Last spring, Sesame Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, asked if I could come to their New York City offices. Sesame Workshop was hosting a professional day for their upcoming season on the topic of diversity and inclusion for their staff of writers, editors, animators and others. A show whose target audience is ages 2-4, Sesame Workshop asked me, as an educator and head of an early childhood and elementary school, if I would be willing to sit on a panel and do a short presentation on this topic. I could not say no to this opportunity to contribute to a show that has impacted millions of children and families and continues to be the favorite of most toddlers!
On a conference call a few weeks before our arrival in New York City, each of the panelists – four in total – were scheduled for a 15-20 minute mini-presentation. Mine would be on the various ways we teach empathy and inclusivity at The Children’s School. I leaned on the experts – our ages 3-5 and kindergarten teachers – for the content and polled them for the most recent activities and lessons in their classrooms. Everything from the “Garbage Monster” to the “Love Pillow” to other ways that we build community and teach our students to care for themselves and each other made it into my remarks. I could tell from the audience reactions while I was giving my presentation that they loved the simple and concrete examples with which we address such complex topics at TCS. Afterwards, at the panel interviews in the afternoon, the writers and editors asked for ways we teach self-regulation to our students and manage their stress and anxiety (“elevator breaths”).
The presentation and panel sessions yielded several more questions and responses from everyone:
- How do you talk about cultural awareness when Sesame Street does not include any humans?
- Is inclusion about reconciling differences?
- Love is a universal value. How does it translate differently across different cultures?
- Identity, emotional regulation, and cultural competency are frameworks, not topics for the writers as they work these into their stories.
These questions do not have clear responses, but the Sesame Workshop staff have an additional challenge: coming up with an authentic response to each that will be understood by a three year-old! The staff’s curiosity and eagerness to get “it” right; their commitment to reflecting on their own biases and allowing learning and otherness to seep in; and admitting when and what they don’t understand or don’t know, were inspiring to observe as an educator and outsider.
Several months have now passed since that day, and the Sesame Workshop writers have been in touch with me on occasion asking for advice as they continue to grapple with these issues and weave them into the lives of their characters.
Even after almost fifteen years in education, that day and subsequent conversations have only affirmed for me the changing landscape of raising children. Parenting has become more complex with the intrusion of technology in our lives. Math and science are easier to learn than empathy and character. I’m almost certain to remember my math facts, or a historical lesson or how to write a well-reasoned thesis statement, however kindness and compassion are lessons that have to be reinforced daily.
Learning to become a better person – a kinder and gentler human being – cannot be taught just once or in one class or even by one person. These lessons must be taught and learned and practised every day, and our children learn these lessons best from the adults around them.
Sesame Workshop is a universal partner to families and schools worldwide in this amazingly complex and challenging endeavor. My daylong peek behind the scenes of this awesome show revealed humans, not monsters, who are trying to get it right so we can raise, together, generations of children who will remember Elmo and the Cookie Monster and Big Bird and do good, not just do well, in their lives.
With a lot of gratitude for this community where such lessons matter a lot –
For the children,
Nishant N. Mehta
Head of School