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Teaching Puppetry to Educators at Rollins College

Working with educators is one of my favorite things, so when I was asked by the Department of Education at Rollins College to teach Puppet Pedagogy for students studying to be educators, I happily agreed. It turns out that the professor has been using my puppet-making videos with her students so when I walked in, they already felt comfortable with me.

Using Accessible Materials

For educators, budget and accessibility is essential so I use inexpensive everyday objects that come in bulk. In this class we go from very simple - a pipe cleaner and some sticky back googly eyes - to simple, taping skewers to cardstock or thin cardboard. The final puppet is a bit more complex, still made of familiar tools like rubber bands, skewers, and straws, but there are several steps to completing the puppet. The results are a simply mechanized puppet that almost seems like magic when you perform it. 

PRO TIP: Avoid Glue. Use tape, pipe cleaners or paper fasteners so you can perform the puppet right away.

Start with a Demo

At the beginning of any class, whether I’m working with adults or children, I demonstrate what we'll be doing and why, by bringing characters to life. We started with simple pipe cleaner eyeballs. Students create a puppet ring around their middle two fingers with the twist a single pipe cleaner. The pipe cleaner becomes the eyes, and the performer's hand is the mouth. They're perfect for practicing moveable mouth lip sync.

Cuko, my purple fuzzy friend helps demonstrate eye focus. “If Ms. Jamie lifts her top fingers, I look at the ceiling, not at my audience. But, if she drops her thumb instead, I can look right at you while I’m talking. Eye contact helps me to appear real.” Cuko is always a hit. The classic “show beats tell.”

We discussed uses for these eyeball puppets such as classroom management or having your character be a guest reader. I keep a set in my travel bag to entertain kids on planes. I shared that one of my students had been pulled over for speeding and when she talked to the officer with her puppet, he let her go (I don’t recommend this, but it’s a fun anecdote). 

The Importance of Good Performance

Reaching an audience and holding their attention takes skill. Puppets are incredible tools for communication and comprehension, but first, the audience has to believe in the character. To drive home this idea, I share this story with all of my classes:

I was greeting people with my puppet in front of the History Center on a day the Autism Society was visiting. They were promoting the upcoming Jim Henson Exhibition by playing The Rainbow Connection. Suddenly, a teenager made a beeline for me. He stuck his hand inside of my puppet while I was performing, took it off of my hand, and began singing along with my puppet to the music. He knew all of the words. I sat back to watch the show.

His mother rushed over in tears shouting "He's non-verbal, and he's SINGING!" The moment the song finished he put my hand back into the puppet and walked away.

A few months later I was back at the History Center. The teen's mother came up to me exasperated. "I bought him all of these puppets for Christmas, and he won't use them because he says they're not real." When the puppet was on my hand, it had life, it could make connections, but a puppet in a box doesn't have life. That's why all of my lessons include both building AND performing puppets.

Playing with Shadows

After some lip sync practice with counting, learning to drop syllables, and bringing characters to life, we moved on to shadow puppetry. Shadow puppets can be extremely effective in a classroom, they’re easy to travel with and can be made from simple materials like cereal boxes. Using the light from your phone, you can pull the puppet closer and further away from the light, or move the light to make characters appear to grow and shrink.

When I work with kids, I tend to bring pre-printed patterns that they can cut out and personalize, but with teachers, I encourage them to think about what they need and create that. For example, the life cycle of a butterfly can be really fun to learn with shadow puppets. To ease the nerves of those who feel they’re “not creative” we talk about symmetry and I show them how to put basic shapes together to start their characters. A lot of comparisons can happen throughout this process. I remind students “Don’t let perfect get in the way of progress.” For many, this is the first time they’ve ever made a puppet. Shadows are so versatile that you can easily make adjustments with paper and tape. 

Arts Spark Emotional Connections

The students and their professors took to each activity with genuine curiosity and excitement. Some were used to working with arts materials, some struggled to cut paper. Bringing a creative idea to fruition can be challenging for even the most practiced artists. Arts can also bring up unexpected emotions like insecurity or fear of making mistakes. I once led a volunteer day creating props for a puppetry video. One woman started sobbing while she was painting a planet. By the end of the event, she said “Thank you. Painting brought me back to a time when I was happy. I’ve decided to divorce my husband.”

Not every reaction is this extreme. The arts put us in a place of contemplation exercising the problem-solving part of our brain. Keeping the puppets simple, eases students into a "choice within structure" situation that helps avoid paralyzation. They must use paper, but they can choose any color, for example. Make sure the puppet works properly first, then you can decorate it. Time limits and reminders of 10 minutes left, 5 minutes left, help both kids and adults stay on task.

Developing Characters

Some students start right away. Some look around the room for inspiration. Some stare at the materials unsure of how to begin. I challenge the students to think of different topics they could cover with puppetry. Some choose reading "The Hungry Caterpillar!", others science "Sea Creatures!" "Insects!" Once they know what they need, it paints a picture in their mind, which helps with decision-making.

Having students perform in groups helps further develop their character. Does their character speak or only move? How does it communicate with its fellow characters? I give the students 5 minutes to come up with a simple beginning, middle, and end. They are allowed to make sounds, but can't use real words. This challenge startles some at first, but once they tap into their higher-level thinking skills, the stories and characters come to life.

Noodling Around in our Second Class

For our second class we used pool noodles connected with pipe cleaners to create original characters, each with a special power then performed independently and in groups. So much creativity!



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