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The Future of Learning Outside the Classroom

The partnership between HGSE and Sesame Workshop highlighted by popular J-Term course
Sesame Workshop's Kay Wilson Stallings presents at HT-123
Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president and chief production and creative development officer at Sesame Workshop, speaks to students in the Informal Learning for Children course
Photo: Jill Anderson

For nearly 100 students at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, skipping two weeks of vacation in favor of the cold of a Cambridge winter is as simple as counting to three.

While many students are at home recharging after a long fall semester, those enrolled in the cleverly named HT-123 fill a classroom in Larsen Hall for an intense study of informal learning with a little help from Sesame Street.

Led by Senior Lecturer Joe Blatt, the two-week J-Term course Informal Learning for Children has become an HGSE mainstay over the years. Blatt, faculty co-chair of HGSE’s Learning Design, Innovation, and Technology (LDIT) curriculum, teaches the course, which lets students get face time with some of the biggest names in education and children’s media.

Informal learning is considered any educational programming taking place outside of the traditional classroom, and there’s no more successful example of that than Sesame Street.  Blatt’s J-term is the latest example of the close partnership Sesame Workshop and HGSE has had for more than 50 years.

But HT-123 (strictly pronounced ‘one-two-three’) isn’t an exhaustive history of puppets and good branding. Rather, the course explores how Sesame Workshop has developed curriculum to meet students where their attention lay once they leave the classroom. In studying the “Sesame Model,” students learn how to integrate curriculum development, program design, research, and production into their own informal learning concepts. Throughout the class, students form groups and develop their own informal learning concept, and the course culminates in a formal pitch to industry experts, many of whom work for Sesame Workshop.

The class draws rave reviews from both current and former students. Master’s student Veronica Ellis, heard again and again from other students that HT-123 was a must-take to round out her educational experience at HGSE. She’s joined the chorus of students who enter the spring semester happy they returned to campus early.

“It’s great because we all really want to be here. It’s communal. This is our break and we’ve chosen to take another course, and it’s a really intensive course,” says Ellis. “It demands a lot of your time and energy and creative juices. Just knowing that you’re in a space where everyone’s investing in that is really motivating and makes me happy.”

Class alumni often return as teaching fellows to help new students in the years that follow.

“It’s been such an awesome experience,” says Ivy Ryan, Ed.M.’23, who took HT-123 as a student last year and returned this year as a teaching fellow. “To get to be on the other side and really understand all the hard work and collaboration and team dynamics that we’re teaching, we’re also modeling.”

Students are placed in groups by the teaching team after they detail their own backgrounds and expertise, and are asked to tackle an array of issues such as improving children’s health and fitness, promoting civic engagement, print and digital literacy, and promoting civics and political participation. It’s a crash course, for sure, but one entirely by design within J-term’s short time frame.

“In real life, you don’t get 13 weeks to think about a project. Two weeks of intensive focus is much more realistic,” says Blatt. “And in real life, you don’t get to pick your team, somebody else puts together the team. So learning quickly how to bond as a group and work together creatively is an important part of the experience.”

The ideas students develop in HT-123 often last for much longer than the fortnight the class covers. Blatt said student groups often take their projects into the spring semester and beyond, participating in pitch contests such as the Ed School’s HIVE Educational Entrepreneurship project. Some groups have stayed together after graduation to pursue their projects as business ideas in the real world.

“The jump from seeing them think about the problem and the mission to visualizing a whole product, visualizing an app or a website or a game or an afterschool program in seven days is kind of mind-blowing,” says Ryan. “It really makes me believe in the power of every student to go out and do this with teams wherever they end up after HGSE. I think it’s really intense, but it’s really special in that way.”

The class offers a glimpse at the people behind the puppets, featuring guest speakers from across the spectrum of responsibilities at Sesame Workshop. This year’s list of guest speakers included Sesame CEO Steve Youngwood, Executive Vice President and Chief Production and Creative Development Officer Kay Wilson Stallings, Head of International Production Scott Cameron, Vice President of Social Impact Jeanette Betancourt, and Director of Research Kim Foulds.

Blatt says it is “impossible to overstate” how meaningful the expert participants are to the coursework and what they provide students taking the class.

“The kind of committed and creative people that Sesame hires are candid, honest folks who really respect our students,” says Blatt. “They understand that our students are going to be leaders in education and want to share their insights.”

While Sesame Workshop and its executives serve as a focal point of the course, Blatt noted a number of other contributors from across the children’s educational space, including Steven Isaacs, education program manager for Fortnite publisher Epic Games. Additional contributors came from library settings, other media companies, and even live action role playing groups that find unique ways to provide educational opportunities outside of the classroom.

Blatt notes that the course’s student work – curriculum development, a formal pitch presentation, and a written proposal of their idea – develops essential skills not just for those interested in children’s media, but for all aspects of education.  

“I hope these skills prove valuable to students whether or not they go into children’s media or informal learning,” says Blatt. “Even if their careers take them into the most established parts of formal schooling, I’m confident that knowing how to develop a project and pitch it persuasively will serve them well.”


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