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Winter 2020

Sesame Street illustrated muppet eyes

100 Reasons to Love the Ed School: A Special Centennial Issue

#34: Because Sesame Street

Can you tell us how we got to Sesame Street? This excerpted 1969 article from The Harvard Crimson detailing how Harvard faculty, particularly from the Ed School, were instrumental in helping get the show off the ground, may help:

HARVARD PROFESSORS HELP PLAN TV SHOW FOR KIDS

“Don’t jive a judge by jamming a June bug” ends a commercial — “brought to you by the letter J” — featured in a recent episode of educational television’s innovative new children’s show, Sesame Street.

Two years of research and discussion — in which 12 Harvard professors took an active part — preceded the show’s debut on November 10. One of those professors, Gerald Lesser, Charles W. Bigelow Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology, chairs the advisory board of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), which produces the show. Professors Sheldon White and Jeanne Chall participate on a regular basis in the actual production of the show. White reads and reviews all of the shows’ scripts in advance; Chall looks over the storyboards of all the shows’ animated sequences before they are produced.

LAUGH-IN

The show is modeled to an extent on the style of television commercials and shows like [Rowan and Martin’s] Laugh-In, according to Jerome Kagan, professor of developmental psychology, because children seem to respond well to this “fast, rapid-change” style. Lesser said he was pleased by the success which the program had had so far but stressed that its “ultimate success” would depend on “whether kids learn from it or not.” Two research groups, one within CTW and one within the Educational Testing Service, are watching the effect the show is having on children. CTW’s research advisory subcommittee, of which Lesser and Kagan are members, is in contact with both of these groups. The concept of the program was formulated in seminars in which individuals involved with children in various ways participated. In addition to academic personnel on a university level, puppeteers, preschool teachers, children’s book authors, and animators took part in these discussions.

ACADEMICIANS

About 30 or 40 of the program’s advisers come from the academic world, Lesser said. The show is “not a Harvard-dominated enterprise,” he said, explaining that because it was convenient for him to draw on Harvard when he was looking for people with expertise in various fields, many of the show’s advisers do come from Harvard.

In addition to Lesser, Kagan, Chall, and Sheldon White, six members of the Ed School Faculty — Professors Lawrence Kohlberg, Chester Pierce, Courtney Cazden, Burton White, Marion Walter, and Leon Eisenberg — helped to work out the shape of Sesame Street.

Read more about HGSE's role in the creation of Sesame Street and the continued relationship between the school and Sesame Workshop in the special series: 100 Stories of Impact.

Explore HGSE's Centennial website, a central resource for events, stories, ways to get involved, and more.