President of Sesame Street Speaks to Ed School

Elmo may be 38 years old, but he’s still relevant, from the inner cities of the United States to the orphanages of South Africa, the president of Sesame Street Workshop told a crowd at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) yesterday.

“Sesame Street reaches children in every demographic group,” said Gary E. Knell. “We have received more Emmy awards than any other show on TV—117, but who’s counting?”

Knell’s talk was sponsored by the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and the Transnational Studies Initiative, but he joked that it was “brought to you by the letter H and the number 38.”

Thirty-eight years ago, when it was first broadcast, Sesame Street was banned in Mississippi because of its interracial cast.

Today, the show continues to support the message of “we are different but we are the same,” Knell said.

Knell showed a clip from the South African version of Sesame Street featuring a muppet named Kami, who is a five-year-old AIDS orphan.

In the United States, the next season will focus on environmental messages, he said.

One of the main goals of Sesame Street is to promote basic learning at a time when most fourth-graders can’t read at grade level.

A new initiative is a podcast called “Word on the Street,” which was created to help children build their vocabularies.

Knell played an episode that has been viewed two million times on YouTube.

In it, Chris Brown and Elmo dance to hip-hop music and point out closed, open, stop, and enter signs. The video ends with the pair holding hands and walking into the sunset as Elmo sings “Dance with Brown.”

“Kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods are starting school with many, many fewer words,” Knell said. “We do what Disney is not going to do.”

Some audience members took the chance to reminisce about their own years of watching the show last night.

“I grew up with three versions of Sesame Street: the Bengali, Arabic, and English versions,” said Salwa N. Muhammad, a masters student at HGSE. “I think he did a good job of explaining Sesame Street from an international perspective. It was very current.”

The future lies with figuring out the learning behaviors of the Baby Einstein generation, children who never knew a world before Internet, video games, and iPods, Knell said.