The Common Core Standards encourage teachers to provide their students structured language opportunities to engage with each other’s ideas. Alberto Nodal, a veteran teacher scholar and bilingual transitional kindergarten teacher in San Lorenzo, spent last year investigating the use of puppetry as a way to help promote oral participation amongst a wide array of language abilities. He found that with the right support, puppetry can be a magical way to promote young children’s oral development.
This past year I taught a Transitional Kindergarten/ Kindergarten combination classroom in the San Lorenzo Unified School District. I had a background in Early Childhood Education, but had never taught Kindergarten before. I knew the year was going to be a year of learning-not only for my students, but for me as well.
Upon sharing an interest in ordering puppets for the school year, I was quickly told by many of my colleagues, “Those are a waste of money. Students don’t know how to use them.” I ordered them anyway and realized early on in the school year that puppets were actually a powerful tool I could use to captivate the attention of my often distractible students. They helped homesick students deal with adjusting to a new school environment and modeled for others appropriate and inappropriate ways of resolving conflict in and out of the classroom.
In my classroom, during free choice time, students could play with whatever was in the classroom. Many of them gravitated towards the puppets, which had me thrilled. I thought to myself, “Students actually want to play with them and will use them as a speaking tool!”
The Pitfalls of Puppets Without Structured Support
I was quickly brought back to reality as I saw the first pair of puppets go flying in the air after having a boxing match moments earlier. My students, who up until this moment were sweet, happy 5 year olds, now looked like the children from Lord of the Flies, hitting each other with the puppets to see who would be the leader of the group. I took away the puppets and went back to the drawing board. Were my colleagues right? Were these puppets a waste of money? Could I have used the money on something more worthwhile?
Initiating my inquiry project, I asked the class questions to find out what purpose they thought the puppets served in the classroom. What I found out was that they saw the “puppet shows” as something teacher controlled- a tool I used to amusingly highlight the naughty behaviors some of my students displayed.
I knew that despite the magical effect my puppet shows seemed to produce when in my control, I needed to put the puppets back in the hands of my Kindergarteners: I had to find a structured way to support my students to to use the puppets and get them to speak up.
The Mechanics of Being a Puppeteer
I realized that with 29 students, I would have to focus-in on a small group of students if I wanted to look closely at how students were using the puppets and the language-use they initiated. I chose 4 focal students that represented the diversity of my classroom. Teaching in a transitional bilingual program, all of my students share the same native language, but within that population of students I had a wide array of language abilities. I chose a student who was talkative, a student who was talkative yet difficult to understand, a student who was quiet, and a student who was quiet and difficult to understand. After narrowing in on my focal students, I then had to figure out how I was going to incorporate the puppets into my daily routine.
I structured my study around a unit on community helpers. Students would learn about one community helper a week and then use the puppet at the end of the week to tell me what they learned while I filmed it. What I noticed in looking at the recordings was that students couldn’t move the mouth of the puppet and the body at the same time. They usually chose to move one or the other. My talkative students relied more on their own voices as they moved the puppets side to side, whereas my shy and less talkative students used the puppets fully but spoke less. In looking at the video it was clear that in order to increase oral language development students would need to be explicitly taught how to engage with the puppets.
During the first few weeks of my study I changed student partnerships to see what worked best. I started by first partnering them by gender, but soon realized that the most powerful partnership were opposite personalities. Quiet students did better when partnered with a talkative student. When a quiet student was placed with another quiet student, there was a lot of awkward silence and shyness on both ends. When a talkative student was placed with another talkative student, there was a lack of turn taking and both fought to dominate the conversation.
After finding the type of partnership that worked best, I kept the student pairs in place and finished the unit. In looking at their performance, I saw my talkative students learning to take turns and encouraging their shy peers to come out of their shell and participate. The quiet students were able to talk in a safe space with a partner with whom they had built a relationship. They looked forward to the weekly puppet shows and were able to demonstrate content understanding while doing something that was fun.
In analyzing their performance, I came to know my focal students much better as individual learners. I realized, for example, that though he was extremely talkative, one of my focal students stuttered very often. Another student mimicked her own shyness in the puppet, who when embarrassed, would shy away from the camera as if it were a living person. With 29 students all vying for my attention, it was hard to have an accurate gauge on what kind of language was taking place in my classroom, but by focusing in on 4 students, I was able to learn how to better teach the entire class.
An Inquiry Focus Leads to Improved Instructional Practice
If I hadn’t engaged in this inquiry, students might still be hitting each other with the puppets. They, and I, would have lost out on the powerful benefits this sort of arts integration offers. By strategically partnering students based on different language characteristics, I was able to promote a safe space in which students were motivated to talk and participate while applying what they had learned about content. Puppets are not the only means to achieve this type of goal, but they definitely are a tool that I plan on using again in the future to attain this.
Alberto’s Quick Tips On Using Puppets in the Classroom
- Always model and remodel appropriate use; puppets should be treated with care and not used to fight.
- Younger children may not be developmentally ready to understand how a puppet can work. They often struggle to use the puppet as a character.
- Students often don’t give their puppet a voice and solely concentrate on puppet movement. When you model using puppets, decide what kind of voice your puppet will have and remain consistent. Encourage students to give their own puppets voices so that it gets them talking.
- Keep in mind that some puppets are more difficult to use than others e.g. some have only mouths that move, others have mouths and hands that move and some even have heads that move.
Alberto Nodal is in his sixth year as a bilingual teacher in San Lorenzo, CA and his fifth year as a Mills Teacher Scholar. He is passionate about educating dual language learners and recently presented his work on promoting oral language development through puppetry at the 2014 CABE conference.