One Small Change

Sometimes I wonder what I would have done as a freelance art and puppetry teacher before Pinterest. Whenever I am stuck for ideas, wondering what new project three year olds can do using cotton balls, paint and paper plates, all I have to do is type a few keywords into a search box and the wonders of teaching blogs, mommy blogs and other artists are there for my perusal.

Because I’m teaching different groups of kids in different settings, sometimes I will repeat a project, and in the process, learn how to improve it. Here is a small case study: a penguin puppet.

I found this project (from the blog Confessions of a Teaching Junkie), attractive because of it’s simplicity. I also liked that it used paint, which is useful for stretching a project out to two lessons, because we have to let it dry. My students in an after school arts program, who are nearly all 6 or 7, were able to paint a plastic cup, cut out wings and eyes (I cut out the feet, as cardboard cutting skills are still a bit beyond them) and glue everything together. They turned out quite charming, as you can see. And they all looked pretty much the same, with some slight variations in the eyes.

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Then I decided to repeat the project with a different after school class. These are 7 and 8 year olds, so a little older, a little more assured with scissors and glue and paint. However, I made a major mistake, which is that I didn’t realize our paint was tempera, not acrylic and in no way designed to bind to the slick plastic of the cups. I didn’t take a picture, because it was slightly humiliating, but all the paint the kids piled on the cups simply shriveled up and flaked off.

So we had to try something else, which turned out to be paper collage. In the process of re-doing the project with paper instead of paint, I noticed something interesting. Perhaps because my students felt more assured with paper, scissors and markers, they started really putting their own stamp on the project. They added hats, hair, and accessories. Signs that read ‘I Love Penguins’. Their creativity was inspiring.

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I have no doubt that my students at the first program are just as creative and could have produced their own unique penguins. But instead, they followed my directions and example and made puppets that all looked pretty much alike. I am always interested in how to gently push my students to let their puppets reflect their own personalities, rather than making something they think will please me or their friends. For this project, it turned out that tissue paper was the magic ingredient.

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Teaching Caja Lambe-Lambe

I believe you learn a lot about your own art when you take on the challenge of teaching it to someone else. By figuring out how to explain the steps, hit the important rules but also allow for creativity and experimentation, you come to a better understanding of how an art form works and how to make better art. When I teach puppetry,  I often fall back on styles and forms that are familiar and that I know are within the capability of the age groups I’m working with. Last spring, however, I was given an opportunity to do a puppetry residency with an entire grade level at a local public school and I decided to throw caution to the wind.

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Second grade students at Bancroft Elementary drawing puppets for their projects. 

I’ve been in love with the Brazilian style of puppetry called caja lambe-lambe ever since I first heard about it in Argentina three years ago. From my early flailing attempts, to slightly more sophisticated projects to interviews with my teachers, I’ve been exploring and experimenting with this form and trying to get better at it. I also want the style to become better known here in the US, as it is throughout most of Latin America. I wasn’t sure if three classes of second graders were quite ready to tackle developing a show, building it and performing it all in two months of art classes. However, they dived in with enthusiasm, eager to try it all.

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Cutting out a puppet. 

The hardest part of collaborative artwork for kids is usually decision-making and this project was no exception. As a teacher, I usually encourage my students to make compromises and find ways to incorporate ideas from everyone in the group. But with only three minutes to perform the entire show, some contributions had to be cut and choices made quickly. The students all began with choosing a poem, one of three by then-national Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera. Most groups (somewhat predictably) chose the shortest poem, “Jackrabbits, Green onions and witches stew” which had a simple, bouncing cadence and a list of random fun objects. Several of the groups tried their very hardest to make puppets of every single thing mentioned in the poem, something I will try to discourage if I teach this workshop again. In the future, it would be interesting to give the students a wider range of story options, but I did like the way the project gave them a new way to explore poetry.

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Painting the boxes was messy, but fun. 

We discovered when the students began to work on their actual boxes that having four or five people painting the same box quickly gets messy. Using markers allowed for more flexibility, although it did take longer to complete. The most successful boxes included detailed drawing on both the inside outside of the boxes. Some groups painted a title on the front of the box and others added decorations around the peephole. They learned that the lid of the box would cover up the top inch of the sides and to take that into account when painting decorations. Color combinations were negotiated and compromises made when students ran out of one color or another.

Cardboard and paper were not the sturdiest materials to use in puppet making, and in retrospect, I should have given a little more explicit instruction on how to design and create the actual puppets. Working at that small scale is challenging for seven and eight year olds and their lack of experience meant that some puppets ended up being so tiny, it was hard to see them. I did give students the option of using clay, but that turned out to be too heavy for the pipe cleaners we were using for puppet controls. In the future, I would like to see what kind of small puppets the students can create using recycled materials, including fabric, plastic and wood.

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Practicing a caja lambe-lambe show. 

The most surprising and successful part of this experiment for me was the final presentation. Usually, caja shows are performed outside, or sometimes in a gallery space, where the audience walks around and watches them one by one. This is time-consuming, for both the audience and the performer and I was doubtful that second graders would be able to stay patient and wait their turn at each box. Likewise, I wanted to find a way to allow each member of the group to contribute to the performance, instead of having just one puppeteer. In order to save time and space, we came up with a solution involving technology–specifically, a document camera and projector. The lens of the document camera fit perfectly into the peephole, allowing us to project the view of the inside of the box onto a whiteboard for the entire class to see. One student read the poem aloud, while the others operated the little flashlights to light the inside of the box and the entrances and exits of puppets. The excited “Ohhhhhh!” of the class when the lights came on and the inside of the box was revealed was truly satisfying for everyone.

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The view of the inside of the box, projected via a document camera. 

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Students working together to perform their caja lambe-lambe show. 

Recent Workshops

IMG_1653In the past month, we’ve had several different workshops in DC and Virginia, teaching students ages 4-16 to design, build and perform their own puppets. Here are some pictures of what they created. As always, if you are interested in learning more about our workshops or bringing us to your school, check out our Education page.

The photo to the left was taken at the American Immigration Council’s Take Your Child to Work Day event. The puppets below were created in a workshop with the 2nd and 3rd grades at Tuckahoe Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia.

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Puppets and Social Studies

I was thrilled to be able to return this month to Tuckahoe Elementary, where I used to teach full time, to do a three session arts residency with the 5th grade. Their social studies curriculum covers various world cultures, and I collaborated with their classroom, library and art teachers to give the students the opportunity to delve more deeply into Ancient Egyptian society through research, writing and puppetry.

A puppet plan waiting to be turned into the costume using fabric, markers and glue.

A  plan waiting to be turned into a puppet   costume using fabric, markers and glue.

Each student was assigned a particular Ancient Egyptian social group and  spent time in the library researching the work, lifestyle, dress and family structure of that group. I then led each class through the steps of creating a puppet character and writing a monologue for them to speak, focusing on the hopes and dreams of their particular person. Some students chose to go dramatic, with generals plotting to kill the pharaoh. Others wrote about characters wishing to move up in status or social group. The students demonstrated their knowledge about the time period and their social group through the details they included in their writing.

Completed puppets, waiting for the big performance.

Completed puppets, waiting for the big performance.

In art class, each student created a ceramic head for their puppet, which was fired and decorated. In social studies class with me, they designed and then built a basic rod puppet structure of dowels and a costume of fabric. Again, students were expected to use their research to create a costume and if possible, props for their particular puppet character. When the puppets were all assembled, the students each performed their puppet monologue for the group. They did a wonderful job! Among the comments and feedback we got from the students were “I liked getting to decide how my character reacted to things,” “I liked learning more about all the different social groups by watching everyone” and “I liked making the head and costume of my puppet!” proving that the arts are the perfect way to build a love of learning in students of all ages.  If you would like us to bring this or a similar workshop to your classroom, please email us at witsendpuppets@gmail.com.

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Website Update

Shaper (Jose Pineda) and Creator (Bob Sheire) bring animals to life in FABULAS MAYAS. Photo by Lonnie Dale Tague.

Shaper (Jose Pineda) and Creator (Bob Sheire) bring animals to life in FABULAS MAYAS.             Photo by Lonnie Dale Tague.

Just a quick note here on some changes around the website that you might want to take a look at! We have new video up on the Cabinets of Kismet page, so if you didn’t get to see the show, check that out for some highlights. If you didn’t get to see our show Fabulas Mayas, it now has its own page, with photos.  We have some new additions to our Friends and Family page; people who have great work and cool projects that you can support. Finally, on our Education page there are new descriptions of the workshops we offer to schools and community groups. If you are interested in having us come to your school, please send us an email!

Puppet Workshop Announcement!!

scrap logoThe Amazing and Marvelous Cabinets of Kismet is a project that happened because a group of artists all read books by Shaun Tan and were inspired to create a new story. We hope that watching our puppet play inspires other people to create their own stories as well. To help that process along, we are thrilled to be able to present a PUPPET-MAKING WORKSHOP on Sunday, May 12 in collaboration with SCRAP DC.

Directly after the 2pm show, Karen Klein and Heather Bouley from SCRAP will lead a workshop on making puppets from recycled materials. This workshop is for all ages and is a perfect activity for families to do together. There are only 25 spots in the workshop due to space limitations, so buy your tickets today!

Puppets and Problem Solving

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

How do you turn a cardboard tube into a bird? Into a man?

It was great to see the latest Education issue of The Washington Post Magazine devoted to arts education, with a lead article by Anne Midgette. I found it encouraging to read about the many efforts by various arts organizations to bring their work to students, either during the regular school day or through after-school programs, especially because education is such a big part of what I am trying to do with this company. Midgette brings up some great points in the article and a later addendum, among them the value of arts as a motivator for students who struggle academically, as a means of teaching focus and the struggle for some organizations to balance creating art with teaching. I had some further thoughts on the value of puppetry in arts education, and specifically the challenge of teaching problem solving.

Problem solving is a huge part of learning and it can be an incredibly frustrating skill to learn, especially for younger students. Authentic problem solving is the sort of skill that easily gets pushed to the side in favor of memorization and rote drill when the classroom culture is based around standardized tests, as I know from personal experience. However, this only makes things harder for kids when they are asked to make decisions on their own. When you are used to every task having a specific answer and every assignment needing to be done ‘right,’ facing an activity without a certain set of steps and no guarantees can be intimidating.  Students are used to the answer being in the back of the book or in their teacher’s head. But what if your teacher doesn’t know the answer? What if no one does?

Puppets require lots of problem solving and there is no ‘right’ answer to be found–only what works for you and what looks right to your eyes as the artist. How can you make your puppet walk? Which yarn is the best hair? Does your puppet have arms or legs? Puppetry is an ideal low-cost way to introduce students to the concept of making decisions and solving problems. After all, even if math problems and grammar rules have set answers, not everything in life is laid out in perfect patterns and students need to learn to make decisions that are best for them. Why not give them the opportunity to problem solve with a puppet, rather than waiting until they are so set on getting everything perfect that one challenging task reduces them to tears? Flexibility and creativity are skills that are important and I hope that as Wit’s End Puppets continues to grow as a company, we will have the opportunity to encourage them in many more students.