My sister gave me the book Street Gang, a history of Sesame Street, and I love how it has made me think about the GIANT collection of people and talent that collaborated to bring the dream of good television for young kids to life.
In the past couple years I have read/ watched/ listened to books and films about some of the most important media in my life, The Muppets, Mister Rogers, and Sesame Street. This has helped me see the much bigger picture of the mission and women and men behind each of these amazing projects.
The groundwork, research, experiments, discoveries and visual vocabulary of learning they created the 1970s-and 80s saved my teaching life almost 40 years later. I am sure that when we look back at education in the early 2000, there will be a great deal of attention to the revolution of technology that helped computers break out of the computer labs and drove established teachers to a crisis of learning, suddenly they had to scramble to master the new tools of learning.
My school had granted my request for a really nice laptop, my first Mac. One of the first video production tests I did with it proved that I could do green screen/ chromakey with this machine. I remember thinking that I had all of the production power that had brought Fragile Rock to life, and it was on my desk. Of course, power sitting on my desk didn’t do anything about the endless pile of grading I was always carting back and forth.
I had completed by EdD studies and I was quickly waking up to the fact that responding to student writing was what I would be doing for the rest of forever unless I expanded my skillset. I was working in a progressive independent school in the Northern California, and while I loved teaching writing, I felt like I wasn’t meeting my own expectations of “exceptional education.”
I knew I needed to begin learning something else, and I even enrolled in a couple of doomed online classes. What was I going to do? From Flipped learning to Kahn’s academy, video-based instruction was blowing, so I set about teaching myself to make videos. Here I, with a bit of ego, see echoes of Fred and Jim. They were questing after goals, and puppets were one of the tools in their quest.
Learning to make videos is a humbling experience, even moreso than teaching and I quickly found it challenging to make enough time to script, record, and edit a full lesson. For a few months I focused on live-capture of the lesson in the classroom. I would screencast the class and post it to the web. I made audio recording with live scribe pens, I struggled to figure out what things were worth my time to create. With the view counts built into the platforms, I could tell when the kids used what I made and when it wasn’t useful to them.
I would bet they were almost as annoyed by my videos as I was. I couldn’t stand watching and listening to them. I really needed someone else’s face and voice in these videos. The question came to me, “I wonder if YouTube can teach me to make puppets?” This is the question I needed to ask and it changed so much of my teaching life.
The man who asked this question was a high school English teacher, he knew nothing about computer programming. The man who asked this question felt trapped in his profession. Today, some 6 (only 6?) years after I created How to Make a Round Head Puppet, I am a Makerspace coordinator for learners gradesPreK through 6, and I wrote a book on computer programming for elementary teachers and kids. I have almost 750 videos on 3 youtube channels, many of them featuring some of the over 200 puppets I have made in that time.
I watched a how to video, made a thing, and then made my own how to video.
It is a complete and honest cycle of creation and learning. I kept building puppets to learn how to do different things.
I didn’t know where any of this was going. My Freshmen English students noticed that I was sewing puppets and they asked how they could get in on the fun. I remember thinking that if I was going to bring the puppets into my class, my reasons needed to be pedagogically unassailable.
I knew I had to be ready for my administrators, colleagues, and class parents when they asked “What’s with the puppets?”- and they asked. Thankfully, the pedagogy and research behind puppets is practically unassailable. Thanks in large part to the work of the Children’s Television Workshop, the Carnegie and Ford foundations.
What I didn’t know was how much my teaching practice would change. The puppets made me happy, and they made the kids happy. It turns out that happy and safe are important components of learning. The puppets helped me find better ways to invite students into and support them in the creative process.
They have always been just one spoke in the wheel. Creativity, student empowerment, equity, literacy, good-humanness, and everyday I see more how they fit.
Puppets are a great tool for getting your brain to do novel things like simulations and metacognition and I keep learning more about it.
I asked 2 questions that night when I wondered if You tube could teach me to make puppets. The second question was deeper. It was a terrified wonder if puppets could help me become the teacher I needed to be, for both myself and my students.
I think it is working. I feel like I do more literacy work on the daily now than I did even in the height of teaching AP Composition.
I am grateful I work in a school that puts so much value in joyful, engaged, learning, and I am thankful for all the excellent educators doing this work before me.