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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I agree, Amy. I was impressed when he talked about dealing with military families-- what to do if a parent comes back different. It would be so easy for the show to avoid those issues, but they're not.
Kevin Clash seemed magical with his stories about his work as a puppeteer -- when he was telling how he got his chance to be the voice of Elmo, and that it worked well, it just made me smile for him as a performer. I think because I didn't grow up with Sesame Street, (though my kids did), I was more excited about his own personal story as someone finding his "voice" so to speak in educating children about all kinds of lessons -- not just alphabet letters and numbers -- but psychological and developmental things they are seeking to learn about that many adults around them may be too busy to take time out to do -- or to notice needs to be done. His sensitivity and his discretion showed him to be not only a talented performer, but a professional, intelligent, thoughtful human being. That is what I think is key to what makes his part in playing Elmo work so well.
I too found this to be the most interesting discussion. Mr. Clash seems like he truely loves working to teach children. It is important to teach children hidden curriculum and not just ABC 123. I think a lot people overlook the importance of Sesame Street, how would children be able to understand big topics such as military families without it?
Great post! I agree with your sentiments exactly -- Mr. Clash has most certainly made the world a better place. I think it is really amazing to see how teenagers and adults immediately warm when they see Elmo; he has an endearing way of bringing out the child in us all. I showed my high school seniors the picture I took with him, and the expressions of awe and jealousy on their otherwise surly faces were priceless.

Alicia
Hi Alice,
I really enjoyed reading your reflection on Mr. Clash's presentation on Elmo and Sesame Street. I definitely agree with you that Sesame Street provides stability for children, especially children coming from low SES homes. It enables these children to have structure in their lives and puts a smile on their faces when they may need it the most. I teach Nursery school and all of my parents have said that Sesame Street is the one television show that they allow their children to watch at home. Many of my students are from upper-middle class families and I find it interesting that Mr. Clash stated that Sesame Street's target audience is children from low SES families. I think Sesame Street is a great resource and learning tool for my students because it entertains them as well as reinforces the main concepts that I teach them everyday, such as the letter and number recognition. Sesame Street teaches children so many valuable lessons and all children regardless of race, gender, or social class should have ample opportunities to enjoy watching Sesame Street!
Hi Alice,
Great post! I loved your final reflections and questions. I also wondered where Mr. Clash found the inspiration and the courage to be a puppeteer. I remember him talking about how it was his thing in high school. How interesting and unique. Although I did not grow up watching Sesame street I was in awe of Mr. Clash and was completely compelled by his presentation. Your sentiments that Mr. Clash makes the world a better place for children will stick with me.
Hi Alice,
I think it is so interesting that children (and adults) form bonds with the characters on television shows. Maybe it is the sense of stability that draws us in each week or every day to discover what happens on the next episode. I think this connection is so important to bring into the classroom. If we could spark children’s imaginations through the moving image, our classrooms can be a place of inquiry and learning. As a primary school teacher, I am always looking for new ways to get students engaged in the learning process but I never thought about incorporating my favorite furry friend into the curriculum. After seeing the response from a room full of adults, I can only imagine how young children would react to a lesson that integrated their favorite television characters.
Daniella
As I shared last Saturday, it's so interesting how people forget about the puppeteer and all attention goes to the puppet. I also think there is something magical about Elmo, a big eyed red monster that draws attention and love from people of all ages. I was chatting with a classmate, that this 'magic' does not happen with all puppets- we certainly did not act the same with the chicken (sprouts). It's awesome that this furry red monster and Kevin Clash are continuing to educate children and impacting their lives in big and small ways.
Peace Liz,
Your exuberance about Kevin Clash and Elmo is shared here...at first I thought it was a strange thing to have the puppeteer and the puppet present at our sessions, but it finally informed me about what was behind the energy and joy that I felt when I was little making pretend Bert and Ernie scenarios and Supergrover adventures. The makings of the puppet reside in the heart and art of the actor, and Kevin Clash is pretty much the bomb.

I think one of the things I appreciate most about the Sesame Street dynamic was that children are participants in the events happening on screen. It is rare that we as adults are given a moment to think about what was said, to respond to what was just presented to us, or to sing a long (karoake desires). Sometimes I am deeply saddened at children's television that in a way hypnotizes the captive audience without any possibilities for input or response. At least Sesame Street and many shows following that paradigm, have done so for our children.

Aaaaand it was pretty cool to see Elmo with an adult spin and flare, which we probably won't get to see on any broadcasts of his character!

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