Kids open up to puppet instructors, learn about empathy & diversity

MONKTON — Children learn a lot from their peers. On Tuesday at Monkton Central School, those peers were cuddly and made out of foam.
Colorful, kid-size puppets that performed at the school Tuesday helped the Monkton children learn about and express their thoughts on diversity, learning differences, ADHD, and feelings.
Guidance Counselor Carolyn Tatlock was instrumental in bringing the Puppets in Education troupe to Monkton Central for a series of performances incorporating Q&A sessions. For Tatlock, the most important goal of the day was building empathy toward kids who seem different.
“That’s a really important connection right now in our country,” she said. “And  it’s a universal skill. No matter if you’re in rural Vermont or you’re in another country or you’re in a city, we all have to learn how to have empathy.”
Tatlock also liked that “the kids were really excited, really enjoyed it and were super respectful listeners.”
The program varied throughout the day, geared to different ages. The third- and fourth-graders saw presentations on learning differences and on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, also known as ADHD. The fifth- and sixth-graders saw one puppet show on learning differences and then engaged in a hands-on workshop.
As the K-2 audience sat cross-legged on the floor, a puppet-kid named Nguyen Huy Nam tells his friend Melody, who’s African American, that life would be a lot better if he could just be plain, old American-sounding “Brad.” But Melody asks Nam if he really thinks he has to give up his Vietnamese name, heritage and culture just to fit in?
With his friend’s help, Nam realizes he doesn’t want to give up his name anymore than he wants to give up celebrating Tet, the Vietnamese New Year’s celebration, complete with his grandmother’s sticky rice cakes.
In another skit for the school’s youngest learners, the puppets acted out a feeling and the kids got to guess what feeling was being represented and share what makes them feel sad or mad or happy and excited.
As the puppets asked the students about how they can express their feelings, the children gave real answers.
What do you do when you’re sad because a friend won’t play with you? Try giving yourself a hug, one of the puppets suggested.
“I go play with my brother,” offered one girl.
What makes you mad and what do you do about it?
One young man said that when his brother takes his toys he likes to shoot him with his Nerf gun and then calm down by doing back flips on his bed.
Others confided that when they feel bad they might go talk to mom, dad or Mrs. Tatlock.
One kid asked Nam and Melody what school they go to. Another asked Melody how she got her glasses.
Puppeteer Karen Sharpwolf, who’s been with Puppets in Education for about 10 years, got a kick out of the children.
“I enjoy the honesty that comes from the kids, their unfiltered questions, the compassion they show — especially for a puppet who’s bullied,” she said.
Sharpwolf said that Burlington-based Puppets in Education uses original scripts and scripts from national programs such as Kids on the Block and Friend 2 Friend. Kids on the Block creates educational puppet shows on a range of issues such as coping with divorce and healthy snacking. Friend 2 Friend creates programs on autism.
Sharpwolf said that some of the Puppets in Education puppets are made by a Burlington puppetmaker and some are purchased from other sources across the country.
The big-as-a-kid puppets are around three and a half feet tall, wear colorful school clothes and represent a range of ethnicities. They look quite similar to Bert and Ernie from “Sesame Street,” and like many of the Muppets are essentially rod-and-hand-type puppets.
As Sharpwolf and compatriot Sarah Vogelsang-Card explained to the kids, the group also draws on the 400-year-old Japanese Bunraku tradition. The puppeteers wear all black, including black gloves and black hoods over their heads, and perform standing beside and behind the puppets — present yet invisible.
Puppets in Education, now in its 35th year, currently presents 24 different interactive programs. Over the past eight years, the troupe has reached over 70,000 children. The program has proven to be effective in helping kids learn about and talk about such difficult topics as child abuse and bullying.
Tatlock and Monkton Principal Betsy Knox said they were grateful for support from the Vermont Department of Health and the Tari Shattuck Education Foundation to help bring the program to the school.
Tatlock said she felt that the interactive puppet shows together with the workshop for fifth- and sixth-graders helped kids jumpstart some difficult conversations and broadened kids’ understanding of how culture varies from home to home. She also said the day’s presentations will augment the social skills curriculum she teaches throughout the year.
“Being able to understand how someone else is feeling, that’s how we can have discussions with people. It doesn’t mean that I have to believe what somebody else believes, but being able to discuss — that’s definitely one of the most critical needs that we have right now.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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