Puppets in the Classroom?

Professional Day for the Teaching Artist & Therapist Thursday, July 158:30 am-3:30 pm REGISTER HERE

A note from Judith O’Hare, Education Consultant for the Puppeteers of America

The Southeast Regional Puppet Festival marks the 4th festival that has included  a Professional Day for the Teaching Artist and Therapist. The day includes presentations by Puppeteers, educators and therapists who are working as professionals in educational and therapeutic environments using puppetry as an art form, expressive therapy and educational tool. This area of puppetry requires not only skills in the art and craft of puppetry, but skills in working with children, teens and adults in educational and therapeutic settings.  As artists, the puppeteer who is not trained as an educator or therapist needs to learn another set of skills to work effectively in educational and therapeutic settings. These skills include an understanding of the dynamics of the education and therapy in 2010.  The presenters for this day have all worked extensively in their respective areas of education and/or therapy and they will present issues and information for discussion and further exploration.  The goal of the day is make us aware of what is being done in the field and to define skills and areas of expertise that we need to excel in these areas of puppetry. There will be presentations followed by discussion so that everyone can participate.

Education has become very product-driven, highlighted by the endless mandated testing to see if students are learning. This environment does not lend itself to process education. We have found that the practice of bringing artists into the schools as performers and artists in residence has dropped off across the country. Schools are tightly scheduled, leaving little time for using puppets. It is the job of the Teaching Artist, puppeteer, to make a strong case for why puppets can support the curriculum, provide another avenue for learning and in the end help students be successful on the required tests. Unfortunately, the tests do not assess the type of learning that takes place when students plan, develop, and present a puppet play or language and pantomime interaction between puppets and people. It is the job of the Teaching Artist, puppeteer, to make a strong case for using puppets and illustrate how bringing an inanimate object to life alone or with others is a learning process that can be translated in academic and personal success.

Puppets are the great communicators. They can be used to express ANY topic, idea, concept, problem, opinion, interpersonal and intrapersonal relations.  By bringing the puppet to life, the puppeteer, no matter what age, developmental level, motor and cognitive level, expresses what he or she knows and feels about the topic. The puppeteer is immersed in the subject and internalizes the information and emotions of the characters and the story line. The puppeteer is behind the puppet and often anonymous; this anonymity gives the puppeteers the power to say what is in his or her heart and mind. This is significant.

The work with puppets is another way for educators to assess what students really know about something. What comes out of the mouths of the puppets is what the puppeteer knows.  The planning process for creating the puppet character requires information and understanding about what people do and say in a variety of situations and the planning process for putting together a puppet skit or several-scene play takes organization, planning, problem solving, cooperation, evaluation, revising etc.  To put on a play requires language arts skills, visual and 3-D art skills, and imagination.  Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Great visionaries such as Einstein had to imagine “What if” and “What could be if…” Then they went out to discover how to create the IF, reach the IF.   Imagination is much harder to test than facts and step by step processes.

A memorable puppet show created by 4th grade students in an urban school illustrated not only their comprehension of the nonfiction article they read in their language arts book, but it presented a very poignant view of ecology, specifically an oil spill. The topic of an oil spill has permeated the news this spring and hopefully these students, who are now in high school, will remember back to the story they presented with puppets.  The story was about the Valdez oil spill in Alaska and the damage it caused to the environment and the ways to prevent such a catastrophe again. One of the scenes was created from the point of view of the sea creatures. What were they thinking and feeling as the oil spread into their living space? We can only IMAGINE. But the ability to put oneself into “another’s shoes” even if that character is a fish, is a powerful learning experience.   By planning and dramatizing the story with puppets students not only gained a mastery of the content, but they gained empathy and understanding of the conditions of life not only for humans for in the case of the oil spill, for nature’s creatures.

Carol Sterling, former educational consultant for the Puppeteers of America and currently an administrator for the Brooklyn Arts Council, was part of the first Puppets: Education Magic at the Puppeteers of America’s Festival in 1989. She sent me the following: “Puppetry provides children with opportunities to achieve the following educational goals:

– to develop creative expression

-to stimulate and enhance imagination

-to develop spontaneous oral expression

-to improve speech, enunciation, and voice projection

-to practice writing skills, become more fluent in oral reading

-to gain appreciation of literature

-to develop coordination and a sense of timing

-to enhance a child’s feelings of self-worth

-to gain self-confidence and personal satisfaction

-to release fears, aggressions and frustrations in acceptable ways

-to develop social interaction skills

-to create and use manipulatives in an integrated, purposeful way

I would like to add to that list the following:

-to gain skills in problem solving

-to improve fine motor skills

-to sharpen listening skills

-to come to consensus, give and take of ideas

-to observe the world through the senses, to remember what was observed, to process what was observed and remembered and to recreate it with puppets

-to evaluate

-to polish, improve on what was done

Howard Gardner said, “Understanding means that you can take knowledge, facts, concepts, and apply them in new situations—situations you haven’t already been coached on.”  Puppets tap into all of the Intelligences identified by Howard Gardner: Linguistic, logical-mathematical, body-kinesthetic, musical, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal. Puppets provide an exciting integrated way to express what we know and what we have learned. When the puppets speak, they reflect the understanding and empathy of the puppeteer. The puppeteer animates the puppet, makes it come to life using voice and movement and what the puppet says and does directly relates to what the puppeteer knows and feels.

Working with puppets requires students to apply all of the above educational goals. When children work step by step to create the puppets, develop the story line, script, decide how and when characters will speak and move, solve problems, and present the play, they are involved in an educational process. It is the job of the teaching artist to make educators aware of what students gain from working with puppets.

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