Making Curriculum Pop

When the sign-up sheet went around, I immediately put my name under Kevin Clash’s presentation, “MY LIFE AS A FURRY RED MONSTER: WHAT BEING ELMO HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT LIFE, LOVE AND LAUGHING OUT LOUD”. Wow! What an inspiration he was.

Like so many other people, I grew up watching Sesame Street. Along with Reading Rainbow and Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street helped define my childhood. What surprised me most about Mr. Clash’s presentation and discussion was when he told us that Sesame Street was NOT designed for me. I grew up in a two-parent household with lots of intellectual stimulation. Sesame Street’s lessons were just part of my learning and development. But Sesame Street, Mr. Clash told us, was developed for those who did not have all of the resources and support that I was lucky enough to have.

I’m a middle school teacher. I love that age because the students are old enough that I can teach relatively sophisticated information, but they’re still children. The school where I taught before I came to Teachers College was in Austin, Texas. It is a Title I school with 90% of the students on free or reduced lunch and over 50% are English Language Learners. Although they are too old for Sesame Street’s lessons (although it is entertaining at any age!), Sesame Street was designed for their younger siblings. Many of my students came from single-parent households. Even when both parents were present, they often worked long hours and depended on the older siblings to take care of the younger ones after school, on weekends and during the long summers.

From Mr. Clash, I inferred that one of Sesame Street’s major purposes is to provide stability for children. All children crave continuity and regular schedules, from the richest to the poorest, and Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and the others never fail them. For a half-hour every day, on a free television station, children can visit with their friends and feel as if someone really cares about them. Their friends demonstrate valuable lessons—how to share, how to eat healthily, what to do when a parent goes away. They are also there to teach and reinforce what pre-K and primary students should be learning in school, about the alphabet, and vocabulary, and other important topics. But listening to Mr. Clash, I felt as though that was of secondary importance to those who produce the show. In his book, Mr. Clash says, ““You can teach your children all the basics and then some, and they will turn right around and use their knowledge in wonderful, powerful ways you can’t even imagine. That’s the beauty of learning…”

I was so excited when Mr. Clash brought out Elmo. He was absolutely right: you forget the 6 foot tall man with the amazing presence when Elmo is on his hand. Like Mr. Clash had told us, we all reverted to children. I wanted to run up and hug Elmo, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The academic, higher-level questions we had been asking Mr. Clash changed drastically when we talked to Elmo through him—“What’s your favorite color?” (Can’t you guess?) “Have you ever been scared?” (His response about Ricky Gervais was priceless!) “What’s your favorite book?” (Green Eggs and Ham).

Elmo and Ricky Gervais. Is Elmo frightened or having a good time?

I am convinced that Mr. Clash has, in his 20-odd years as a puppeteer for Sesame Street, made the world a better place. I eagerly await for Amazon to send me my copy of his book. I have a few questions: What is it about being a puppet that has created such a transcendent, growing experience for Mr. Clash? What gave him the courage to be a puppeteer in the first place? What did he watch as a child back in the 1960s, and how would it have been different if he’d had Sesame Street?

Check out Mr. Clash's 35th Anniversary interview with NPR at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1816191.

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Hi Alice!
I love Mr. Clash's presentation as well! When you said that you reverted back to feeling like a little kid when Elmo was brought out -- I felt exactly the same way. It was amazing to see the magic behind this furry red monster as he brought out this eager, imaginative and playful side of me. Mr. Clash really brings Elmo to life! You forget that Mr. Clash is even there. Just conversing with Elmo made me see the power of imagination and how important it is to keep that alive, not only in children but adults as well. It was so great to laugh and play and be reverted back to my childhood years. You can really see the power of imagination in learning through the works of Sesame Street. Through these imaginative, fun characters you get kids to learn the alphabet, vocabulary, family values and more. Elmo is a constant reminder that it is through imagination that we can get students engaged and eager to learn more.

Liz
Hi Liz! I really like what you said about how important it is to keep imagination alive. I completely agree! As a secondary teacher, I wonder how we can do that with our older students. I personally think that the Muppets are totally cool, but I'm sure my students wouldn't ;) . What can we do with teenagers who are inundated with images all the time, and don't have to imagine anything on their own?
Beyond being entertaining (which of course it was, I have not laughed that much in a long time) the Elmo presentation was thoughtful because it got us all thinking about how to make education welcoming, engaging, entertaining and of course informative. Sesame Street has been brilliant at all of those, particularly for those children as Kevin pointed out that do not have easy access to other educational stimulation in the home and may feel marginalized in the classroom or in society at large. I think the beauty of the puppets is that they are immediately accessible for all children because they do not "look" like anyone. Also, Elmo in particular is vulnerable. He appeals to children's innate curiosity and vulnerability. That is why, I believe, even we as adults immediately changed how we interacted with Elmo versus Mr. Clash. I grew up in the first Sesame Street ere (the 1970s) but did not watch it. TV was not a daily presence in our home. My own children who were small in the 1990s did watch Sesame Street VHS tapes. If you can find it "Sing Yourself Silly" is an incredible collection of some of the best guest visitors doing songs with the characters, including "Ladybug Picnic" (about the number 12) the one Kevin mentioned as Serena Williams favorite Sesame Street moment. One song "Jellyman Kelly" is done by James Taylor and another "Put Down the Duckie" includes guest verses by numerous celebrities including Itzhak Perlman, Joe Williams, Pete Seeger and Paul Simon. It is available on DVD.
Thank you for telling me about "Sing Yourself Silly". I'm going to look for that! I remember my father singing "Ladybug Picnic" to me (he would sing a short song every night when he brushed my teeth when I was little). I love what you said about how the Muppets are accessible because they don't "look like anyone". I hadn't thought about it that way, but you're so right.
Hi Ann!

Thank you for your reply to Alice's initial post, and it has been wonderful to read the conversation ensuing here. I really like what you brought to the conversation concerning what Sesame Street offers children: "I think the beauty of the puppets is that they are immediately accessible for all children because they do not 'look' like anyone." This speaks to what Amy contributed below in reviewing Sesame Street's initial goal to provide entertaining learning for lower income or less advantaged children, which holds resonance today towards providing education "around the world". I think in early developmental years for children, as they are beginning to explore their relationships to family and peers and form their values of these human relationships, the existence of a show that can be relied on for its value-based programmatic consistency that is (creatively in place, whether or not children realize it) geared toward universal learning is very important. Through the professional tenets of Sesame Street as 'educational television', the show offers these linkages through lessons of fundamental, age-specific learnings in an aesthetic, imaginative way and linking these 'school' learnings (i.e. quantitative activity) to supplement value-based learning (i.e. ethics of sharing). Its attractiveness is evidenced through its wide range in viewership to which Mr. Clash attested and has been discussed in many posts here.

I think this may be the DVD that you mentioned above. Is this the one you are recommending Ann?

Dina
Hi Alice!
Elmo did bring out the child in all of us that day :) I was never a huge Sesame Street fan, my mother could never understand why. But through my nieces and my students, i have grown to love Sesame Street as an adult. I worked in school similar to the one you worked in Texas. My kids looked at Sesame Street and other children programming for that stability that many of them did not have in their home. They knew at 4:30 Elmo and the Sesame Street Gang would be waiting for them! Towards the end of your response , you pose some questions about Mr. Clash. My biggest question i had, and maybe you did as well, does he ever get sick of being elmo? Does he just want to stop doing that voice that everyone just squeals at when he does? I don't know if you thought of this.
Blair
Ha ha, that's a good question. I don't know if he gets tired of being Elmo. I imagine, because he's human, he has days when he'd rather be doing something else, but didn't you get the impression that he really loves what he does? It seems like he loves having little kids crawling over him, and has fun interacting with adults and their humor as well.
Alice,
Mr. Clash's presentation was definitely something that I will never forget! I have to admit that at first it was hard for me to focus on Elmo because it was so weird to hear a child's voice coming out of Mr. Clash. It took me about five minutes to get use to it! I can't make my voice sound like that no matter how hard I try. You posed the question: What is it about being a puppet that has created such a transcendent, growing experience for Mr. Clash? I think it might have something to do with the fact that he has opportunities to see children at their most vulnerable. He told us how kids would just give Elmo a hug and start spilling all their secrets. I think he has had amazing insight into what it is like to be a child. As much as all of us would like to say we remember exactly what it was like to be a child I don't think we remember as much as we say we do. I also think Blair posed an interesting question: does he ever get sick of being elmo? Does he just want to stop doing that voice that everyone just squeals at when he does? I wondered the same thing because no matter how amazing a job is, sometimes it gets a little monotonous. Great post!!
Callie
P.S. I love the Ricky Gervais comment as well!! Here is the youtube video Ryan showed us.
Hi Callie! Thank you so much for your response and for posting the Ricky Gervais clip. I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard. Those two are classic together!!! Can anybody else watch the clip without knowing that Kevin Clash is under there? I bet he's cracking up.
Hi Alice,

It is so funny reading all these responses, I think my heart stopped the moment Mr. Clash first took Elmo out of his bag. I don't think I had really though about what it would be like to see Elmo in person till it happened. I write this knowing how naive I sound but I cannot help it! I was such a huge sesame street fan as a child and being in the same room as a muppet was such a strange feelings. I even remember thinking, "I wish it was Ernie." Haha!

I also got the feeling that Mr. Clash had his speech ready and rehearsed. Blair's question of Mr. Clash getting tired of being Elmo just struck a chord with me. During his presentation he was going through his talk and telling the stories he must have told a million times but it seems that children "talking" to Elmo is what really inspires him, right? I got that sense from him.
Hi Caitlin,
I agree. He probably gets tired of going around, saying the same things over and over. I agree that he seems to get the most out of being with the kids. All in all, it still looks like one of the best jobs in the world to me. And even if it was a speech he has given many times, he still made it seem fresh. What a great speaker!
What I appreciate about Sesame Street is that the show brings very big issues into the world of young children. This show does not shy away from the difficult conversations but instead gives a voice to many. I was impressed with the work that Mr Clash has done around the world far from the puppet set. It seems that the show is continuing to prosper and find its way into many homes today.

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