Many of my teachers will tell you that I have driven them nuts (justifiably) asking, “When are we going to do puppets?” For years, I’ve gone on and on with whomever would listen about why I love puppets. From a Surdna Fellow artist-teacher who gave a puppet and mask-making workshop for our students years ago to (twice) seeing the multiple-Tony-award-winning play War Horse, I have long been mesmerized by puppets!
Often, my ideas stay on the level of, “Isn’t it great how enthusiastic Linda is?” Mr. Edwards and Mr. Thach were an exception to this rule. To my great delight, they ended their 9th grade units with puppets! I’m not talking sock puppets. I’m talking puppets that are truly beings in their own right.
At their final puppet showcase/exhibition, 25 ninth graders lined up in their classroom ready to enter the open gallery space for puppet speed dating. Tables with tablecloths held a series of prompts to discuss. The gallery room had an elegant feel. Back in the classroom of controlled chaos, students eagerly introduced me to their puppet selves or puppet friends. Some puppets resembled their makers; others bore no similarities. Some talked with squeaky voices; others spoke with low rumbles. Each student delighted in shaking my hand, often via a long puppet hand. They were eager to have their pictures taken with their puppets.
These puppets emerged from a term of study about complicated parts of identity. Students struggled to articulate explorations of their identity in words or even drawings. With this chance to create small monster self-portraits, the class took off with a high level of craftsmanship and commitment to the process. Mr. Thach, the teacher, dished out critical questions for his students to explore: What chip do you have on your shoulder? What aspect of you has caused you pain or made you angry? Students designed their monsters and then wrote story boards about each monster’s world. “It’s too personal if students don’t monsterify,” Mr. Thach told me. Some students explored their dilemmas of coming out to both friends and family. Others wrote and designed about their appearance. Many shared parts of themselves that would have brought only silence if they were asked to talk or write. Puppets enabled students to create a three-dimensional, non-personal monster and the power to share in a non-threatening way: “This isn’t me talking. This is my puppet!”
In the speed dating activity, students introduced one another to their puppets and answered revealing questions: “What is social acceptance?” “How has social acceptance affected you and your life?” Students’ puppets, often donning very particular accessories or hats, said things like, “People who wear certain clothes ‘cause everyone does it are an example of social acceptance. See me? I’m wearing what I like and I don’t care!” “If people were more open-minded and willing to accept others for who they are, would things be better?” “Is there such a thing as being normal? What does it mean to be normal?” One wonderfully gregarious puppet answered this way: “People often have to put on a mask in certain places, such as school and home. These masks cover who they really are in order to be accepted.”
Another student admitted that her puppet wasn’t as angry as she herself was. “I’m not that angry girl like she is,” the puppet said, pointing at her puppeteer. “She’s had to do a lot of work since middle school to get over her temper. My friend here was always swearing at kids ‘cause she was attacked ‘cause of her looks. Me? I’m just chill.” Some students spoke about how “We shame or behave differently to ‘different’ people because we don’t understand them.” Another commented, “It’s our nature to fear things we don’t understand. That fear turns to uncomfortableness and can create shame.”
Students took these inquires seriously. They delved into how gender, race, age and sexuality play a role in social acceptance. As one young woman’s puppet said, “It’s not always me that creates the tension. You should see my parents! And their parents!” That puppet almost grinned. I couldn’t help feeling that the grin represented a big step forward for the puppeteer—a realization that the tension in the family wasn’t all her doing.
In the end, students not only celebrated their artistic craft, they better understood one another and the value of sharing their own personal monsters. The experience was cathartic; it was even joyous. I look forward to future explorations into the world of puppets, identity and craft.
I love this post Linda and sent it to our teaching artists. Puppet as self-portrait is a wonderful idea, and I love how the teachers use the puppets in a way that generates conversation between the students and the puppets. It’s always difficult to get high school students to talk about themselves. Using the puppet as a vessel for conversation about identity is brilliant.
I’m so excited you enjoyed the piece… Where do your teaching artists work?
In a school and community arts center in Merida, Mexico called Habla. One of the first things we did was hire a full-time teaching artist to collaborate in our classrooms with our teachers. I too have always been fascinated by how touching and sophisticated puppets can be. I love Big Nazo’s work in Providence, RI and other international performing groups like Bread and Puppet and Basil Twist. Since we primarily are a language school I was principally interested in your piece from the perspective of Paulo Freire’s work considering how we might inspire more conversation in classrooms and language development through puppetry. That’s why the idea of self-portraiture and speaking about identity through the voice of the puppet appeals to me. Thanks for writing about it and consistently sharing the work of the teachers at your school.