Sesame Street Curricula at 35
Anna Housley-Juster couldn't be happier working as the Assistant Content Director of Research at Sesame Workshop. "It's what I wanted to do all my life," she says, bubbling over with enthusiasm, the chance to design and test out programming, formats, feedback that make learning fun. Her favorite memories turn on the live-action films she saw on Sesame Street that sent her into peels of laughter, first as a pre-schooler, and then, significantly, as a teenager who found the award-winning show full of quirky, original, imaginative humor. This double view, looking at learning from a child's perspective and from an adult's, is what has always guided Sesame Street programs, research workshops, products, and outreach activities. The idea that education should be "full of play" at all levels has stayed with her ever since those pre-K years when she would stare wide-eyed at Bert and Ernie and company. Of course some non-muppet celebs also caused cascades of laughter.
It was inevitable that Anna would find herself at Tufts majoring in Childhood Development, as well as English, and concentrating on media. But it was not until she got to do her Masters at Teachers College, Columbia, that a mentor, Dr. Herb Ginsburg, a specialist in math curricula and cognitive learning, turned her toward Sesame Street as an intern, though not before she had completed a year as a certified teacher in Head Start in Rhode Island. The two worlds merged. She knew the classroom, she had watched children learn, and she saw that imaginative video could be a powerful way to model skills. She also appreciated the importance of research and meeting constantly with focus groups to discover what parents (usually moms), their children, and her colleagues (both those in education and media) saw that helped children learn. By learning, she emphasizes, she means not only numbers and letters but "social cognition" as well. In fact, when Education Update caught up with the effervescent educator, she had just attended a focus group in New Jersey where parents expressed a keen interest in "cultural diversity." Such reliance on feedback has always been at the heart of the Workshop mission.
For example, over the last few years that Anna has been with the curriculum and division, changes have been made based on focus group conversations and follow up research. Overall, these have been greater attention to thinking skills, but never, never without humor. Children are also demonstrably more interested in narrative now, she adds, and so earlier signature programs that featured short and various sketches that briefly touched on different skills have been largely replaced by longer segments, including a ten-minute story, a format that encourages reasoning skills by way of sustained observation and follow up. Parents and teachers, both, are delighted with the change and the challenge. "The kids can do it," she says. As for cultural diversity, well, look to Global Grover to be even more prominent in the toy department-he is already more than holding his own on TV, taking kids on journeys, with humor, to show the universality of the arts, groups of girls doing the Peacock Dance in China, for instance, or a young boy in Africa creating pottery. When children "focus on similarity, they build self-confidence."
Outreach involves more than getting curricular guides on culture and the arts to parents and educators. At Sesame Street Workshop, Anna points out, it also means taking on real-world timely concerns, such as the health crisis, creating segments to counter obesity, for example, and continuing, of course, as a non-profit, to get the support of important sponsors who will help with distribution and financing learning guides and parental tip sheets. One can only wonder how Cookie Monster will face the new attention to healthy life style. www.sesameworkshop.org#