Judith O’Hare is a world renowned puppeteer and the focus workshop presenter at the Teacher Art Retreat. Today, she shares some insights to how puppets can play a part in our classrooms and in the lives of our students. This is a preview of the wonderful things we will be learning from her at the retreat!
There is a power in puppets!
Puppets tickle the imagination and stimulate the mind, not only for children but for teens and adults. At first we all love to see something that we know is not real, seem to come to life before our eyes. We know the object that is moving and talking is not real, yet we are pulled into the reality of the puppet character. If there is an opportunity to touch the puppets, coax a bit of life into it and begin to control it, there is a power of creation. Anyone can make a lifeless puppet come to life and with a little practice, we can make people believe in that puppet, believe that it is real. That is Power!
Hoody Dowdy was a part of my childhood, and Big Bird, Elmo and Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are part of the childhood of children over the past 30 years. The Muppet show and the most recent Muppet movies and commercials have made puppets a part of mainstream entertainment. These characters are indelible parts of our lives; puppeteers have breathed life into them and we believe in them. Puppets have been around as long as we have recorded history and they have been some of the world’s most dynamic teachers.
I recently was in Africa at an International Puppet Festival that was sponsored by Planned Parenthood and other non-government health agencies to help promote education about AIDS through puppetry. In a country ravaged by AIDS, the voices of the puppets were louder and clearer than the voices of the health practitioners. A child said, “Puppets can say things that I can’t.” What another child said with her puppets was that there is help for AIDS and that parents and doctors can help young people who have the disease and most importantly, do not throw them out, help them. That is power.
Get a Puppet
How can parents, teachers and children tap into the Power of Puppets? People often call me or write to me and ask, where do I begin with puppets? My response is to start by getting a puppet. A puppet is any inanimate object, something that is not real, that is made to come to life by a person. The puppet can be made in a variety of ways. There are hand puppets or glove puppets, that are moved with our fingers, wrist, and arms, and there are marionettes that move by strings, and there are rod puppets that are moved by sticks attached to the arms, body and /or head, and there are full body puppets like Big Bird that are worn by the puppeteer and manipulated from the inside, and there are combinations of all of these. Puppets can be moved by one person or many as in Japanese Bunraku puppets. Puppets can be simple or complex, but no matter how they are designed to move, it is the puppeteer who breathes life into them.
Jim Henson and Sherri Lewis turned old socks into two of the world’s most memorable puppets, Kermit the Frog and Lamb Chop. These puppets had a basic simplicity to them, but the puppeteer imbued them with character, made them talk and move and feel. The puppets became more real that the puppeteer and the audience fell in love. We cared what happened to these little puppets. They were no longer just toys, dolls, play things, but real characters with ideas, feelings, actions, friends, problems, joys and pains. The puppeteers had turned their old socks into characters that the world grew to know and love.
When we give children, teens and ourselves the opportunity to play with puppets, we give a great gift that goes on giving. If the children are stimulated to make the puppet move and talk, we begin to hear their inner voices. Puppets are always a reflection of the puppeteer. They reflect his/her thoughts, concerns, ideas, problems / solutions, and relationships with other people.
On another level, the puppets are a metaphor, they stand for something else, and the metaphor can often give insight into the mind and heart of the puppeteer. As a puppeteer, I choose puppets and stories that interest me and speak for me, and the same is true for children and young adults.
Puppets for Students
Teachers can use puppets in many ways in the classroom. Teachers can communicate to the students through a puppet and they can provide opportunities for students to use puppets as a means of communication. They can recreate characters that have personalities and reflect people they know or imagine, they can interact with one another and talk about all kinds of topics from what they like to eat to issues that concern them such as recycling, sharing, volcanoes, travel, bullying, what they like and what they feel, etc. etc.etc.
I recently did a project with K-5 students. They each made a simple paper puppet, thought about who that was, what it liked to eat, where it lived, what it liked to do after school, who was in its family and so forth. One little boy began to talk with a good loud voice about his puppet and when he finished he said to his partner, tell me about you; what do you like to eat? The teacher told me this little boy was on the autism spectrum and did not usually talk freely or interact spontaneously with his peers. With the puppet he was one of most articulate and focused children. There is power in that paper that came to life.
Puppets and Literacy
One of the important parts of the school curriculum is teaching children to read and to become literate. Puppets are a powerful art form that can stimulate reading and reading comprehension on many levels. It is not enough for children to decode words, they need to be able to understand the words on many levels.
In the K- Grade 2 reading standards, students are asked to identify the main topic and retell key details in the story. As they progress to grade 2 they are asked to answer the questions who, what, where, why and how?
At the end of a grade 4 presentation of “Strega Nona and the Magic Pot” the principal of the school, who came to see the play, asked the boy who was playing Strega Nona how he remembered all the lines. The boy looked up at her and said, “I just said what came next.” He and all of the students in the class had read and reread the story, planned out the script, made a list of all of the characters (who), discussed the story, (What happed sequentially, the Plot), discussed (where) each part of the story took place (the setting) and divided the play into scenes.
The talked about each character and what that character was thinking, saying and doing (the action) in the story ,and they talked about how the characters would interact and eventually solve the problem of the story. They all agreed on how the play should end and who should say the last line and do the last bit of action. The final play became an assessment tool for the teacher; she knew how well the students had read the story and understood the plot, characters, setting and theme. The process of reading and retelling a story with puppets is an excellent reinforcement of the curriculum standards and also a way for students to work cooperatively, listen to one another, act and react to what is happening with the puppets, develop small motor skills, learn how to share space, speak loudly and with emphasis, and create memorable characters.
Another standard for grade 2 asks students to compare and contrast the most important points presented texts on the same topic. We did a project with the grade three students in a school. We divided the students into small groups and each group selected a different version of the Cinderella story; the German, Chinese, African, American Cinderella in reverse, and Native American, et cetera. The students retold these stories and we compared and contrasted the different versions as we planned and presented them. The project made Fairy Tales come to life and illustrated that the same story is told around the world because it is a universal story that we all could relate to.
The Value in Puppets
Time is precious and teachers are mandated to do many things to reach the local, state and national standards. However, time spent on creating and using puppets can be valuable time because it makes the curriculum come alive internally for children. Children save their puppets until they are adults, they come back to see teachers they had years before and talk about the puppets. Puppets breathe life into the lessons we are trying to teach in all areas of the curriculum and the ability of the student puppeteer to make the puppet move and talk is empowering.
Join Me at the Retreat!
I will be presenting a three-day workshop at the Teacher Art Retreat in making and using Shadow Puppets to retell stories from Aesop’s Fables. I hope that those of you who take the workshop will experience the power and magic of the puppets to tell stories that are delightfully creative, memorable, and grounded in curriculum standards.
By Judith O’Hare, www.youandmepuppets.com