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Kalish: Creating Julia

One of the best jobs I ever had was at the Children’s Television Workshop, the folks who make Sesame Street. It was the early nineteen-nineties and I was an unpaid intern in New Shows Production Research. For years, I’d dreamed of working with Jim Henson as a Muppeteer. Sadly, he’d died in 1990, but my dream hadn’t. The plan was to start unpaid, become indispensible, get hired, make my way to the Sesame Street set … and from there it seemed obvious I’d be “discovered.”

But things didn’t quite work out that way, because a whole lot of people were willing to work for free for the opportunity to be at CTW. Indeed, much of their workforce was made up of interns and folks with grants. Unlike my friends’ internships at investment banks, mine was not going to become a paid job.

As it turned out, I discovered that Production Research was actually a good fit for me - maybe even better than Muppeteering - and there’s a lot of research that goes into everything produced by what’s now called Sesame Workshop.

We were working specifically on a new show and production sent us material that we took into the field and showed to kids. Then we analyzed the results, so the writers and artists could make changes. We went out at every stage, with everything from preliminary character drawings to full episodes. We watched the kids watching the show and took notes on when they laughed - or didn’t - when they fidgeted or started looking around. We talked with them in small groups, testing their understanding of the scientific concepts that the episodes were trying to teach.

Masses of work went into every choice, in every show they made. Every new educational unit, new character, new interaction was researched and field tested and analyzed for its impact.

While much has changed over the years on Sesame Street, this work ethic has not. This month, a new Muppet joins the Sesame Street gang. Her name is Julia and she has autism. Years of research, and discussion with experts and families have gone into Julia’s creation. Julia’s Sesame Street friends understand and accept her and, through them, generations of our kids will as well.

This is something that Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop can do exceptionally well, precisely because their bottom line is our kids’ education, not profit.

Julie Kalish is a Vermont attorney and Lecturer at Dartmouth College in the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric. She is a board member for Vermont ACLU. She lives in Norwich.
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