Puppetry Offers Creative Approach to Teaching

BROOKLYN, NY–  Soon after the Puppetry in Practice (PIP) Center opened in 1980 under the direction of its founder Tova Ackerman, it became evident to Ackerman and her colleagues that puppetry could be a useful vehicle for developing language skills, especially for children learning a new language. Such an approach allows teachers to talk about art, math, history, and even address the diverse cultures that make up New York City, while motivating students to participate in a creative activity.

“In the classroom, kids get excited and come up with characters and ideas, and dialogues,” Ackerman explains. “It offers them a kind of freedom few other activities do,” says the retired schoolteacher, who holds a doctorate in English as a Second Language (ESL) and started the center with no resources but an empty room in James Hall.

Teachers and principals from the schools who have hired PIP’s services for three decades agree. And so do the generations of puppeteers, artists, songwriters, illustrators, and actors who have worked at PIP. Not to mention the thousands of children in the five boroughs who have had fun while learning new skills, including, among other things, story writing, and stop-motion animation.

“Federal funding at Brooklyn’s P.S. 94 allowed PIP to develop a methodology for teaching English as a Second Language that is still used at many schools,” says Ackerman.

Today, thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council for the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, PIP has continued to develop teaching modules that can be adapted to fit different curriculum needs, tapping different sets of skills among school children.

Take, for example, the “Bridging Brooklyn” project. While second grade students will research the history and construction of the 19th-century bridge, third graders will explore the folk tales of the diverse ethnic groups that were part of the city’s fabric when it was being built. Other students will make and wear paper-made elephant masks to re-enact the elephant parade across the bridge that took place a year after it opened in 1883.

Currently in its second year, the project is active in five different elementary schools, and students work with PIP artists, such as Angelo DeCesare, an author-illustrator who introduces kids to story writing at a beginner level; and Xun Ye (pronounced Schwinn Yee), a Chinese master puppeteer who has been 13 years with PIP.

For a reasonable, below-cost fee, one of PIP’s artists establishes a 20-day long stay at the hiring school, assisting teachers and students with the module. In addition, the center offers professional development to teachers of participating schools, and grants residences to artists and teachers who’d like to learn more.

“Puppetry in Practice is part of our fabric,” says Principal Cecilia Kaplinsky from P.S. 116, which has 660 students from pre-K to fifth grade. “Art integrates things for children and nourishes special talents. It makes us complete.”

PIP’s approach is not just confined to younger children. Alexandra Evan and Xun are working with seventh graders learning Mandarin at P.S. 246, making Chinese masks and performing Chinese operas. Third grade students at P.S. 315 meanwhile are exploring the Anansi tales of Africa and creating stop-motion animations with PIP artists Jason Leinwand and Alexandra Evans.

Ackerman is confident that this model can be replicated and says that her next project will be to help local students establish contact with sister school in Sierra Leone, so that they can learn about the culture there.

“The School of Education, in partnership with PIP, is continuing their work with a school in Freetown Sierra Leone to share African folklore through the Arts,” said Dean Deborah Shanley. “We are excited by the new possibilities and the richness of the cultural context into which the project will expand this year.”

Contact: Ernesto Mora / 718-951-6377 / emora@brooklyn.cuny.edu