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Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop

"Sesame Street," as everybody knows, is an amazingly popular children's variety show appearing on educational television. Judged by the standards of most other programs for preschoolers, it is imaginative, tasteful and witty. A personable young black high school teacher named Gordon presides, introducing children to an appealing big-city block whose resident, many-colored children come right off a UNESCO poster. There is a fanciful seven-foot tall bird, a grouch who lives in a garbage can, and a splendid troupe of puppets, the Muppets. There are brisk "commercials" for numbers and letters of the alphabet ("This program was brought to you courtesy of the letter L") a story reading, slapstick vaudeville comedy, puppet skits, a film on sights and sounds of city and country, and a game or two to reinforce some lessons of the commercials.

"Sesame Street" aims to teach the names of letters, their sounds, the sequence of numbers from 1 to 10, backwards and forwards. It imparts a variety of general information—where milk comes from, what sounds sheep make, what a horse looks like. It tries to teach vocabulary and "concepts"—same and different, in and on, squares, circles and triangles. It emphasizes rudimentary kinds of classification; what sound goes with the typewriter, why a harmonica is like a flute.

According to the conventional lore, these are the skills (tested by what are called "Reading Readiness Tests" ) that "deprived" children lack, which is the reason why they have a hard time learning to read in a typical school. "Sesame Street" is in effect a televised reading readiness program.

But as many a first grade teacher has discovered, the children most likely to have trouble learning to read don't really see the connection between learning letters and reading. They have had little experience with books, are often hazy about what reading is, and don't understand that speech is divided into words, that words are composed of letters, and that what they say can be written down and read. It would help if they could follow the lines of print in a storybook with their fingers as the story is read aloud. But on "Sesame Street," as in most schools, the adult doing the reading only shows the kids the pictures. Even though imaginative presentations like "Sesame Street's" can make learning letters easy, the learning is still mechanical, like memorizing the Lord's Prayer in Polish. All the grown-ups on "Sesame Street" keep insisting that you have to learn your letters in order to read . Yet most children read several easy first grade books before they master the alphabet; the confidence they get from reading makes learning the letters much easier. 

What is missed also in "Sesame Street" is the recognition that many kids fail to learn because they are tired, hungry, or frightened. The joyless atmosphere of the school classroom, routines, the incessant turnover of teachers and pupils, make school a poor place to learn anything. They forget what they already knew. Children capable of using "on" and "under" correctly in ordinary conversation get mixed up on a readiness test. This is why excellent remedial reading programs often have such slight long-run effects: when they have eliminated the symptoms of a reading problem they return the child to the classroom where he wasn't learning, and he slips back into a pattern of failure. "Readiness" isn't the problem.

Since the schools are failing to teach basic skills like reading, children should be given a chance to pick them up elsewhere. A television program aimed at actually teaching reading makes a lot of sense. The Children's Television Workshop, the group that created "Sesame Street," is reportedly working on such a problem for older kids. This should tackle reading directly, instead of winding around the dubious byways of readiness training. Learning letters, for example, need not be mechanical if a child is also learning exciting words and phrases, if he sees that phonics helps him read labels on cereal boxes, and signs in stores, streets, and doorways. Reading is like talking: you master it by doing it. A baby doesn't know what "mama" means the first time he says it, and most preschoolers don't see the point of the alphabet until they have started reading.

In part we created our national reading crisis by insisting that all children must start reading at age six, when the proper age for any given child might be anytime from four to nine. By emphasizing school skills with the very young, "Sesame Street" may make a bad situation worse. A mother who has seen so much effort pumped into pre-reading education cannot help being over-anxious about reading when instruction begins in earnest.

For the few American preschoolers who have plenty to fill their day, this early emphasis on school skills makes little difference; they won't allow interesting, important things like building a tree house or playing dolls to be crowded out. But most preschoolers aren't that lucky. Little children of all social classes are cooped up inside all day with few playmates and little to do. Few homes, whether in slum tenements, luxury apartments, or suburban subdivisions, provide youngsters' minds or bodies with the exercise they need. You can see the results in your local supermarket: irritable small fry, exhausted and bored by inactivity, driving their mothers crazy.

A good television program could give these children and their mothers a lot of help. God knows, little kids watch TV endlessly. For unsettled children, never in one classroom long enough to learn much, it must be one of the few constants of their existence. And TV has advantages over the conventional school. It is impersonal, and therefore it doesn't make children afraid of failing. It demands no answers. Schools usually assume that a child doesn't understand what he can't put into words. Yet most people of all ages know more than they can explain coherently: that is why Scientific American has to hire professional writers to put the findings of brainy scientists into clear English. More than the schools, TV works from children's interests: a program can offer many things without making the absurd demand that the child be equally interested in everything. And, unlike special educational programs for the poor, TV programs bear no social stigma; they are for all children.

One of the most promising things about television, educationally speaking, is how parents take teaching cues from it. You sec this among "Sesame Street's" audience: the show convinces many proud parents that their kids can learn a lot. The trouble is that "Sesame Street's" brand of learning is like school's: passive and sedentary. Children settle into a certain hypnotic, glazed trance when they watch TV, and "Sesame Street" is no exception. In general it is poor pedagogy to keep very young kids sitting like sponges for an hour daily. Some kind of physical or "movement" education on "Sesame Street" would be a welcome relief, perk the kids up, cultivate their formidable talents for physical awareness and self-expression. Preschoolers live in an adult world, but they aren't very good at most of the things that world values. Of course they need to break new ground, develop adult skills, talk better, and ultimately learn to read and write. But it is important that their education also include the things they do best, particularly at home. Otherwise talents atrophy without anyone realizing the loss.

Intellectually, the preschoolers' greatest asset is curiosity. Yet only a few years later many children fail to learn because they have so few questions to ask about the larger world. Many read well enough lo learn a lot from books. If only they had questions to pursue. The boredom is especially acute among certain middle class children: in many a crack suburban school, even six-year-olds are jaded. It is hard to know just why curiosity fades or kids become afraid of questions. Partly, I think, it is because they lose confidence in themselves as independent investigators, or fear the teacher won't like to be pestered with questions. When a baby wants to know something—can the cup make noise, does the radiator move—he acts; an older child usually asks his mother. Both at home and at school, questions get all mixed up with getting attention. There is no easy way out: you can't give a four-year-old a self-directed curriculum through which he discovers "why we breathe." But a program like "Sesame Street" could help by giving kids a sense that the world is an interesting place to investigate, that their questions are worth pursuing.

All children, for example, wonder how their bodies work. They ask "where does food go when its eaten?" "How do we talk?" "What happens if I forget to breathe?" "Sesame Street" has a film on bodies, but it bypasses all such matters. It says exactly what children already know: legs are for running, eyes are for seeing, the stomach is "something like a sack."

Solid interesting information feeds curiosity, providing that children art not obliged to attend to it or to react immediately. Yet on "Sesame Street" children are not so much told about new things as they are taught ways to categorize and rearrange old things. A wheel is a circle, and so is an O, and so is a grapefruit. A horn, a harmonica, and a police whistle are the same because they all make a noise; a banana is different because it's a fruit. A manhole is presented as example of a circle, not as a fascinating, mysterious hole to explore.

Good preschool teachers are dismayed that "Sesame Street" provides so few challenges to children. Its notion of intellectual development is limited to some mechanical operations—learning numbers and letters, pigeon-holing circles, triangles. Nearly every lesson, film, game or puppet skit is repeated over and over so children can learn them by heart. Many kids enjoy singing along and knowing what will come next, and there is a place for repetition on any children's program. But learning to chant a jingle should not be confused with understanding lesson it was designed to teach. Just as kids can memorize the multiplication tables without realizing that 40 is a bigger number than 36, so skeptical parents watching "Sesame Street" say that although the viewers can now count backwards from ten, they don't seem to understand any more about numbers than they did before. 

Good teachers, however much they are interested in developing skills, take some of their cues from class. They listen and respond. By contrast, everything that happens on "Sesame Street" planned in advance by adults who stick to the lesson no matter what children around them do or say. A little girl is identifying geometric shape with Susan; suddenly she announces she has a toothache. "Oh, do you?" says Susan, and pushes right on with the lesson. Like the other regular adults on "Sesame Street," Susan always behaves as though she were teaching a whole big class, even when she's huddled with two kids. As Gordon reads a book aloud, two boys get very interested in one particular picture. They want to talk about it, but Gordon drives ahead with the story reading just the same. Children never stop Gordon on the street to ask him a question or joke or get help with a game. Grown-ups initiate everything. And their concerns are trivial. They ask kids what various toys have in common (all the toys—snore—have something to do with transportation). They never ask interesting questions like why do people kiss? Why does it rain? Worse, the adults never leave the children with anything to talk about and develop on their own.

This is exactly what parents don't need. Adults should set the environment for learning, of course. Their job is to introduce children to aspects of the world about which children know nothing. But parents should realize that a child's curiosity is the teacher's most reliable guide, and that teaching that responds to questions and interests is most likely to succeed. In actual fact, most parents are better teachers than they know. A function of good television program would be to build on their strengths as, for example, with all its flaws, a TV program called "Misterrogers Neighborhood" tries to do. If a mother takes her child to the park and they talk about that, "education" is going on. Parents know this, but more would be reassured if the experts would concede that this is more important and enduring than learning the alphabet.

The present generation of preschoolers watches an average of 54 hours of television a week. This must give them an extraordinary exposure to standard adult English and opportunities to see many things that would otherwise remain outside their experience. But on television—and "Sesame Street" is no exception—American children don't come into contact with first-rate things. They need good theater, myths, music, films, rich stories and experiences that provide some standards to set against other experiences. Pete Seeger's occasional appearances on "Sesame Street" left the rest of the shows looking very drab. Why, with people like Seeger and Mahalia Jackson, are there so few good songs for "Sesame Street's" audience to learn by heart?

All this makes it sound as though "Sesame Street" were no fun at all. But it is. The Muppets, the puppet troupe, have extraordinary charm and individuality, and they talk in normal, unaffected human voices. The show is always fast-paced and bouncy; there are a few fine films—a lovely one of a boy exploring a seashore and a nice photo essay on water. Even the best things, however, don't touch strong emotions, or extend fantasy. The camera filts from subject to subject, animal coverings—skin, fur, fish schales—or city noises or rectangles.

Nobody on "Sesame Street" is ever genuinely miserable, terrified or exultant. Ernie, the puppet, is disappointed when the wonderful cooky Monster eats all his cookies, or he's lonely when everyone else is busy, but the problems cure themselves. When Mr. Hooper, the local storekeeper, and Gordon fight about a pile of trash, they make it clear that they aren't really mad, it's just a joke.

All the burlesque and slapstick have one important effect. They make adults (including me) laugh. Adults really enjoy "Sesame Street." An astonishing number - including those without children watch it. This is not without its effect on youngsters: young Bill knows that Mother is pleased if he prefers "Sesame Street" to "Batman." But there is something to be said for "Batman," however reprehensible his moronic violence. "Batman" evokes real emotions and provokes real fantasy. "Sesame Street" doesn't. An excellent illustration of why it doesn't—which is germane to its emphasis on "Reading Readiness"—is the children's literature it puts forth. It's bland beyond description. The lions in the stories Gordon reads are the sort that go to barbershops and eat cake at birthday parties, not the kind that eat up little girls. If Manuel's bird disappears on page 9, it is sure to turn up by page 12. A little of this thinness goes a long way; children need the strong, scary stuff of old English and African fairy tales.