In Russia, Children Get To Sesame St. In a New Way
Later this month, Russian children will begin to wake up to the same chipper tunes that have rung in the ears of a generation of American children: the snappy strains of "Ulitsa Sezam," known in the US as "Sesame Street."
Of course, the setting has changed. The sociable courtyard surrounded by the apartment houses will feel familiar to urban Russian children. Big Bird is replaced with Zeli Buba, a big, floppy, dog-like character who lives in an oak tree.
But the real differences are in the children who will be watching the TV show.
In Russia, as in the United States and more than 30 other countries that have adapted "Sesame Street" to their cultures, the show is aimed at preparing children, ages 2 to 6, for school. And "Sesame Street" researchers have found the same differences, even at this young age, that follow Russian and American students throughout their school careers.
In general, American youngsters are more self-assured and independent, more expressive of their feelings, and have more experience with children of different ethnicities and physical abilities. Russian children, on the other hand, know more, read better, and are more advanced in arithmetic. They are also more respectful and obedient toward adults.
"In general, children are the same all over," says Anna Guenina, director of research and content for "Ulitsa Sezam," who directed the market testing and will study the show's impact on children here through the coming season. "The differences were created by adults, by us."
By the age of 6, the average Russian child is better prepared for school in the academic sense than the average American child. "I think in terms of math and literacy, our children are more educated," Ms. Guenina says.
"So if Sesame Street can teach children in Russia more about human values, social values, then teaching them how to count is not so important," she says.
'Lenin loved children'
Soviet education taught good citizenship in school and in Young Pioneer camps that were the communist equivalent of Boy and Girl Scout camps. Classroom guides for teachers included when to pull out pictures of Soviet revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin and to explain that everyone loves him and that he loved children.
All that has rapidly become ancient history. But Russian schools retain their traditional style. They are disciplined and formal. Classwork and homework are tightly directed, telling students both what to do and exactly how to do it, leaving little room for independence. Tests are often still based on standing and reciting before the class.
Russian families also tend to keep children firmly in their place. "Our kids don't have a sense of dignity and pride," says Vladimir Grammatikov, the director of "Ulitsa Sezam." "They are always told they are not important and know nothing."
Russian children are more dependent on parents and teachers than American children, feel less able to make their own decisions and solve their own problems, Guenina says. In tests of "Sesame Street" programs in the US, she says, children paid no attention to the adults in the room with them. In Moscow, the children sat absolutely quiet.
Russians look on American children with a mixture of wonder and consternation.
A Moscow teacher, Natalia Rusanova, taught for a few months in an American high school recently and was astonished to watch a class as a film on the book "War and Peace," by Leo Tolstoy, was shown. Two students watched. Some wrote or read. Others came and went from the room. "They're not compelled to study," she says, marveling. The good part is that American youngsters learn self-reliance.
"If a person learns that nobody else is to blame for his faults, I suppose that's good," she says.
John Lambert, assistant director of education programs for the US Peace Corps in Russia, sees an effort by Russian educators to adopt some of the strong points of American schooling even though "the average Russian kid has successfully negotiated a lot more information than the American kid has."
He sees great interest among Russian educators in better teaching leadership, civics, group problem-solving, consumer education, and ethnic understanding.
Enter "Sesame Street," which begins airing here Oct. 22, with its lessons on environmental responsibility, resolving disputes, expressing feelings, appreciating differences in race and culture, and including children with disabilities - along with counting and letters, of course. Perhaps even more important, as a cultural influence "Sesame Street" is full of active, expressive children.
The idea of including disabled children is especially new to Russian culture, which segregates children with disabilities in special schools. In one "Ulitsa Sezam" episode, a deaf girl is the only one who can read the lips of someone locked in a room with a window. Next season, if the show continues, producers plan to add a character from the Adigei ethnic group in the Caucasus Mountain region. The producers ran out of time this season after American advisers convinced them that an Adigei character should be played by an Adigei actor, and not by someone who just looks Adigei.
All this American childhood independence can go too far for Russians, of course. When Russian writers were scripting in the need to keep quiet in public places, such as libraries and museums, an American adviser objected to this dampening of children's spirits. Guenina, the "Ulitsa Sezam" director of research, was a bit dumfounded, arguing that children can have self-esteem without being noisy.
The other side of this equation is that, in academic terms, American children do not learn as much. Through every level of schooling, Russian students read more and read better than their American counterparts. They are far better at math. They know more about the sciences, history, and literature. And they speak more languages.
Russian schools may not deserve the credit. The Peace Corps' Dr. Lambert suspects that Russians know more than Americans in spite of their poorly managed education system. The reasons he cites: First, American kids are inundated with verbal and graphic information; their lives are full of distractions. Second, Russian culture values knowledge in a way that American culture does not.
Poetic vs. practical
Mrs. Rusanova notices the difference both when American exchange students come to Moscow's Gymnasium No. 1543, and when she recently taught in a high school in a prosperous area in Tenafly, N.J. The American students, she says, work at lower academic standards. "Americans may be more practical," she suggests diplomatically, adding that Russian students are far more likely to read poetry or look at art and to want to talk about it.
"Sesame Street" will not help Russia in one respect. More jumpy, quick-changing, bouncing, dancing television aimed at children may not help them sustain their attention spans. But the show's director, Mr. Grammatikov, says that Russia's reading culture is already in decline. It is impossible to stop the influx of computer games, television shows, and other new channels of influence over the young, he says, "So we need to use them."