1969 was a landmark year.
It was a year of triumph, tragedy and cultural revolution.
Richard Nixon completed a political comeback and became president on Jan. 20.
An iconic, much-loved magazine expired. The last weekly issue of the Saturday Evening Post hit the news racks on Feb 8 and doorsteps after 147 years of publication.
On June 8, President Nixon announced the first troop withdrawals from Vietnam, a war that had plunged the nation into deep, bloody, violent strife, abroad and at home.
U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy drove his car off a bridge in Chappaquiddick on Martha’s Vineyard on July 19 and killed campaign worker and passenger Mary Jo Kopechne, and ultimately his chances of ever becoming president. He didn’t report the accident for nine hours.
Astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon on July 21.
On Aug. 9 and 10, the maniacal Manson “family” went on a bloody rampage, killing seven in Los Angeles over two nights. Among them was actress Sharon Tate, who was eight and a half months pregnant.
The savage murders sent shock waves throughout L.A. and the United States.
Woodstock, the biggest and most peaceful rock concert ever held in the Age of Aquarius, took place in a little upstate New York town called Bethel, which in Hebrew means “house of God.”
It attracted an estimated 500,000 teenagers, 20-somethings and some older and even younger, who stayed through heat, rain, hunger and thirst to soak up the musical score of their generation from Aug. 15-18.
On Aug. 17, Hurricane Camille slammed into Mississippi’s Gulf coast with winds up to 174 mph and killed 259.
Massive antiwar demonstrations took place across the U.S. on Oct. 15.
The story of the My Lai massacre, the murder of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops, broke on Nov. 12.
These events and many more grabbed the headlines in 1969.
Sometimes it seemed as if chaos and madness had descended on the world.
But something else happened.
Headlines weren’t grabbed, but the event’s impact would be felt gradually over time and affect millions of children.
It would improve their lives and their educations in quiet, peaceful and joyful ways.
And maybe, just maybe, it helped make the world, at least their personal worlds, better.
On Nov. 10, 1969, the first episode of “Sesame Street” aired.
The show was the brainchild of Joan Gantz Cooney who saw television as a chance to improve the lives of kids, all kids, but especially disadvantaged ones, kids in poor towns and poor neighborhoods with less than stellar schools.
Televisions were nearly omnipresent in households with kids across the nation and Cooney saw the technology as a way to reach them and teach them.
She wanted to prepare them for school by teaching the basics, the ABC’s, counting and how to interact with others in positive ways which, quite clearly, the world at large had failed to master in many ways.
While TV was for Cooney largely a wasteland, especially for kids, it had potential for positive purposes.
‘Do something good’
She said she wanted “to master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with it.”
So she, with others including Lloyd Morrisette and master puppeteer Jim Henson, created “Sesame Street” and its residents — Big Bird, Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch and many others.
“The goal was to foster intellectual and cultural development in preschoolers,” Cooney said.
Today, 50 years later, an estimated 8 million children, mostly preschoolers, the population at which the “Sesame Street” is aimed, still watch the show and learn practical language and math skills, along with social skills.
To what degree children have benefited is not easy to measure, but college professors Melissa S. Kearney from the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine from Wellesley College designed a study to do just that.
It was published in January in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 2019, and called “Early Childhood Education by Television: Lessons from Sesame Street.”
Its findings are heartening and confirm the anecdotal conclusions of many.
“The results of our analysis provide evidence that ‘Sesame Street’s’ introduction generated a positive impact on educational outcomes through the early school years,” the authors said in introductory comment to a 30-page discussion of the study.
Kearney and Levine determined that those exposed to the show “were 14 percent more likely to be attending the grade that is appropriate for their age in middle and high school years.”
“The estimated effect is large and statistically significant,” they concluded.
All youngsters who saw the show benefited, but some benefited more than others.
“The data indicate positive effects for both boys and girls, with large point estimates for boys,” Kearney and Levine wrote. “The data also indicate positive effects for all three race/ethnic groups considered with larger point estimates for blacks and Hispanics than for white non-Hispanics.”
Kearney and Levine go on to say that the effects of better early education have long-term results as well.
“In terms of longer-term outcomes, the data suggest that exposed cohorts of students are more likely to be employed and have somewhat higher wages as adults,” the authors said.
And perhaps the best part of all was the cost.
‘Pennies on the dollar’
Kearney and Levine reported that the cost was “pennies on the dollar compared to other early childhood interventions” like the government-funded Head Start program, which has helped millions of youngsters.
Today, “Sesame Street” is seen in 150 countries and heard in 70 languages.
It has received 193 Emmy Awards, according to its website.
When local teachers talk about “Sesame Street,” part of what they talk about is how it affected them as children. Two who are just shy of 50 and another a little over 50 can relive their experience with the show like it was yesterday.
Songs sung in their childhood and memories of favorite characters aren’t hard to recall.
All three teachers have families of their own and so were exposed as adults as well and could see how the show evolved over the years.
Today there’s an emphasis on being kind, perhaps a reaction to a coarse, critical online world that all too often bursts into live real-life relationships and bullying.
When a popular character, Mr. Hooper, died, there were shows on grief, and lately the show has added a character who is autistic.
Sara Bonneau, 45, is a preschool teacher at Thacher Elementary School in Attleboro.
She was born five years after the show’s introduction and watched it as kid, as so many did in their formative years in the 1970s.
Bonneau remembers being impressed with the diversity of characters in the show, human and otherwise.
She did not grow up in a greatly diverse community, so “Sesame Street,” set in an ethnically diverse New York City neighborhood, gave her a glimpse of life in a world with which she was not familiar.
“So for me, it was great to have that exposure,” Bonneau said.
Chris Sanford, 49, is also a preschool teacher at Thacher. She said the puppets engaged her attention.
“The animated characters taught us how to relate to day-to-day experiences,” she said. “We were able to identify with it and understand it.”
Diane DiIorio, 52, and Early Learning Coordinator at Thacher, was impacted as well.
“I think it prepared me for the expectations of preschool and kindergarten,” she said.
And so it does today, 50 years later.
The show, broken down to its simplest components, taught kids then and now, the alphabet, counting and how to be friends, Bonneau said.
The three teachers grew up, had families and entered the world of professional education.
And their kids watched “Sesame Street” too.
The show is just as important today and maybe even more so with a plethora of two-working parent homes, the teachers said.
‘Actually gaining something’
If they need to put their children in front of a TV while they get dinner or do the laundry, nothing could be better than “Sesame Street,” they said.
“Parents are so busy with their lives,” Sanford said. “If they put on ‘Sesame Street’ they feel like the child is actually gaining something.”
“If you are going to put your child in front of a TV or a tablet it should be something like (‘Sesame Street’),” DiIorio said.
“We’d always recommend ‘Sesame Street,’” Bonneau said.
DiIorio pointed out that the show is not a “be all and end all,” but it’s important as a part of a young child’s practical and social learning.
TV and other screen time needs to be limited so they actually interact in their worlds.
“No app replaces your lap,” Bonneau said.
It’s a maxim that means reading to kids and helping them read, with book in hand, is of critical importance.
Bonneau and Sanford said the show influenced their decisions to become teachers, and teachers, after parents, perhaps have the most impact on a youngster’s life.
“Sesame Street” has been around so long that generations of teachers of teachers, college professors, grew up on it.
One of the latest is Adam Brieske-Ulenski, 37, assistant professor in the Department of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Bridgewater State University.
In Brieske-Ulenski’s formative years, the show had ingrained itself into the world to which children were exposed.
“I remember watching ‘Sesame Street’ as a child,” Brieske-Ulenski said. “It was part of my everyday experience at home or at day care. It was very much a cultural aspect of when I grew up.”
Today he views the show through the eyes of a person who has earned a doctorate in education.
He extols the creativity of the show in technical terms.
“It was pretty ingenious in how they created a show that engaged young children with both audio and visually to get them to use language,” he said.
The skits were short but engaged kids to such a way that the important points were “stored in their short term memory,” and then easily retrieved and used in their own day-to-day interactions with parents or siblings, Brieske-Ulenski said.
When “Sesame Street” started, television was the only place it was presented.
But now it can be accessed on the internet as well, and that has not diminished its importance, he said.
“I think it’s just as important today,” Brieske-Ulenski said. “It’s an added benefit to have another form of technology that explores how to use language and express ideas.”