Written by: Joshua Lim
Published: May 23, 2022
Elmo and fellow Muppets of Sesame Street need no introduction. Many of you reading this article probably grew up watching Sesame Street like myself. Sesame Street is a pioneer of children’s educational television, one of the most decorated and longest-running shows in television history. The show was produced by Sesame Workshop (originally Children’s Television Workshop), a nonprofit organization founded in 1968 by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett. Sesame Workshop’s initial mission was to “develop and produce an educational television show for preschool children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.” This led to the development and release of Sesame Street in 1969. Their goal has been expanded to “help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder” (Sesame Workshop, 2022a). Furthermore, Sesame Workshop aims to create “a community built on diversity, equity, and inclusion, where creators, educators, partners, and beloved characters come together to help kids grow smarter, stronger, and kinder” (Sesame Workshop, 2022a).
Running for over 50 years, Sesame Street remains as one of North America’s most popular TV shows. It, along with spinoffs, chart the IMDb’s 100 Greatest Children TV Shows (Hores, 2022). Throughout its run, Elmo and fellow Muppets like Kermit, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and many others have gained worldwide influence, permeating pop culture and the education world. Part of the show’s charm is that even though it is meant for children, “the show also employs a subtle mature sense of humour intended to encourage parents to watch along with their children and take part in the learning
process” (Britanica, 2022). Sesame Street is a teacher-researcher’s dream. In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney was a documentary producer at Channel 13 when Lloyd Morrisett, then Vice President at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Morrisett greenlit funding for a three-month study during which allowed Joan to travel the country to interview early learning experts and children’s television producers and filmmakers (Joan Ganz Cooney Centre, 2022). This study led to the creation of the Sesame Street show. The Sesame Workshop has maintained rigorous research to ensure that the diverse needs of the show’s viewers are met. Sesame Street is now broadcasted in 150 countries, with more than 20 international versions (Sesame Workshop, 2022c).
Sesame Street has been a consistent resource for altruistic and educational rich content, and these things are universally desired by parents, guardians, and educators alike. Sesame Street accomplishes its mission by using skits, songs, cartoons, and live-action video footage. Its inclusions of collaborations and cameos with prominent athletes, celebrities, politicians, journalists, musicians, and actors have helped it keep up with the times. (For example, see this list of the 50 Amazing Celebrity Cameos). The show is known for its diversity and inclusive elements. The namesake of the show and fictional urban street provides the perfect backdrop for reflecting the multicultural realities of our world that I’m sure many fellow TDSB educators are familiar with. The Muppets physically represent the differences between people, coming in various colours, shapes, and sizes. Their appearance and differences in speech, abilities, and perspectives demonstrate mutual tolerance and cross-cultural friendship.
Addressing Anti-Asian Racism
In response to the rise of anti-Asian hate in 2020, Sesame Workshop would reflect on how it could “meet the moment,” said Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice-president of Creative and Production for Sesame Workshop (as cited in Tang, 2021). Sesame Workshop established two task forces — one to look at its content and another to look at its own diversity (Tang, 2021). The former led to “Coming Together: Family Reflections On Racism,” a study that sought to understand how children are experiencing the hate events of 2020, how to elevate children’s voices, and how to best support families as they respond to the world around them (the study can be read here). The study also led to the creation of “See Us Coming Together,” a special created for families to watch together and celebrate the rich diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander communities as part of Sesame Workshop’s ongoing racial justice initiative, "Coming Together" (Sesame Workshop, 2022d).
The latter led to the creation of new Muppets like 8-year-old Tamir, a Black Muppet who would be the first to talk about subjects like racism explicitly, and Ji-Young. Tamir first debuted on the special “The Power of We” and would reappear on “See Us Coming Together” along with Ji-Young. The show has had human characters and guests of Asian descent (Tang, 2021). Notably, Japanese American, Alan Muraoka, has been the fictional owner of Hooper’s Store since 1998. There is also Elmo-noske, Elmo’s Japanese cousin. However, Ji-Young makes history as Sesame Street’s first Asian American Muppet.
“Ji-Young is a spunky seven-year-old who loves to play her electric guitar and is always willing to play a song with her friends on Sesame Street. Ji-Young also loves playing soccer and rolling along the street on her skateboard. Ji-Young is extremely close with her family and is proud of her Korean heritage. She loves playing music with her grandma and cooking her favourite food—tteokboki. Her family eats dinner together at the kitchen table every night, chatting in both Korean and English” (Sesame Workshop, 2022d).
Korean American puppeteer Kathleen Kim plays Ji-Young. Kim herself learned English by watching Sesame Street. “I feel like it’s a common story of ... kids of immigrants. And Sesame Street was my bread and butter. I loved it. It’s what inspired me to go into production. The dream was always to be a Muppeteer” (Kim as cited in Farrington & Martin, 2021). In the first episode, Ji-Young and fellow residents of Sesame Street are having a community celebration. There are also “celebrity guests like actors Simu Liu and Anna Cathcart, comic book artist Jim Lee (pictured below), chef Melissa King, television personality Padma Lakshmi, and athlete Naomi Osaka [who] round out the celebration!” Sesame Workshop (2022d). Before the celebration can get started an offscreen voice tells Ji-Young to “go back home.” She’s confronted with a common insult used against immigrants, used to other them, to make them feel like they don’t belong. The other residents, guest stars, and Muppets offer her support. At the end of the episode, Ji-Young addresses this issue and explains how it made her feel, acknowledges the support of her friends, and how we should be proud of who we are. The episode ends with a song from the cast on belonging.
Kim makes the point to say that it was crucial for Ji-Young not to be “generically pan-Asian” (Tang, 2021). The lumping of Asians into one monolithic category erases differences, something Kim did not want to happen. Ji-Young isn’t generically Korean, but specifically Korean American. Ji-Young is also meant to be a fun and widely relatable character who embraces her love of skateboarding and rock ‘n’ roll. Importantly, she won’t just be utilized for related to racial justice but will be heavily present throughout the show’s upcoming 53rd season and will also appear in other various programs (Tang, 2021). Kim (as cited in Holpuch, 2021) says that “My one hope, obviously, is to actually help teach what racism is, help teach kids to be able to recognize it and then speak out against it, but then my other hope for Ji-Young is that she just normalizes seeing different kinds of looking kids on TV.”
Addressing Crises and Displacement It should be no surprise that Sesame Workshop’s newest Muppet, Ameera, will be the star of groundbreaking content to support children and families affected by crisis and displacement.
“Ameera is a witty, inquisitive 8-year-old girl with a passion for science and basketball, Ameera uses her bright purple wheelchair or forearm crutches to get around due to a spinal cord injury. She’s everyone’s favorite comedian, and her great sense of humor serves her well as a natural leader who encourages others with her bright personality. Sometimes, Ameera gets too wrapped up in her own ideas and forgets to notice everyone else’s, but she always remembers that play and learning are most fun when she includes her friends’ ideas too” (Sesame Workshop, 2022b).
Ameera first premiered in season 5 on “Ahlan Simsim” (“Welcome Sesame” in Arabic), the local version of Sesame Street in the Middle East and North Africa. Ahlan Simsim premiered in 2020, created to help children facing trauma and displacement from the Syrian war process their emotions. Past seasons have focused on developing problem-solving and conflict resolution skills. Season 5’s focus is social-emotional skills of kindness towards oneself and others (Sesame Workshop, 2022b). The Muppets of Ahlan Simsim help young viewers grow more confident and resilient in the face of life’s ups and downs.
Ameera will also star in the “Watch, Play, Learn” series, which is part of Sesame
Workshop’s Play to Learn program. (A preview of the videos can be found here) The program is designed for children ages 3-8 on a wide range of subjects, from topics like math and science to child protection and health and safety. Play to Learn was “developed with extensive consultation with advisors and tested with families around the world, are created for broad use to respond to the most pressing needs of children affected by crises” (Sesame Workshop, 2022b).
Ameera will represent the 240 million children with disabilities and over 12 million displaced peoples around the world (UNICEF, 2021). Sherrie Westin, President of Sesame Workshop, says that the characters come “at a time when more children than ever before are affected by conflict and displacement. Ameera highlights the urgent need for creative and flexible approaches to delivering playful learning and early education to communities affected by the crisis” (Sesame Workshop, 2022b). Scott Cameron, Head of International Production at Sesame Workshop, says “Ameera continues Sesame Workshop’s long history of creating diverse characters that children around the world can relate to, and we are so excited to welcome this exuberant 8-year-old girl to our cast of beloved Sesame Muppets” (Sesame Workshop, 2022b).
Similar to Kim’s feelings about Ji-Young and Asian representation, Cameron hopes that Ameera will represent the various children’s population who use mobility care and that all children will see parts of themselves in Ameera’s exuberant personality (Sesame Workshop, 2022b). Ameera also goes against gender stereotypes as an avid STEM lover.
Supported by research and advocacy and designed with approaches and content that can be adapted for different contexts around the world, these programs are laying the foundation to transform how the world supports children and families affected by crises for generations to come. Ameera will feature in a series of early learning videos currently being adapted for kids affected by the war in Ukraine (Sesame Workshop, 2022b).
As an educator and graduate of the Masters in Art in Child Study and Education (OISE/UT), a program that specializes in inquiry play-based learning, I'm ecstatic to see how research and play-based learning is being used to guide Sesame Street's pedagogy. I'm especially encouraged to see that play-based learning is not only beneficial to children's development generally but also important for providing crises affected children with a positive outlet for anxiety and stress (Sesame Workshop, 2022b).
Not limited to Ji-Young and Ameera, the Muppets represent intersections of various identities and I believe they're perfect for Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy. The Muppets and episodes are grounded in reality, providing an opportunity for young children to develop critical perspectives that challenge societal inequalities. In terms of anti-Asian racism education, I'm similarly thrilled to see Sesame Workshop explicitly address the issue of Asian racism. I look forward to seeing Sesame Street future anti racism content like "See Us Coming Together" and "Proud of Your Eyes" and seeing Ji-Young in upcoming seasons!
In June of 2021, Sesame Street released a video called “Proud of Your Eyes,” in which Mr. Muraoka helps Analyn, a Filipino American girl after she was teased about the shape of her eyes (See the video here).
Sesame Workshop provides various educator guides and lessons plans that accompany their content. If you're considering using Sesame Street content in your class I suggest checking out their official websites: https://www.sesameworkshop.org/ and https://www.sesamestreet.org/
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Sesame Workshop. (2022a). Our mission. Sesame Workshop. Retrieved from https://www.sesameworkshop.org/who-we-are/our-mission
Sesame Workshop. (2022b). Sesame Workshop debuts new muppet as part of initiative supporting children affected by conflict and crisis: Sesame workshop. Home. Retrieved from https://www.sesameworkshop.org/press-room/press-releases/sesame-workshop-debuts-new-muppet-part-initiative-supporting-children
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UNICEF. (2021). Nearly 240 million children with disabilities around the world, UNICEF’s most comprehensive statistical analysis finds. UNICEF. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/nearly-240-million-children-disabilities-around-world-unicefs-most-comprehensive