Wait Time: Communicating Through Puppetry in a Rural Alaska School | Ryan Conarro

It was early December. Outside, a steady wind was whipping snow into curling drifts around the school building. Inside, it was silent. I was in the 3T classroom at Akiuk School in the Yup’ik Alaska Native village of Kasigluk. The students were sitting quietly at their desks, each with a puppet  lying on the tabletop in front of them. I’d asked a student a question. And I was waiting. The student was reticent to speak in front of his peers. I encounter such diffidence regularly among Yup’ik young people, at all age levels. Each time, I find myself struggling to nudge students to take risks while at the same time acknowledging their cultural and personal boundaries. So there I was, unsure of what to do next, with the student seated quietly before me. I was waiting.

Akiuk School is part of the Lower Kuskokwim School District, based in Bethel, Alaska. The district hosts a strong arts integration program called Project Pilinguat  (“to create” or “to make”). This is my sixth year visiting Akiuk School. If you come to the school in late spring or early fall, when the river is still open, you’re met by someone at the Kasigluk airstrip who leads you to a small flat-bottom skiff with an outboard motor. You find a place to sit among your bags and the gas and oilcans, then ride the mile or so down the Johnson River to Akiuk, where the school is. It seems like nothing surrounds this place but flat green tundra and great blue sky. A string of power lines stretches off across the lakes and ponds toward the next village a few miles away.

In cold-weather visits like this December trip, that boat is replaced by a snowmachine.(The school has a yellow machine; the principal likes to call it “the school bus.”) Suitcases and supplies—along with mail and cases of soda pop and anything else that might have arrived on the plane with you—are heaped into a plywood sled hooked to the machine. You hop in the sled as well, or on the backseat of the machine if you’re lucky and there’s room. It’s a bumpy, cold ride along the river, where small willow trees have been drilled into the ice every twenty feet or so to help drivers stick to the trail when wind or a storm kicks up.

The driver of the boat or snowmachine is usually a school maintenance staffer. Sometimes I get a ride from the village airline agent, who spends her day listening to the VHF radio scratching in the corner of her kitchen, waiting for the next plane to approach so she can drop off cargo and pick up bags of mail. These jobs are some of the few sources of cash income in most rural Alaska villages. Other community members who get paychecks include the post office clerk; the cashier at “the Native store,” the general store owned and operated by the local Native corporation; and the staffers at the city council and tribal offices. Some communities have a village police officer, too. Many people subsist on hunting and fishing for food and animal skins, as their predecessors have done for generations. Nowadays, grant funds and subsidy checks help families with the cost of fuel, guns, and other amenities like fleece pullovers or fresh milk.

Meanwhile, at the village school, young people are learning content driven by mandates from the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. Sometimes, what they’re learning doesn’t seem to have direct application to life in the village. There is a slow-growing movement to increase the corps of Yup’ik teachers in this region; usually, though, the teachers are outsiders, as am I.

For my December visit to Akiuk School, the bulk of my baggage consisted of plastic bins stuffed with puppet-making materials—dowels, fabric, foam balls, glue, and more. This year in Project Pilinguat, I’m focusing on puppetry work with students and teachers—leading in-class puppetry lessons to support academic instruction, as well as designing and rehearsing student puppet performances for the district-wide arts event in Bethel coming at the end of the school year.

At Akiuk, I spent a fair bit of time with the “3T” students—children who are 3rd-grade aged, in a classroom where the teacher’s attention is on transitioning them (hence the “T”) out of Yup’ik-language-only instruction and into English-language instruction. This process of shifting students from Yup’ik to English immersion becomes a necessity for the administrators of the school and the district, beholden as they are to Department of Education mandates, because students begin taking state standardized tests in the 3rd grade. From here forward into upper grade levels, students will attend classes in the tested content areas in English, and Yup’ik class will become a “special,” like P.E. or music.

When I met with the 3T teacher to plan an arts lesson, she requested a sequence that integrated with writing. I in turn prepared a project in which students would write dramatic dialogues using Peeper Puppets. A Peeper Puppet is a simple ring with 2 eyeballs attached. The ring slips onto a finger, transforming the student’s hand itself into a puppet body.

The project started out successfully: the students were enthralled by the first appearance of my Peeper Puppet (“Poindexter,” so named by students at another LKSD school), and they showed sustained interest in the puppets as we explored hand physicality and puppet voice.

My next step was to ask students to work together to play out physical conflicts between their two puppets. Then, I asked each group to articulate their puppet conflicts in a sentence or two, and to share those conflicts aloud. From there, we would work to write spoken dialogue for the puppets as they performed the conflicts.

I knew that this step in the process—asking students to address the class about their puppet conflicts—was risky. Many students are loath to speak in front of their peers, certainly. But this “shyness” seems consistent among most Yup’ik students. In my first two years of working in these classrooms, I was loath to challenge any student who invoked “shyness.” It was a cultural issue, a school staff member told me: Yup’ik people are shy. When one student would claim shyness, often other students would chime in and confirm that he or she was indeed shy. The classroom teacher would sometimes agree as well. As a non-Native, non-Yup’ik-speaking outsider, I felt it best to defer to this affliction and shift my focus to other students in the given group.

Now, six years into my work with Project Pilinguat—and with deeper relationships with several Yup’ik teachers and administrators—I understand this “shyness” differently. Yes, some students are shy and find it difficult, even seemingly painful, to stand or speak in front of their peers. And the pace and rhythm of communication among Yup’ik language speakers is often different from my own; I’ve learned to provide more “wait time” for students to answer questions, and they frequently admonish me for speaking too fast for them to understand. I blush and try again, more slowly. But I also know that the Yup’ik culture has an ancient and living tradition of performance art.  I’ve met Yup’ik students and adults who are comfortable in the spotlight, and some who even seek it: community leaders, lead drummers and dancers in yuraq (Yup’ik dance) groups, even class clowns.

I wonder whether, sometimes, Yup’ik students’ claims of shyness are part of a complicated dance they’ve developed to navigate the educational machinery of the school system here. The system provides curricula that are not native to this language or culture, and those materials presume social codes and communication modes that may not originate here in Yup’ik country. My own drama lessons often make similar presumptions. Something like a fast-paced call-and-response activity, for example, might falter; the students may tend toward quieter or more slowly measured participation. I test my lessons; I realize the assumptions I’ve made; then I do my best to revise the lessons, and I struggle to make them more useful. Meanwhile, classroom teachers and school administrators, many of whom are non-Native outsiders, are sensitive to their students’ suggested shyness. The teachers, generally speaking, are here with good intentions, and they want to help their students learn and grow. So they back off those students who say they’re shy. Perhaps the young people, meanwhile, have learned that wielding this simple three-letter word can give them some sense of power and control. “If I say I’m shy,” they might be thinking, “I won’t be forced to do this activity.”

Day by day and year by year, these cultural challenges arise in Alaskan communities and classrooms. Many teachers, students, and community members are striving, I believe, to do what they feel needs to be done to make the situation better. My role as a teaching artist is one tiny part of that, and I’m employed by the school district in its efforts to improve the landscape system-wide. I view the lessons I model and co-teach as recipes for teachers—experiments, really—to give students more skills to function within the existing curricular system and their broader cross-cultural landscape. I also attempt to give teachers ideas for adapting their instructional processes and their classroom environments to bring them closer to serving students’ cultural and natural instincts and impulses.

And so there we were last December, in the 3T classroom at Akiuk School. That snowy wind was still blowing outside. The students were sitting quietly at their desks, each with a Peeper Puppet. I’d instructed the students not to play with their puppets any more, and to leave them lying on the tabletops in front of them. I’d asked a student a question. And I was waiting.

I repeated my question: “Will you please tell us about your puppet’s conflict? What does your puppet want, and what is the obstacle?”

After a long, quiet wait, the student answered: “My puppet is trying to get out of her cabin, but his puppet won’t move out of the way.”

“Great!” I said.

I looked to another student and asked the same question. The student answered fairly readily, explaining her puppet’s name and the problem the puppet was facing.

I shifted my attention to a third student, a boy wearing an orange tank top. “Tell me about your puppet. What’s its name? What’s the conflict?”

We waited, and waited more. There was no claim of shyness; there was no response at all. I took one of my now-familiar inhalations, coaching myself to wait still longer, to allow the student time to process my words, their context, and this challenge of speaking to the group. We waited.

Slowly, the boy picked up his Peeper Puppet and put it back on his hand. He brought his puppet-hand up to make eye contact with me.

“My name is Fred,” he said, with his hand moving and his eyes on his puppet. “I want to get some bugs from under a log, but she’s blocking me.”

The student’s name is not Fred, of course. That was the puppet speaking. This student did not feel comfortable speaking in front of the group; he was shy, in one or several of the different ways that word might function here. But in his puppet—a simple piece of plastic on his hand—he found an advocate; someone who could speak for him; who could hold the attention of his peers; and who could articulate his own original, imaginative ideas.

It was a simple lesson, maybe even an obvious one. But for me, it was profound in its immediacy: puppetry can provide an alternative means of communication in the classroom, both for teachers and for students. It had been foolishly shortsighted of me to ask the students to put their puppets away before speaking publicly.  The puppets can be vehicles of communication—both written and verbal—for students who struggle to speak and write directly from themselves. Puppets’ lives are imaginary, and as such, they open possibilities for students of new ideas, new realities, new senses of self.

Puppets can provide modes of communicating for adults, too. I remember the first year I came to LKSD. I led a workshop for teachers encouraging them to use “teacher-in-role” strategies in their classrooms. Some of the participants were reluctant to don costume pieces and perform for their students. Two or three teachers spoke to me after the workshop ended, asking, “Have you ever done that with puppets? I could do it better with a puppet.”

No, I’d never tried such activities with a puppet. I shrugged off the proposition then; puppets, to me, seemed rudimentary, overly simple. Now, six years later, I realize that my own thinking was all that was too simple. I’m only sorry I waited this long to include puppetry in my teaching artist work. I’m glad to be exploring the art form now, and grateful that my students are teaching me to listen to their puppets and to wait to hear all the possibilities.

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