Really Worth Something | Ryan Conarro

From the air, the village of Kwigillingok Alaska in LKSD, with the school in the foreground Aug 2011

This school year, I’m facilitating a puppetry-based arts integration project in the Lower Kuskokwim School District in southwest Alaska, as part of their grant-funded Pilinguat (“Making Things”) Program. I’m a theater teaching artist and am new to puppetry work myself. After a series of professional training experiences in puppetry last summer, I felt a sense of anxious anticipation about the task ahead. I stumbled upon the writings of Waldorf educator and puppeteer Bronja Zahlingen, and her words stayed with me:

It is important for the development of the child’s senses that he can watch a [puppet] play take place in actual space—otherwise his sense organs are easily made passive…The simplicity and transparency of our table [puppet] plays calls forth the child’s powers of imagination, and he is right in the midst of all that takes place. Through this, the creative power for his own play as well as for his own movement and language development are stimulated. (A Lifetime of Joy, Waldorf Early Childhood Association, 2004)

I appreciated Zahlingen’s articulation of the importance of steering young people away from the television screen—her assertion that raw, unrefined storytelling might serve young people.  And I wondered whether puppet work might have unique value in rural Alaska, where the American education system arrived as an essentially colonial enterprise, imposing itself on the Native cultures here, and—along with Christian missionaries and the rise of a cash economy—resulting, in some communities, in a sense of disenfranchisement among village adults and young people alike.

LKSD Eek students experiment with puppet dialogue in a writing integration project Aug 2011

Students are required to stay in school, but often the education they’re getting there doesn’t feel relevant to them. They watch television and cruise the internet and glimpse a world beyond their own, which is presented as seemingly more appealing than the place they live in. They muddle through school and, too often, they drift into passivity—as do many of their teachers and parents.

In the past few decades, local communities, school boards, and school districts have rallied to fight this insidious, slow motion wave of inertia. The Pilinguat Program is one such effort. Its administrators and artists posit that if we can inject into the classroom aesthetic sensibility, physical action, and a valuing of individual creation, then we might grow the rate of “success” of our students, whether they choose to leave the village for college, or stay to become leaders in their communities.

Could Zahlingen’s words be true, that a student’s “creative power” might be “stimulated” by puppets? On the eve of my first day working with students and teachers in the classroom in this art form that’s new to me, I suddenly felt nervous.

Kwigillingok primary students design shadow puppets with geometric shapes in a math integration project Aug 2011

LKSD Kwigillingok high school students build a bunraku puppet using rope, paper, and tape August 2011

…A few days later, I was in the high school classroom at Kwigillingok, a village near the Bering Sea coast. By this point in my visit, students had built simple bunraku-style puppets: small human figures made with rope, paper, and tape. Each puppet required three students to operate it.  Today, the task was to choreograph the puppet’s movement across a table-top obstacle course, demonstrate a brief conflict, and then exit the puppet.

The classroom teacher pulled me aside and pointed to a group of three boys. “Look at them,” she said. “I’ve never seen them that focused before. That’s really worth something.” As they moved their puppet across the pile of books, the high schoolers were all gazing intently at the puppet. On occasion, one of the three would break the spell and introduce a creative idea to his partners: “Maybe we could have the puppet do push-ups here”; or, “Let’s try jumping all the way across the desk.”  I watched as the group attempted each idea, laughing, smiling, and listening to each other.

When the boys performed their bunraku piece for the rest of the group, it was a delight, both for them and for their audience. The first few weeks of classroom puppetry projects continued with similar successes. I was thrilled with the positive experiences I was sharing with students and teachers, and buoyed by the sense of true collaborative learning I was beginning to experience as I found my way through facilitating projects with puppets.

Our puppet projects will continue this winter with visits to several other schools in the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s Pilinguat Program.  My initial concerns have been replaced with an eagerness to discover the else I might learn, and with growing faith in the possibility that puppetry can engage students’ “creative power,” that perhaps the young people involved in puppetry “can also be helped to become [people] of independence and creative activity.”

Ryan Conarro demonstrates bunraku puppet movement with LKSD arts program administrator Julie McWilliams & Kwigillingok classroom teacher Kathy Harsch Aug 2011

LKSD Eek middle school students perform with fabric marionettes August 2011

Ryan Conarro demonstrates shadow puppet movement for LKSD Eek primary students August 2011

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