I’ll admit it. When I hear the word, it doesn’t excite me. It doesn’t motivate me. I don’t feel drawn to seeing puppets (even though I’ve had great experiences with puppet shows I’ve seen). And, I haven’t yet used puppets with my students. However, every time I’ve had experiences with puppets I am reminded what a great tool they can be for educators. As well as, what a natural fit they are for integration. This week at the University of Connecticut the National Puppetry Festival is taking place and after looking at the variety of sessions and shows they are providing I honestly wish I could be in attendance. Although I could not sign up for the whole week, I did attend their “Professional Day for Teaching Artists and Therapists” and walked away re-inspired to think about opportunities for using puppets in my work.
One brilliant puppeteer who works with preschoolers, Audrey Laird, showed examples of how she uses music to inspire her use of puppets with her young students. She focuses on songs that relate to a theme that the children are studying in class and makes sure the songs are catchy and easy to sing. What is so fabulous about this approach is that there is no dialogue, no story to remember, just a catchy “ear-worm” kind of song. One memorable clip she showed was an orchard of cardboard apple trees that each had a worm made of a sock puppet coming through a hole cut in the tree.
These worms sang about how much they loved apples and applesauce but the word “sauce” was sung low and long and all the young puppeteers manipulated their puppets perfectly on that word! Her presentation got me thinking about songs with different vocal parts and how fun it would be to differentiate the parts with different sections of puppets with older children who can handle part singing. The great thing about a puppet singing is that even the shyest of children may participate because they feel the spotlight is not on them but on the puppet.
A teacher who also works with young people, Madeline Beresford, uses puppets as “co-teachers” to engage the children in learning. Her class has a family of puppet snakes who like letters and will steal letters off the alphabet in the night, even under the watchful eye of their duck puppet. She explained how the children would squeal in delight that the duck missed the snake again and then they went about going through all the letters of the alphabet to figure out which one was missing. Watching this teacher enact the type of conversation that might happen between the duck and Sneaky Snake in her classroom drew me right in to the action as an adult educator. If I can get sucked in, I can only imagine how engaged her preschoolers must be! I
f you as the teacher can sell it, the kids will buy it. Madeline shared a story of a child who has been in her class for 2 years and knows very well that Sneaky Snake is a puppet but after sharing an important piece of news with her teacher asked if she could tell Sneaky Snake as well. The fact that children are so willing to be complicit in bringing these puppets to life shows just how effective these puppets can be as tools in the learning process.
Puppets in Middle and High School?
But puppets are not just for young children. One presenter who is a technology specialist, Conni Mulligan, showed how stick puppets can be used very effectively with middle and high schoolers by calling them “2 dimensional characters” rather than puppets. Using an iPad, a green screen app, a tri-fold covered in green paper, velcro and a green straw, she demonstrated how to use green screen to create movies with 2 dimensional puppets. The process was amazingly simple and the effects were impressive. Another presenter, Michael Lameson, who also worked with older students talked about student created puppet shows as assessments. If students are demonstrating learning through the puppet show (green screen or not), teachers can have a clear sense of the level of understanding throughout the creation process and in the final product.
So, the two big take-aways:
1. Puppets are amazingly effective and fun learning tools.
2. Even big kids are willing to learn and demonstrate learning with puppets.
Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.