Helping Hands

By Candice Dyer — May 01, 2002 8 min read
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In Atlanta, an arts organization uses puppets to promote learning, no strings attached.

Eight-year-old Juan Covaribbas usually twiddles his thumbs out of boredom during writing assignments, but he can’t wait to get his hands on this one. He reaches into a box and retrieves his unusual muse: a puppet that started life as a dishwashing detergent bottle. It’s got a tennis ball for a head, and toilet paper tubes dangle as legs. Once he spiffs up the creature with some paint and faux greenery, it will look like a piece of high-end folk art.

“I’m the Tree Spirit!” Juan exclaims, making the bottle’s pipe cleaner arm wave “Hola, amigo!” to a neighbor in Deshunta Jones’ 3rd grade class at Oak Knoll Elementary School, just outside Atlanta. Then, like a pint-sized Geppetto, he trades puppet repartee with his classmates and their creatures.

Juan’s class is participating in an intensive, monthlong program developed by the Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts, the largest U.S. organization dedicated to promoting the craft. Guided by Jennifer Bodde, one of the center’s two outreach instructors, students read and discuss literary works connected to their social studies curriculum. Each kid chooses a character and contemplates what that being might say if he or she could talk; then the students collaborate on dialogue, prodded by cues from Bodde. (“What do you think a grandmother would say to her grandchild during the ‘Trail of Tears’?” she asks, referring to the forced exodus of Cherokees from Georgia in the 1830s.) The students write down their narratives, and the result is an adaptation of fables and poetry into a kid-speak script.

“Bottle caps, cereal boxes, and tennis balls become the puppets of Oak Knoll students such as Juan Covaribbas (center).
—Erik S. Lesser

Bodde, who remains a laid-back Gen-Xer amid a welter of sticky puppet carnage, helps students create their characters—hand puppets and dummies manipulated by rods (strings are too complicated for this young group). Eventually, the kids stage a chatty, elaborate puppet show for their schoolmates.

Juan, a hip kid with spiky hair and the habit of rolling his eyes at adult foolishness, frequently entertains classmates with his outgoing personality but struggles with the written word. “If you asked if he’s excelled in the reading and the language arts grade-wise, the answer would be ‘no,’ ” says Bodde. However, she observes, Juan finds stories easier to grasp when the characters are right at his fingertips. “It’s amazing how he blossoms when you put a puppet in his hand,” Bodde says. “He comes up with expressive, right-on-target dialogue that shows a real talent for improv. “The great thing about puppetry is that there’s something for everyone,” she adds. “There’s reading, writing, visual arts, acting. And for kinetic learners—the hyper kids—energy translates well into manipulating the puppet.”

Launched in a ribbon-cutting ceremony by Kermit the Frog in 1978, the Center for Puppetry Arts boasts a staff of 60 employees and 50 volunteers who coordinate performances and education workshops at schools across the country, including four monthlong school residencies a year. The center also maintains a museum teeming with eerily lifelike marionettes from the world over. When Bodde, a 29-year-old with a history degree from Yale and a background in theater, is not shepherding a classroom full of kids, she can be found preparing for her next teaching assignment in her studio, perhaps cutting out puppet parts on a floor padded to protect her knees. “That’s the mundane part of the job,” Bodde says, “when I’m not working with the children and seeing the amazing things they come up with.”

Oak Knoll connected with the Center for Puppetry Arts through the local Fulton County Arts Council, which places guest artists in area schools to reinforce academics through creative projects. “I heard about it at a teachers’ meeting, and I thought this would be just the thing to strengthen our language skills and other areas like art, music, and drama-it’s so cross-curriculum,” says Larita Primrose, a curriculum developer at Oak Knoll. “Plus, it also just sounded like something everyone, teachers and children, would enjoy.”

Most of the students at Oak Knoll come from African American families who live in a quiet, working-class neighborhood on the edge of East Point, a small city outside Atlanta. The number of Hispanic children has surged in recent years to approximately 20 percent of the student body, and many, including Juan, were born in Mexico and are native Spanish speakers. Oak Knoll has been troubled by lagging test scores in recent years: Students have, for example, scored lower than 60 percent of their peers nationwide in the social studies segment of the Stanford 9 Achievement Test.

‘The great thing about puppetry is that there’s something for everyone. ... There’s reading, writing, visual arts, acting’

Jennifer Bodde,
Outreach instructor,
Atlanta Center for Puppetry Arts

“We needed something to happen,” says Deshunta Jones, Juan’s teacher. “I read to [students], but I couldn’t get them interested in reading on their own or in writing anything.”

Building puppets from so-called found objects certainly helps ignite the pyrotechnics of the Oak Knoll students’ imaginations. Fey creatures emerge from cereal boxes, paper towel tubes, and dowel rods, and they prove almost hair- raising to a kiddie audience (and to a few adults in the crowd). A slinky python is created by stringing together several round oatmeal containers, and pink-sponge hair rollers pucker as lips on a different beastie.

In another 3rd grade class, Jada Herrington discovers a way to turn two tiny plastic spiders into coquettish puppet eyelashes: She inverts the bugs and glues a button on each abdomen. Jada, whose topknot ponytail stands like an antenna, hovers quietly over the puppet with her tiny face as intensely focused as a brain surgeon’s. Her friends squeal, “Jada, girl, you so dirty!” paying her a compliment in hip-hop slang.

“All of our stuff is recycled,” Bodde notes. “I want the kids to understand that you don’t need special, expensive supplies for this.”

Once their puppets are constructed, the kids are keen to put them to work. Bodde maintains that students can acquire a lot of factual knowledge through the process of preparing a puppet show. “Bear in mind,” she says, “that to write an interesting puppet skit about, say, Lewis and Clark or Magellan, you have to go way beyond the info in textbooks.” And indeed, in recent workshops in Fulton County schools, the group had kids write scripts about the age of exploration, U.S. westward expansion, and the life cycle of a butterfly. However, Bodde points out, the real genius of the process is that it pushes students to deeply comprehend, not just memorize, information. “It gives the kids a chance to get inside a story and internalize what they’re hearing and seeing, rather than letting it just wash over them as a bunch of facts,” she explains. “They have to stop and ask themselves, ‘What would I think and say if a soldier were forcing me from my home?’ ”

At the puppet show that the Oak Knoll students present at the end of the workshop, it’s evident that the kids have claimed ownership of the folk tales they’ve been studying. Juan retells a Zulu tale about “how stories came to earth” as only he can, complete with Latino-flavored dialogue. “I’m so cool. I can do whatever I want to,” his swaggering Tree Spirit puppet boasts. “I could steal from the bank and buy toys for me and my amigo, the hornet Chicano.” Then his character is captured by trickster turtles and swapped for a box of stories.

In another skit, Juan’s classmates reinterpret a Cherokee legend about the origin of the Milky Way. A luminescent “Spirit Dog” was pilfering the Native Americans’ vital cornmeal, the story goes, and as he bounded back into the heavens, he scattered the enchanted maize. “Every grain of cornmeal the dog dropped turned into a star,” explains a Cherokee grandmother puppet operated by Dakrisha Hutchinson. “And that’s why we call the Milky Way ‘the place where the dog ran.’”

Georgia State University researchers are studying the effects of the Center for Puppetry Arts’ workshops, along with other Fulton arts residencies, but more time is needed, they say, to reach any sweeping conclusions. However, one area of growth among “art infused” students already has been charted: empathy.

‘It’s empowering. It gives them a better image of their ability to do things, which in turn should raise all of the grades.’

Sue DiBignon, Interim director of the
Fulton County
School Arts Program

“We had the hypothesis that this experience of thinking deeply about how others feel and reflecting on what it would be like to be someone else would affect the students’ empathy,” says Ann Kruger, an associate professor of educational psychology at Georgia State. Her evaluations of students show that those who participated in an arts-based regimen of this sort improved their “empathy for others’ happiness” by 19 percent, while the scores of those who did not take part decreased by 4 percent. “That’s statistically very significant,” Kruger says. “And the puppetry program, which involves both writing and acting, fared especially well.”

Many educators predict that this new approach eventually will boost overall academic achievement, as well as tug hearts into shape. “It makes students feel more emotionally engaged in school,” says Sue DuBignon, interim director of the Fulton County School Arts Program. “And it’s empowering. It gives them a better image of their ability to do things, which in turn should raise all of the grades.”

Invoking those same reasons, weeks after the big puppet show, Jones says she’s noticed encouraging progress in her students’ work. “Before, they didn’t want to write, and they didn’t think when they had to write. They’d just start putting something on paper to get it over with,” she says. Then her exasperated tone brightens: “Now they think of the puppets when I assign something like a personal narrative, and they really get into it. They actually want to write, and they spend time thinking about each word.”

Juan’s turnaround, especially, makes her want to cheer—and hug that crazy-looking Tree Spirit.

“Juan is very creative,” Jones says. “He communicates well in a conversation, but he was always very bored in class, especially when it came time for him to use a pencil and paper. Now he’s learned how to connect all of those forms of communication, and he’s improving in all of his work across the board.”

She sighs, as if not wanting to ruin this happy development with too much analysis, and then says: “Those puppets, they did something.”


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