In a recent class we spent time discussing the many ways each of us had acquired literacy, and I had mentioned one of the biggest factors for myself…namely Sesame Street. While the bulk of my literacy acquisition still can be attributed to my parents—especially my mother who read to me and always encouraged me to attempt reading—looking back I can say that Jim Henson and Joan Ganz Cooney’s gift to children was also instrumental. With that in mind I thought I would expound on that a bit.
By the time I was born, Sesame Street had been on the air thirteen years and established itself as a powerful force for children’s pre-school learning. The colorful Muppets—another factor that helped the show cement a place in my life due to my lifelong love of Henson’s work—along with the “commercial style” vignettes illustrating letters and numbers captivated my developing mind and imagination. As a child when you see Guy Smiley hosting a beauty pageant for letters or Kermit getting frustrated by a little girl’s inability to focus on the alphabet, there was something that inside me just clicked. Instead of the dry board books with “See Spot run” plastered amongst colorful illustrations, I actually saw reading come to life and to see the power behind it. There was even repetition and a chance for practice as some times I would see the same episode or the same “commercials” during the week.
As I grew, it seemed that the show did as well. By the time I was able to read a little bit, the concepts on Sesame Street seemed to grow more challenging as well. I would not learn until the 20th anniversary special that the show had a curriculum—which was honestly the first time I had ever heard the word that would go on to become a major part of my life as an educator—that would gradually improve. So while I had advanced past knowing the alphabet—which, it turned out, was not a single word—to learning how to read in the contexts of science, history, and even some Spanish.
My placement with Sesame Street and my acquiring literacy was a perfect storm that, looking back, I’m certain could not have been replicated or even purposefully started. The show had gained enough national—and in some countries, international—attention that it shifted its focus away from simply preparing inner-city children for preschool with its original penchant for the local vernacular—that it had to appeal to all children. At this same time my father was deployed to South Korea and my mother had to work two jobs—one of which was at J.C. Penny’s, a store that had a licensing deal with the Children’s Television Workshop, so subconsciously I must have made a connection between my mother’s job and the show, as I remember a few times visiting her at work and seeing the statue of Big Bird surrounded by clothes racks. So in this case the reinforcement of the show must have added to my literacy development as it showed—at least to a toddler’s eyes—that reading was important because the show was “real,” therefore I had to learn to read if I ever went there. Of course as I grew I learned it was only as real as the places inside of the books I would cling to, but the impact it had certainly was real.