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6 Reasons Why Puppets Will Change Your Classroom Forever

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Student working on a puppet

Editor's note: High school English teacher Cheryl Morris co-authored this post.

Good help is hard to find, and real friends are made. In our classrooms, we take that literally.

Puppets change the entire classroom by creating more possibilities for creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, and curiosity. They give students a (sometimes silly) voice and put them in the role of creator. They can also be a co-teacher, a physical avatar, a learning partner, and even facilitate learning by subverting the ego.

The Benefits of Puppets in Class

1. Design Thinking

Your students can build puppets. With a thoughtful approach to building a puppet, they can design their ultimate learning partner.

2. Growth Mindset

Puppet creation requires making mistakes. Your first puppet will always be very, very special. Students learn fairly quickly that what they see in their mind is not the same as what they can make with their hands. Abraham Lincoln turns into a Rastafarian cyclops. Taylor Swift becomes a married older chicken. Mistakes in puppet making allow kids to fail in a very low-risk way. They get a practical lesson in imperfection. They also get a lesson in following directions. Some students cut a hole, rather than a straight line, for their mouth. Helping them fix their mistakes reinforces the establishment of a growth mindset.

3. Sharable Media

Privacy concerns are ever-present, especially for elementary and middle school teachers. Students should be creators to show both content mastery and content-specific skills, but when they create their videos, it's ethically hard to share them to give students an authentic, real-world audience. With the puppets as physical avatars for students, videos become sharable so that students get the benefit of a wider audience and feedback while still being protected.

4. Puppet as Co-Teacher

When you make a video to introduce a topic or app, use a puppet. The attention that your students pay is different. I enjoy letting the puppet kick off a lesson, and then I help in the room.

5. Writing With a Puppet

When students write plays, foremost in many of their minds is how they will look, how they will sound, and how others will respond to them. Writing for the puppet allows them to be far more silly, as well as take risks with accents, characters, and plots that they wouldn't try if they were required to act it out live. Not only does it help them learn the content as well as writing skills and dialogue formatting, but they also learn important lessons in collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity.

Cast of Characters:
Human Name Puppet Name Character Played
Emily Duck Menes (scribe)
Reed Rocco Mohar (soldier)
Polo Wiz Nafi (priest)
Emily Mirabel Nefertari (farmer's wife)
Bobby Tyrone Sebek (farmer)

6. Making Learning Less Threatening

We take risks all the time in learning -- and sharing out is the worst. Using a puppet transforms getting caught in the headlights into shining in the spotlight. Students share with less risk, and the puppet makes the situation a lot more like a performance.

Building Puppets to Transform Your Teaching Life

Three shots of a puppet in different phases of creation

Puppet making may seem difficult, but many puppet makers show their entire process through YouTube videos. We couldn’t find a pattern that was scalable for an entire class, so we made our own and created instructional videos that we use in class and in workshops. A basic Muppet-inspired hand puppet doesn't require sophisticated sewing or crafting skills, either. Even sixth grade students learn how to sew a seam and use a hot glue gun fairly quickly.

However, there are things we do to speed up the process. Students begin with a design and a color choice. Before the next class period, we cut the fleece into the pattern. Then, with help from our instructional videos, students walk through the process at their own speed. With younger students, we tend to control the resources, because left unattended, a 12-year-old will cut a circle out of the center of a piece of felt and throw the rest of the sheet away. So we're in charge the fabric and felt scissors.

To speed up the process, we have also pre-cut cardboard for mouths, tear strips of duct tape for thumb and finger loops to work the jaws, and pre-cut felt for the mouth interior. The goal is that students focus on the actual process of building and designing the puppet rather than cutting perfect half-circles and measuring correctly.

That being said, making mistakes is essential to this process. The first time we taught students how to make puppets, we had never made puppets either. Learning with your students lets them see you as a fellow learner, rather as a didactic answer machine. Not knowing the answer to something teaches students how to find their own answers, which is useful for the rest of their life.

Puppets have so many applications in the classroom: we’ve used them to:

We believe that puppets belong in every classroom. Share your puppet story with us (or ask your puppet questions) in the comments.

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Sam Patterson's picture
Sam Patterson
PreK-6 MakerSpace Teacher

Sandra,
Sixth grade is a great place for puppets. Much of the specific we discuss in this article came from Cheryl's sixth-grade class the 6th grade at my school will be making puppets this year. It begins as a hands-on design project and then the puppet becomes another mode of expression and meaning making. Our students have ipads and they will being using puppets and greenscreens to create movies about history and literature. We have asked kids to write skits for years, but with puppets we can film and share the movies without worrying about the student's face in the video.
When it is time for writing they can craft the puppet's origin story, write a play, or even a song for the puppet to sing. Middle school is a psychologically challenging time and I have seen the power of plush to cut through those barriers and embolden 6th graders to take risks in learning like they were 2nd graders again!
Stay in touch, we will be sharing work throughout the year on our youtube channels linked in the article. If you don't want to miss a post you can subscribe to the channels and see each piece as we post it. Good luck and puppet bravely!

Cheryl Morris (@guster4lovers)'s picture
Cheryl Morris (@guster4lovers)
6th Grade Humanities Teacher and 6th Grade Team Leader, Del Mar Middle School, Marin CA

Thanks for the comment, Sandra. As Sam said, my 6th graders are the ones making puppets.

Here are some blog posts I've written about it:
http://www.morrisflipsenglish.com/blog-ion-lucidity/why-were-making-pupp...
http://www.morrisflipsenglish.com/blog-ion-lucidity/how-taylor-swift-bec...
http://www.morrisflipsenglish.com/blog-ion-lucidity/how-to-puppet-with-y...

And here's the YouTube playlist with the puppet videos I use:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLwzdi80uZ8mvVg7EAuAHQ23zLIIk0tE-j

If you (or anyone else) want to talk about it more, tweet or email me (guster4lovers@gmail.com)! Puppets change everything, especially in the students' hands.

(2)
Monique's picture
Monique
Educator

Thank you, Cheryl! I was not able to access several of the links. Could you double-check them and post the correct links, if these might need a few fixes?

(1)
Valkyrie Savage's picture

I'm a PhD student studying human computer interaction at UC Berkeley, but incidentally I'm also on a conference committee this year planning a student innovation contest. The theme this year is animatronics (i.e., robot puppets!) and designing tools that will make them easier for students to work with. We are targeting high school students, but better tools could help more than just them. :)

If any of you might know students (18+, high school-PhD) interested in building software tools to make working with animatronics easier, point them towards our contest! We've got $6k in prizes. http://uist.acm.org/uist2015/contest

Cheryl Morris (@guster4lovers)'s picture
Cheryl Morris (@guster4lovers)
6th Grade Humanities Teacher and 6th Grade Team Leader, Del Mar Middle School, Marin CA

Hi Monique - I just double checked the links and they do work for me. Another way to access them is to google "morrisflipsenglish puppet" and you should find them. The post titles are Why We're Making Puppets in the First Week of School from 8/26/14, How Taylor Swift Became a Chicken: or why we made puppets in 6th grade from 9/19/14, and How to Puppet With Your Students from 9/20/14. Hope that helps!

Rita Sev's picture

I teach 7th Grade, and we make puppets every year. The students work together writing a script adapted from a chapter in The Hobbit, then they create puppets for each character and act out the story. The entire unit takes a few weeks; it combines high-tech with low tech - collaborating on Google Docs/learning to sew, etc - the kids LOVE this activity. :)

Christopher30's picture

I teach Kindergarten and my students would love this. I have a design clothing background and prep work is truly helpful to the process. I can not wait to start this project! Thank you for the spark!!

Jane Silva's picture
Jane Silva
Substitute Teacher

I clicked on link for instructional videos (on how to make the puppets), but they took me to student/puppet proper noun video. Where are videos on how to make the puppets? Thanks! Teaching art now, K-5.

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