was 22 years old when she auditioned for the brand new series that would revolutionize children’s programming. She became Maria, one of the first Latina characters on national television. Her warmth and good humor in dealing with both human and puppet characters made her instantly relatable. Maria and her husband Luis run a fix-it shop, which gave the characters a lot of opportunities to interact, and to show that problems can be solved and that it is okay to ask for help.

Her memoir, Becoming Maria: Love and Chaos in the South Bronx will be released next month.

We will miss her!

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