2005_04_annajuster_big.jpgVital Stats

- Anne E. Housley Juster
- 30 years old
- Born in Providence; Grew-up in Bristol, RI; Now lives on the Upper West Side.
- Director of Content for Sesame Street within Education and Research Dept. at Sesame Workshop

Anna's world:

You were trained to be a teacher. How did you wind-up at Sesame Workshop? Did you always have a desire to educate through means other than the classroom?
Are you asking me how to get to Sesame Street? I’ll give you my personal set of directions.

I think a lot of it relates back to my parents and how I was raised. My parents encouraged me to imagine and dream, but I had strict television viewing rules as a child. Until I was some ridiculously old age -- perhaps 11 or so -- I was only allowed to watch two hours of PBS per day. This meant that I watched Sesame Street for long enough not only to learn the alphabet, how to count, and to appreciate different perspectives and diversity, but for long enough to find the adult-directed humor downright hysterical. I loved it so much on so many levels that I decided I had to be a part of it some day.

When people asked the standard question: what do you want to be when you grow up? I said, “I want to work at Sesame Street.” People thought the response was pretty cute, but I was serious. I loved children and wanted to teach in innovative ways. Sesame Street seemed like the place where the world of imagination and knowledge merged. It also seemed like a ridiculously fun place to be. I watched the show religiously in college and took every step I could think of to figure out how to get to Sesame Street.

What does it actually mean to "write the curriculum" for Sesame Street? Do you decide what letter sponsors each show?
When I say that I work on the content for the show and design the curriculum I generally get the response, “Do you get to choose the letter and the number of the day?” Over time I’ve realized that it’s really hard to explain the levels of thinking that go into the show and to the curriculum behind it. These layers extend well beyond the letter and the number of the day and are built on over 35 years of experience.

The educational mission of the show is to help children learn through fun and the humor of the colorful, loveable, furry Muppets, monsters, and humans (not generally as furry). My job as a member of the education and research department is to ensure that we maintain our high standards of quality in our educational, age appropriate content across the Sesame brand (products, publishing, interactive, live performances, etc.) I work with members of each department closely to maximize opportunities for meaningful learning.

For each new season of Sesame Street, I and my content team revise our experimental curriculum in order to meet the needs of children currently watching the show. The curriculum evolves just as the creative elements of the show develop over time. This allows us to stay fresh and engaging to young children each year. The curriculum is currently about 30 pages long and fosters children’s development across cognitive, social, emotional, and physical domains.

How directly do you work with the creative producers of the show? Do you determine the curriculum and then send it off to the show writers? Or are you part of the process all along the way?
I have a great deal of respect for the writers and producers, some of whom have been working on the show for decades. Our relationships, I think, are founded on a core shared mission and a well developed sense of mutual trust. We work very closely together from the beginning of development for each season and as soon as one season is winding down we’re gearing up for the next with our annual curriculum seminar and writers meetings.

The content group reads all scripts, meets internally, and then I meet with the head writer to go over various notes. I generally leave these meetings in tears … of laughter.

Sesame Street just started its 36th season on Monday. Is it weird finding yourself in such an important position for a show that you watched religiously as a child?
When I’m laughing by myself in my office as I read the latest submitted script, I sometimes have to remind myself of the fact that I’m doing what I always said I wanted to do. It’s pretty cool.

I really have to remember this on the many days that I haven’t eaten anything and my stomach is digesting itself, and I can’t remember the last time I took two minutes to go to the ladies room. On those days I sometimes turn on the show in my office or put in a DVD and just watch for a few minutes. It’s an immediate reminder of how powerful the show truly is. A classic song, a Bert and Ernie banter, and a live action film about children making wire cars in South Africa provide the perfect recipe for a better day.

Kids are fickle and each generation swears it's different from its parents. How does Sesame Street stay so popular, especially in this day and age when there are so many other things competing for a kids attention?
We don’t believe children have changed all that much since 1969 when the show first aired. Clearly, the world in which children grow and learn today has evolved, but young children's basic needs are the same.

There is certainly lots of programming directed at children today, but Sesame Street has always been able to maintain its place as the number one trusted educational brand, and kids keep tuning in. I think one reason it maintains popularity is that the show has always been written on two levels with engaging content for children and adult humor for parents, older siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents. It’s a family affair. The current generation of moms grew up on Sesame Street. We trust it because our moms and dads trusted it, and it’s just really funny..

How much feedback do you get from the viewing audience? And does it come from grown ups or little people?
We get most of our feedback from our most important critics. They may be 3, 4, or 5 years old, but boy do they let you know what they think. We conduct extensive formative research with preschool children in schools around the NY/NJ area. Children are beautifully and brutally honest, and we need them to be. We show them new shows, watch them as they watch, and then ask them comprehension and appeal questions. It’s fun to be coding how often a child laughs, sings, dances, or says the ABCs – that’s not a bad job.

Who is your favorite Sesame Street character? Why?
This is almost an impossible question for me to answer because my favorite moments have always been during the exchanges between characters. They build off of each other so well that one alone, in my mind, is never as powerful as two. There may be nothing funnier in the world than a dramatic exchange between Prairie Dawn and her diametrically opposed friend and worst nightmare, Cookie Monster. The interactions between Oscar and his pet worm Slimey are priceless; especially in comparison to his interactions with everyone else!

However, if forced to choose, I’d go with Grover. He’s too loveable for words, and he’s filled to the fuzzy and blue brim with raw enthusiasm for life.

Educational toys is a huge industry with parents always looking for the next hot and popular thing to buy. What's Sesame Workshop's relationship with the toys and toy manufacturers? How does a non-profit organization fit into such a commercial industry?
We don’t build our own toys; rather we partner with companies who do, and we work closely with teams at each company throughout the development process. We are a non-profit organization so all profits made through the sale of toys, videos, interactive games, and everything else we create goes back into the development of educational media for children around the world.

We strive to ensure that all products tie back to the core mission of the Sesame brand, and we have high standards for what we consider to be educational. We also know that children need to have fun, and we recognize the crucial role of play in young children’s lives. Ideally we extend learning away from the show into other aspects of children’s daily lives with educational games on our website, books, building blocks, home videos that get children up and dancing in their living rooms, and so on.

In recent years we’ve added parent-directed content on the majority of all packaging in order to offer tips for extending the learning even further. I and the team will write messages for parents on how to use the toy in various ways to maximize learning potential and to provide opportunities to play with children. We know this is the best way for them to learn. New partners now ask for this additional information as they too recognize the benefits.

Sesame Workshop produces a lot of programs and products other than just Sesame Street. Can you talk about the upcoming traveling museum exhibit, "Sesame Presents the Body"?
The exhibit will travel around the U.S. over the next five years bringing Sesame Street to many states. The exhibit supports Sesame Workshop’s company-wide initiative, “Healthy Habits for Life” through which we are working to build a foundation of knowledge and skills so that young children can grow to be healthy older children and adults.

The focus on the body is a perfect content area for an interactive museum exhibit because although children are curious about how their bodies work and what goes on inside, they can’t ever see inside and investigate further. "Sesame Presents the Body" allows children to explore their outsides, their insides, and offers tangible information on how to eat healthy foods and stay active every day in order to be healthy and strong. We empower children with factual information in order to build self-confidence and help them make healthy choices.

You've got your B.A., your teaching certification, a Masters in Developmental Psychology, and you're helping to produce one of the most influential children's shows in history, plus other new programs all around the globe. You're not busy enough? You have to embark on a Ph.D in Early Childhood and Elementary Education too? Is this a result of too much Elmo exposure?
I don’t think the decision to go back to school again has anything to do with Elmo, although he is one of our most curious monsters – always wanting to learn more!

Partly the decision is work-related in that I felt like I’d hit a plateau at which I was using everything I already knew, and in order to really do my job well I needed to be learning myself as I tried to help children learn. Theories about child development are continuously evolving, and it’s good to have my head back in the academic game.

On a more selfish note, I just am a total nerd, and I missed being in the classroom. I wanted to go back to school, and because I have an amazing boss and work at a company who will pay a substantial amount of my tuition . . . Well, I really should have gone back sooner.

Ten things to know about Anna:

What's the best thing you've ever purchased/salvaged off the street?
I’d have to say cash. I’ve found cash at least a few times, but every time it’s an anxiety provoking experience to pick it up. I’m always thinking that someone is holding onto the bills with one of those transparent threads, and the minute I lift the money off the sidewalk a floodlight will appear out of nowhere and a camera crew will descend from above.

Thus far this has not been an issue.

Oh! Also, a used copy of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand for $2 and a biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald for $4. You can’t beat that.

Which city establishment sees more of your paycheck than you do?
Clearly my landlord ranks at the top of this list. Secondly, the garage where we park our car, and then Sushi Hana on Amsterdam and 82nd. We eat there a whole bunch or order in, and I should probably see if they are a publicly traded establishment. We should invest.

Gotham Mad Lib: When the ___________ (noun) makes me feel ___________ (adverb), I like to _____________ (verb). (Strict adherence to "Madlib" rules is not required.)
When the feeling of being sandwiched between two strangers on the subway makes me feel squished and slightly psychotic, I like to stand on the corner of Broadway and 79th and look east at a certain water tower surrounded by the bright blue sky.

Personality Problem Solving: Would you consider your personality more hysterical or more obsessive, and have you changed since living in New York; has "New York" become a part of you?
Right now I’m hysterically obsessing about whether or not you mean either/or here or if I might be allowed to answer that I’m a little bit of both.

I think that first you have to truly become a part of NY, and then NY might return the offer. It might let you take it in as part of your overall quest to master the intricacies and traverse the backroads and soak up all it has to offer.

I’ll boldly go out on the egocentric New York City limb here and say that living in NY for some time should be a requirement for achieving a full life. It’s within the contrast of this city that one can allow herself to taste humanity in a full frontal way and dig deeper into the essence of who she is. The inescapable tug obviously brings out the best and the worst in all of us whether we realize it or not, and I want to be fully aware of these polarities.

So, yes, I think I’m more hysterical and more obsessive than I was when I moved to 121st and Amsterdam 7 years ago, and I’m also more grounded, empathic, and honest.

When you just need to get away from it all, where is your favorite place in NYC to be alone, relish in solitude and find your earthly happiness? (We promise not to intrude.)
I find solitude in sitting on the couch with [my husband] Ken, Pinot Noir, brie, and Seinfeld at 11.

When I lived on 92nd and Broadway, I went to the roof and stood on the watertower or flopped over the edge of the building and looked all the way down Broadway. It’s especially nice to do this in the spring. Above everything with no one but the pigeons and maybe Ken or a couple friends, it’s just a perfect way to be in NYC without being in NYC, and the air is different somehow.

What's one thing you've done (or regularly do) in NYC that you could not have conceived doing anywhere else?
We walk10 blocks and across one avenue each and every time we want to get in and drive a car that belongs to us.

Assuming that you're generally respectful of your fellow citizens, was there ever a time when you had to absolutely unleash your inner asshole to get satisfaction?
Just a few weeks ago the devil came out to play again. I was standing on the subway platform from the time when it was entirely empty to the time when it was fully packed. As each new eager passenger arrived, he or she went up to the tracks and craned his or her neck around to look for a nonexistent train. Each person then proceeded to stand so close to the edge and in front of me that with one more inch they’d be chillin' with the rats below.

I had all of the lines rehearsed in my head for when the train finally arrived. “Excuse me sir, you look like a fine middle aged professional man who probably has 2.5 children and is faithful to your wife. Do you really think it’s wise to push past me and get on this train even though if you consider the logic of human interaction I’ve been essentially waiting in this undefined line for four times as long as you have? Thank you, that’s what I thought. Excuse me."

Before I could even breathe the air required for me to speak the first word of the above monologue, the people in front of me pushed onto the arriving train. Meanwhile, a young woman -- who lucky for me was short -- had come from the left, right next to me. I boxed out, pushed back against her and created a wall that she was definitely not getting through. She said, “Easy!” and I said, “I’ve been waiting for a lot longer than you.” The implications of what she said next have stuck with me ever since – one word, “So?” I made it on that train, and spent the next 10 minutes pondering the word, “So?” There’s really no logic once you get underground in NYC. You just have to push back and push back hard.

Besides more square footage, what luxury would you most like to have in your apartment?
A dishwasher. We may be moving soon with this sole objective in mind.

311: Help or hoopla? Have you ever put it to use?
I’ve called 311 to gain insight into one of my favorite subcultures of NYC – the world of the people who park on the street and have fully mastered the alternate street parking rules. I was one of these people for quite some time, but am now lacking recent experience.

There are 8 Million stories in The Naked City. Tell us one, but try to keep it to a New York Minute.
The NYPD stole my car. I was parked legally on the UWS, but at 2:00 AM the police apparently came through announcing that they’d be towing cars because of road work, and everyone needed to move their vehicles by morning. Strangely I could not hear this announcement from my bedroom eight streets and two avenues away. Thus, when I went to move my car the following afternoon, it was gone. Now, I knew that no one had stolen this 1987 Saab with an odometer that had broken at 210,000 miles and missing its already-stolen stereo. I went back to my office and proceeded to call all local police precincts, but no one had any record of my car. It was just gone. One woman suggested I call the mayor’s office, and every police department encouraged me to come down and fill out a report on my stolen vehicle.
Finally, and quite suddenly, a representative at one of the precincts said, “Oh, wait. Here it is,” and told me that my car had been relocated, but she didn’t know the exact location to which it had been moved. She had a vague idea that my car might be somewhere on Broadway above 96th Street. Fantastic.
I walked up Broadway into the low hundreds and found my car “parked” with the two right wheels on the sidewalk at a meter. The sweetest part of the story is that on the windshield I found 3 parking tickets glowing in their orange exuberance. I’d been at the meter too long. I wrote a fine letter and was sent an equally fine apology.

The 36th Season of Sesame Street started airing on PBS on Monday. This season focuses on health and the importance of a balanced lifestyle. Sesame Street airs new episodes daily locally on Thirteen at 7 AM. Visit pbskids.org for schedule information outside the NYC metro area. Anna finds that she is much healthier after developing the current season. She is proud to say that everything she knows, she learns from monsters.

This Gothamist Interview was sponsored by the letter J and the number 15.

-- Interview by Aaron Dobbs and Lily Oei