Home > NPR and Vermont Public Radio > Puppets help students open up, teach values

Puppets help students open up, teach values

Originally aired May 27, 2009

Original Link: Puppets help students open up, teach values

(Host) It’s no secret that education is effective when it’s entertaining. For nearly three decades, one Vermont organization has used large, colorful puppets to teach young students across the state a wide variety of values.

Kids on the Block-Vermont is an educational puppeteer troupe that has performed nearly 20 shows around the state in the month of May alone.

VPR’s Jason Bushey reports.

(Jason Bushey) It’s a sunny weekday afternoon in Addison, Vermont, and with summer looming just a few weeks away, it can be hard for a class of fourth graders to stay focused on the everyday curriculum. But today the kids will learn a little differently – for the next half-hour, puppets will be doing the teaching.

(Josiah Pearsall) “My name is Josiah.”

(Nancy Hellen) “And my name is Nancy.”

(Josiah Pearsall) “And we are with Kids on the Block-Vermont.”

(Bushey)  Kids on the Block-Vermont is a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing child abuse and promoting healthy lifestyles by getting kids to open up about their personal problems and warning them about risky behavior.

For 27 years, the group has traveled throughout Vermont, educating students K through 8 while armed with a special tool children can relate to – puppets.

Long-time Executive Director Deb Lyons talked about how the organization uses what she called “powerful puppetry” to educate young Vermonters.

(Deb Lyons) “Puppets are engaging. Puppets are safe. Puppets are non-threatening. Puppets can share really important and sometimes life-saving types of information.”

(Bushey) But as Lyons explained, these aren’t just any puppets.

(Lyons) “Well, the puppets are about three and a half feet tall and they look like the muppets in terms of a large head and a mouth that can open and that’s what allows us to do our lip-synch. Because we dress all in black when we’re performing, we blend into the black ground. …. …. …. And then the puppets are just standing on the stage. So they’re kids talking to other kids.”

(Bushey) The puppets come in all sorts of shapes, and – most importantly – backgrounds. There’s Renaldo, a blind 11-year-old who teaches children that despite his disability, he’s just like any other kid. Or there’s Mark, who has cerebral palsy and enjoys what he refers to as “cruising” around on his wheelchair.

(Lyons) “Each puppet has their own story and that story stays with them forever. Anywhere we go everybody will know, “Oh yeah I remember her she talked about cultural difference, or I remember Mark, he talked about what it’s like to have cerebral palsy and use a wheelchair, and oh yeah Renaldo he’s blind and he showed us how to use his cane. The consistency is really helpful.”

(Bushey) After every Kids on the Block performance, the puppets ask the students for suggestions on how to help deal with the problems they are presenting to the class.

Then, the organization uses interactive games – like this Jeopardy spin-off – to quiz the kids on what they’ve just learned.

(Hellen)  “The media – magazines, TV, movies – present thinness as the ideal female image and this as the ideal male image.”

(Child) “Muscular?”

(Josiah) “Muscular is what we were looking for.”

(Children shouting, laughing)

(Bushey) As a puppeteer, Josiah Pearsall has seen first-hand the effect one performance can have on getting a child the help he needs.

Pearsall recalls one performance where a child speaking directly to his puppet, named “Steven,” admitted to being abused by his mother.

(Pearsall) “Steven” went through the same thing and is like, “Yeah I use to make up stories to try and hide what my mom did,” and then Steven turns to the kid and says, “You should really tell someone what’s going on.” And the kid, who had been very nonchalant and calm about sharing this, suddenly freezes up and shakes his head violently and says, “No I’m not telling anyone.” He was just talking to a puppet and he was very calm about it and the minute I suggested telling somebody he says he’s not going to tell anybody.”

(Bushey) At the end of the performance, Pearsall said the child met with the school’s guidance counselor, who was then able to use the information revealed by the puppets and take the necessary steps toward getting the child help.

(Pearsall)  “So the great thing is that information did get out even though he wasn’t ready to share it.”

(Bushey)  Executive Director Deb Lyons, who was inspired to write her first grant for the organization in the late Eighties after her own child became the victim of abuse, talked about the lasting effect Kids on the Block-Vermont has had on thousands of students around the state.

(Lyons) “We meet so many people that all talk to us about their personal situations and what difference the puppets have made in their lives. To have high school students come to us and say I want to do my community service with you because I saw the puppets say it’s not OK, this touching problem stuff is not OK when I was in first grade and because the puppet said I should tell somebody I did and then I got help. We know that we’re making a difference.”

(Bushey) Despite running on what Lyons called a “shoe-string” budget, Kids on the Block-Vermont will continue its mission to educate over 13,000 students, educators and parents in the upcoming year.

For VPR News, I’m Jason Bushey.

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