Volume II - 1994

ESL Community Puppeteers
by Margaret Canepa

      Margaret Canepa is an assistant professor of ESL and coordinator of the intensive English program at The American Language Institute at New York University in New York City. A presenter at various ESL conferences, she has been teaching English for more than ten years.

      A couple of years ago, I found myself gazing at a window display of simple but fascinating hand puppets. As usual, my thoughts began to ramble back to the ESL classes that I teach. "Can puppets be an effective tool for teaching English?" Yes, I answered myself. There's little doubt of that. My mind raced on: "Wouldn't it be fun for ESL students to put on puppet shows for people in our community?" The students would undoubtedly enjoy meeting young children and sharing the stories that they had heard when they themselves were children. They might do this through the universal, time-honored tradition of the puppet theater.

      The idea grew, and I began talking about it to Helen Harper, our academic coordinator at The American Language Institute of New York University. As part of our full time program, students select their afternoon classes from a program of content-based electives, choosing from several widely varied courses according to their own interests. In a content course, the focus shifts from direct concentration on a skill in English to other subjects. A well designed content course for ESL students should allow them to continue developing in all language skill areas, but involve them in real and holistic uses of the language. I suggested "Folktale and Puppet Workshop," with one of the goals of the class being a traveling puppet theater that would perform in elementary school classrooms. This would be an elective course that would involve students in a community activity, give them a chance to use English in real situations, and encourage their use of imaginative and creative language.

      A frequent complaint of our foreign students concerns the difficulty in meeting Americans with whom they can practice speaking the language. I had been searching for ways to help my students make these kinds of connections and at the same time provide a format for a cultural exchange that would also benefit young Americans. Accordingly, I contacted several elementary teachers in New York--two at my daughter's school, P. S. 234 and others at the West Side Community School. All of the teachers would be very pleased to have a visit from a group of international students, and all of them found different and creative ways to work our visit into their curriculum. Ginger Hanlon teaches first grade at the West Side Community School and runs an after-school puppet club for young children. She and I began to work more closely together, planning several visits during the semester in which stories were exchanged, puppets were shared, and final puppet skits were performed for each other. The puppet workshop at the American Language Institute is now in its third semester, and has been quite a successful course that has realized all of my original goals.

Collecting Tales

      Each semester, my students begin by collecting a number of folk tales. Working in small groups of three or four, students spend several classes telling folktales that they remember from childhood to each other. After telling the story once, they rotate to another group and tell the same story again until every group has heard everyone's story. As students retell the stories to each group, they gain in confidence and fluency. To help students find more stories to add to our collection, we visit the Bobst Library at New York University, where there is a good selection of folklore from many countries, both in English and in many of their languages. We also visit the neighborhood Jefferson Market Public Library which has an excellent children's section. The children's librarian, Elaine Thomas, is a very good story-teller, and our visit to her early in the semester gives the students a chance to hear her tell two or three stories from different countries. During our visit, students are encouraged to apply for a library card, and they then have access to the children's collection of fairytales and puppet books. Assignments after this visit are to find a tale to present to the whole class and to write down one of the oral tales they heard from Ms. Thomas. Another possibility for a class activity is to reconstruct one of her stories and put it on the blackboard the next day in class. But the best source for stories is the students' own memories from childhood. Once they have begun to put those memories into English, I encourage them to research the tales and find other versions in English.

      As the compilation of these tales continues, a great deal of language work is done with the stories. One activity--after a simple telling of a story which we put on the board--is to combine some of the sentences into more complex ones. We have many discussions about the differences between fairytales, fables, morality tales, legends, and myths. Cultural differences and universal lessons in the tales are explored. All the language skills are practiced as we collect the stories: reading and writing, listening and telling, and discussing meaning in this very rich source of language.

Writing Scripts

      Once a good collection of stories has been put together, it is time to develop the scripts for the puppet skits. The class is divided into several small groups of two or three students. Each group must then write a script together for any story that they choose. It is usually one that we have become familiar with through our many tellings. As the scripts begin to develop, I become their language consultant. I help them find ways a puppet character might say something based on its personality. Probing the stories for meaning and emotion, we explore the levels of language-- from formal to casual, from polite to aggressive and rude, discussing various phrases that possibly reflect what a character might say in a given scene. I asked, "What is this character feeling at this time?" We generate a list of possible expressions people might say in a particular situation. In one story, for example, a little frog dresses to go out, but his mother objects. What does she actually say? "Oh, son, please don't go out." or "Where do you think you're going, young man?" We build up a repertoire of phrases for use in various situations as needed according to mood and emotion or differing cultural behaviors.

      As the scripting continues, the students make decisions about which characters they will create and play. At this point, I become an observer in the class, stepping back and letting the students use their own imagination. I encourage the class to begin thinking of themselves as a company that has to work together to accomplish a goal. I am there to answer questions, help with a word choice, suggest an expression or an idiom that is appropriate for the scene and plot. Circulating among the groups, I check progress or spot difficulties.

      At first, the students see the scripts as finished products, something written in stone that must be committed to memory. When the first rehearsals begin, they try to read the scripts while manipulating the puppets they have made. This just doesn't work. As the rehearsing continues, and everyone becomes familiar with the whole repertoire of skits, the students become more inventive with the language and are able to paraphrase the lines. The stories have become internalized! Towards the end, students are able to switch parts and make up the dialogue as they go along. When this happens, I feel that our goal of using the language creatively has been accomplished in an exciting manner. Often a group of two or three students will have a script that has five or more characters in it. This means that a student may have to create and play more than one character, or borrow a puppet from another student to play a part in the skit. Sometimes a player from another group might have to be enlisted to help out. Students are forced to become versatile when performing in more than one tale.

Constructing Puppets

      Before I began the first semester of this project, I thought we would purchase some puppets, but I soon realized that this was impossible for a variety of reasons. Traditionally, puppeteers build their own puppets, sets, theater, and props: so would we. Fortunately, I have a background in the arts, and I have done some work with a needle and thread, so it didn't seem beyond my capabilities. But what about the students? Would they be willing to spend time making puppets when they had come here to focus on learning English? To my astonishment, there was a great deal of enthusiasm. As the semester got under way, for some students there was a danger of becoming so involved in making the puppets that it was hard to keep them on track with the script writing. During the first semester, I had some help from Naomi Machado, a puppet maker, who came to class and taught us a few basic techniques for making a simple felt puppet that fits over the hand. In later semesters, I, myself, was able to teach the students these same techniques. It is not necessary to have complex puppets. Children are able to relate to a puppet that is as simple as a sock over the hand with two eyes glued on. Fortunately, I have had several very creative people in the puppet class each semester, and they have inspired everyone else to greater efforts. At first, the time spent in making puppets was a source of concern, because after the initial lesson on how to make them, students began to revert to their own languages while working on the puppets. I decided that this was a good time to watch some videos or listen to audio tapes of fairytales. Providing a listening exercise while making puppets solved that difficulty and insured that the students were still on track with their primary goal--using English.

      Making our own puppets is very important because it allows the student to become intimately involved with the character he or she creates, thereby having a personal investment in what that puppet says and does. Most of the students who have chosen the puppet workshop have been very willing to get involved in making the puppets, sets, and props. Those who don't feel successful in making the puppets find some other aspect of the class production where they have more confidence. After the initial puppet making has been done, perhaps in three or four sessions of class work, I encourage the students to finish their construction at home. Every few days, each puppet develops richer details in features and costumes. It is a wonderful experience to watch them take shape. It is as if the class suddenly grows in size as new characters become an integral part of our group!

New Puppets, New People

      It is truly amazing to see what happens when students put on hand puppets and transfer their own voices to them. New personae are liberated! With practice, a shy, soft-spoken person learns to project quite a different personality. Now it is time to learn how to manipulate the puppets. I give a demonstration of how a puppet can be moved to express certain emotions. I knew nothing about this when I began, but I read everything I could lay my hands on. By now, I have collected enough information to give my students a very basic group of manipulations that help an audience believe that the puppet is really speaking and feeling. We have to remember that our audience is young children who are quite willing to suspend their belief systems to enter the realm of the imagination.

      Once students master a few basic hand movements, we start to work with props. I give each pair of students an index card on which a brief situation is described, and ask them to improvise the scene with two puppets and the necessary props. The props are much more effective if their proportion in relationship to the puppet is oversized, so they can be easily seen by the audience. It also adds an element of comedy to see a puppet struggling with a giant treasure box or a huge book. It takes a little practice to manipulate the relatively large props with a puppet over the hand, but the students learn. While doing these improvisations, students learn to pitch their voices to various levels and tones that suit different puppet personalities and characters. Some professional puppeteers admit to being quite shy when not hiding behind a puppet. Many ESL students have to break through a similar shyness barrier when trying out the new language. Once behind the scenes, they find the courage to speak up and take the risks involved, especially when they've created a voice that doesn't even sound like their own. During the early improvisations with the puppets, I encourage students to use their imagination to create the dialogues that go with the situations. Instead of writing them in advance, I want them to use the language spontaneously. I often record phrases on the board for future use because I want the students to avoid thinking it is necessary to perfectly memorize a script.

      Once the scripted folktales are in full rehearsal, we work together designing the backdrops or special props. Sometimes we add some music or write words for a little opening song. Many little finishing touches are added, depending on the abilities and inventiveness of the students. For the puppet theater, we have constructed a lightweight structure of foam core board. Each semester, small improvements and designs embellish this simple three-sided, portable theater.

The Show Goes On

      The most exciting part of the puppet class is watching what happens when the students get in front of their first audience and hear the children begin to respond to the stories. Of course the children have heard all of the stories beforehand, and they are very well prepared for our visits, but there is just something magical in the puppet performances that draws them in. They offer comments to the puppets, and they ask questions during the performance. The puppeteers suddenly respond to their audience, adding phrases and actions that they never thought of doing before. They start hamming it up, and the energy level is very high. After the performances, we usually sit down with the children and share our puppets with them. They have so many questions to ask the puppeteers. This gives my students a chance to interact with native speakers. Somehow, speaking with a six year-old is less threatening than speaking to an adult.

      One of the last activities that we do in the semester is a performance for other ESL students at the Institute. Several teachers have also attended this performance in the past. For the puppeteers, this is the most difficult part to face, but they have had so much practice performing the skits with the children that they do quite a good job. The other international students have also been wonderfully appreciative viewers and have enjoyed seeing and hearing familiar stories from their childhood performed in English.

      The Folktale and Puppetry Workshop realizes all of my original goals and continues to be stimulating to me as a teacher. The interesting and rich source of the folktales provides many avenues to explore the language. New skills in English are developed in imaginative and creative ways as students put together and perform a repertoire of skits outside the classroom. Contact is made with native speakers, and students gain access and take advantage of many local resources in the community. A cultural exchange between the ESL students and young Americans is rewarding for both groups. The students who have taken this workshop have told me how much it helped them with English and how much they enjoyed becoming community puppeteers!

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