Teaching through Big Bird: The Woman behind Sesame Street

The season one cast of Sesame Street, the children’s show that Joan Ganz Cooney helped create. Image by Tom Simpson, Flickr Creative Commons

May 09, 2016


As a young woman, 1984 AAUW Achievement Awardee Joan Ganz Cooney never imagined she’d become a successful television producer and creator of one of the most influential American children’s shows of all time.

Raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she remembers growing up in a very conventional home. She said in a 1984 interview for AAUW’s Graduate Woman that her upper-middle-class upbringing encouraged her to “be a housewife and a mother, to work an interesting job when I got out of college, and to marry at the appropriate age, which would have been 25.” She acted in plays all throughout high school and into college until she was forced to stop because her father refused to support acting as a career choice. At the University of Arizona in the late 1940s she chose to major in education. “It was something that girls of my generation did,” she said in the same AAUW interview, “because teaching was acceptable.”

Cooney moved to Washington, D.C., shortly after graduation and took a job as a clerk at the U.S. State Department. It wasn’t until she was exposed to James Keller’s Christian group and accompanying TV program The Christophers that she became interested in television and the media. With no experience in the field, she returned to Phoenix, where she took a reporting job to build her skills.

At 23, she left her position in Phoenix to be a producer in news and public affairs at Channel 13 in New York. As she became more acquainted with her position, she gravitated toward education and how it could bring people, especially children, out of poverty. She noted in her 1984 AAUW Achievement Award acceptance speech that “unlike the many vocal and potent pressure groups active today, poor children are truly powerless. They are an almost mute minority.”

One night at a dinner party with Lewis Freedman, director of programming at Channel 13, she began to discuss how television could be used for preschoolers. She came to the realization that “I could do documentaries for the rest of my life, one after another on a different subject, and have no effect at all on the lives of the poor,” as she explained in a 1978 interview for the Public Telecommunications Review. “But I could do a show for those children which might change their lives.” Soon after, she took leave from work and travelled the country for three months speaking with educators.

She found that children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum were spending dozens of hours a week watching television. She wanted to create her own show, but instead of being mindless commercial TV, the basis would be cognitive skills that children could learn while watching: letters, numbers, and reasoning skills. She submitted her idea to the U.S. government, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation, all of which agreed to fund her project. And in 1969, Sesame Street went on the air.

Their target audience was children ages 3–5, with a special focus on reaching children from low-income families. This one show then expanded into the Children’s Television Workshop, which encompassed Sesame Street, The Electric Company, a reading series for second–fourth graders, and 3-2-1 Contact, a science and technology series for eight–12-year-olds. Under Cooney’s direction, the network won 33 Emmy Awards for its programs.

But the success of these programs did not come without controversy. They came into popularity during a time when the use of television to teach children was unheard of. What educators feared the most about the Children’s Television Network was that it would grow to replace traditional education. However, Sesame Street survived the negativity because of its popularity with adolescents and because of its innovative, educational programming that stretched beyond the typical weekend cartoon marathons. Cooney’s dedication to and passion for providing education to young people from all backgrounds spurred a beloved TV show, earned her an AAUW Achievement Award, and built a legacy of programming for children that continues to provide quality educational television around the world.

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Jordan Brunson.



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