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Valeria Lovelace

This article describes Valeria Lovelace's work on Sesame Street. This and other articles may be found in the University Archives.

Citation for this article is: "Valeria Lovelace," ECU Magazine, Winter 86/87, Vol1 #1.


Valeria Oliver Lovelace '73 is helping fulfill a dream - an idea conceived two decades ago which has resulted in what must be the most significant educational influence upon millions of children throughout the world.

This phenomenon began when educator-TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney observed how easily children responded to and learned from television commercials and wondered why basic facts and concepts, instead of popular brands of toothpaste, couldn't be sold to preschoolers.

From the revolutionary notion that razzle-dazzle and catchy jingles could teach tots important academic skills sprang the successful TV show, Sesame Street.

As the earliest episodes found their way to broadcast, Valeria Olliver of Mount Olive was beginning her undergraduate studies as a psychology major at ECU. She's now director of research for Sesame Street and a key leader in the Children's Television Workshop team.

"The beginning of Sesame Street show how one person with an idea, a vision, can create something which has become part of the early childhood experience for millions of children in more than 80 countries," Lovelace told a gathering of psychology, education and child develpment students during a recent visit to campus. "I hope you will all pursue your dreams."

The fundamental concept of the program - using a rapidly paced succession of dramatic skits and animation spots to convey educational material on screen - was developed with suggestions and creative ideas shared by numerous experts, children's book authors and educators.

Essential ingredients with Jim Henson's Muppet characters who comprise much of the Sesame Street populace, funding from the Carnegie Corporation and the rise of the then-new PBS television network.

"After a year of preparation, the show began with a cirriculum of between 50 and 60 specific educational goals; now it encompasses more than 200 goals," Lovelace says. "The content of Sesame Street is continously modified in order to be current in carrying out our main purpose - to help children make the transition from home to school.

"One fairly recent development in education was unheard of 20 years ago.Who would have thought that kindergarteners would be using computers?"

Like any radical innovation in education, Sesame Street had its share of detractors.Some experts were dubious about its benefits to learing. They argued that kids most likely to watch Sesame Street - middle-class white children from stable home environments - normally received educational enrichment from home and nursery school.

Lovelace and her colleagues believe the show reaches children from all socioeconomic groups."So many children have been exposed to the show that it's next to impossible to find a control group of non-viewers to compare with children who do see it regularly," she says.

"Being poor does not mean that an American family won't own a television set," she adds."The majority of poor people do have TV's; poor people will sacrifice eating to have a TV. In a few years, the poor will probably all have videocassette recorders as well.

"We do know that over half of the preschool population in America watches Sesame Street, and a good many of these children come from poor families."

Sesame Street is broadcast each weekday.Every hour-long episode includes about 35 segment combining live action and animation, and is organized around a "commercial sponsor" theme announced at the beginning and end of the hour: ". . . brought to you by the letters E and J and the number four."

Just how well does Sesame Street gets its message across to the 3-to-5-year-old set?

Very well indeed, Lovelace maintains. Testing and evaluation procedures conducted by the Sesame Street research staff show the results of gains in children's prereading and numbers skills and understanding of abstract concepts.Besides academic fundamentals, ths show attempts to model "prosocial" behaviors, such as helping, sharing and friendliness.

"We try to demonstrate and reinforce positive types of behavior, such as cooperation - and we teach children how to pronounce the word," Lovelace says with pride.

Children who viewed one recently-aired episode were exposed to some expressive Spanish dialogue, life among Southwestern American Indians, the concept of a three-generation nuclear family, the names of two simple geometric shapes - the triangle and the square - and ways to form rectangles from these shapes.

They saw brief segments highlighting the five basic vowels and hear the E is the first letter of exceptional, elegant and entrance, as well as eat, egg, and eel.

Basic math was taught in sequences which drilled the name of numerals from one to 20 and illustrated actual quantities from one to four. The process of a city child's letter to her grandfather was followed through the post office processing to its delivery to Grandpa's rural mailbox.

All these pieces which make an hour of Sesame Street are produced and assembles to appeal to children's senses of sight and sound.Nothing remains on screen long enough to become tiresome to the most restless child. Therein is the secret of the show's success: everything is child-tested by Lovelace and her research team.

They visited day care centers in the metropolitan New York area and set up screenings for children, then assess the children's absorption of the material to indicate how well a segment conveys the material it was designed to teach.Sometimes the most clever piece - from an adult point of view - flops completely as a teaching tool if it fails to hold the children's attention.

We have our preconceived notions, we can use our best guess, but we're never sure of how effective something will actually be until we test it," Lovelace says. "Preschoolers are so honest. They won't watch the screen just to be polite as an adult would."

One cunning piece of animation showing a cartoon knight in armor opposing a giant-sized foe was developed to teach synonyms for the word big: LARGE! HUGE! IMMENSE! HUMONGOUS!

The piece did not, however, teach children the word that meant big, so it was replaced by a skit featuring the character Forgetful Jones and a collection of oversized hats.Children who viewed the Forgetful Jones segment were able to remember what the synonyms were.

The usefulness of particular selections is determined by Lovelace and her staff through attention and comprehension testing. Measuring the attention-holding value of a selected piece is fairly simple:children are timed as they watch. They eyes-on-screen pattern remains "remarkably consistent" from child to child, Lovelace says.

Comprehension testing is more complicated. "It's not always easy to get children to answer questions directly," she says. "With 3-year olds, especially, communication in words is difficult. Many children this young are just not that articulate, but we try to get responses from them by pointing, drawing, seeing how they can act out an idea."

The cast of Sesame Street characters was developed with specific goals in mind, according to Lovelace. Muppet stars are constant companions Ernie and Bert; the voracious, gravel-voiced Cookie Monster; and Oscar the Grouch, garbage can dweller and foil for the more cheerful characters.

Perhaps the best-known of all Sesame Street characters - animal or human - is tall, yellow feathered Big Bird, the appealing, perpetual 6-year-old.

"He's the positive one, the focus of attention," Lovelace says. "Big Bird and Oscar do not appear together in segments. They can't, since the same puppeteer protrays both personalities."

Children say with conviction, however, that they have seen the two together, a curious bit of viewer fantasy that Lovelace finds interesting.

Sesame Street is aimed specifically at a preschool audience so careful attention is paid to children's keen awareness of age and competency levels. "Snuffy is 4 years old, so he thinks his friend Big Bird is the smartest guy that ever was," Lovelace says. "The new Muppet, Elmo, is about 3. Oscar is older than all of them; he even has his own apartment - his trash can."

Some components of the show are designed to appeal to adults, Lovelace says, like Count von Count, the Dracula-like counting vampire; Dr. Nobel Price, the famous inventor; and rapping poet Ferlinghetti Donizetti, who always talks in rhymes.

"Parents play a powerful role in helping kids remember the material because they can point out, emphasize and repeat the information," she says. "This is why you'll find such celebrities as Patti LaBelle singing 'How I Love My X' on the show; we want to entice parents to watch too."

Parent viewers have on occassion helped modify part of the program, Lovelace says.Questions raised in letters from concerned parents led to a decision to let Big Bird's imaginary friend Mr. Snuffleupagus be revealed. They felt that if children were to be encouraged to report child abuse, they needed to feel adults would believe them, Lovelace explained.

The issue of believing children is indicative of Sesame Street team's sensitivity to children's social and psychological needs.Scripts and segments are weighed carefully for the values they teach as well as their educational soundness, Lovelace says.

A Sesame Street dragon exhales clouds of bubbles instead of smoke. The attractive home of the show's young black couple, Gordon and Susan, exhibits African tribal symbols on the walls as a subtle boost to the cultural identity of black children.

Implications of insects metamorphosis are considered carefully:after Slimy's caterpillar friend becomes a butterfly, will he still remember Slimy? (He does)

When the actor who portrayed Mr. Hooper, the kind, elderly storekeeper, died a few years ago, the Sesame Street staff faced a real quandary.One way out was to avoid the issue entirely by ignoring Mr. Hooper's absense.Another was to tell viewers that he had gone away.

After months of study and tests, the death of Mr. Hooper was anounced on the air, without such euphemisms as "He is resting" or "He passed away."

"Children sometimes have to face death in their own lives. They should be aware that death is permanent," Lovelace says. "We showed that life on Sesame Street would go on, that Mr. Hooper would be missed but someone else would take care of the store and look after Big Bird.

"We did not specify how Mr. Hooper died," Lovelace says. "The terms old and sick were not used."

The staff considered, then rejected, the use of film flashbacks of scenes with Mr. Hooper. "This would have confused the youngest children," Lovelace says. "For them, if something moves, it's alive."

Mr. Hooper's death got "a lot of press" and drew many parent viewers."We had reports that his episode was used to stimulate discussion of death in many homes," Lovelace says."It was a relief to us all that the segment worked as we hoped it would. It was really scary beforehand; we didn't know for sure how it was going to turn out."

Sesame Street has from its beginnings protrayed the richness and diversity of multi-ehtnic innercity neighborhoods-a world peopled by black, Asians and Hispanics as well as Anglo whites. Other segments of the "real world" are represented also-physically handicapped people are protrayed by humans and puppets.

The inclusions of Spanish-language sequences isn't designed just to appeal to Latin kids or to teach middle American children a few spanish words; they serve to make young viewers "aware that there are several way to communicate," Lovelace says. Likewise, actress Linda Bove appears often, showing how the deaf communicate through sign language.

Sesame Street is intentionally Utopian in its portrayal of all types of people living, working and playing together in harmony, a setting which Lovelace defends vigorously.

"Of course it's a Utopia," she says. "It is important that we model positive behaviors and ideas. Seasame Street shows children what a world can be."




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