Lessons Learned from Doing a ‘Big Production’

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Joined: 14 Dec 2004
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Location: Virginia, USA

PostPosted: Sun Nov 06, 2005 1:34 pm
PostPost subject: Lessons Learned from Doing a ‘Big Production’
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What follows is an account of 10 days working online with Elly Mallen who teaches near San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Adventures in Online Training & Partnering—
Lessons Learned from Doing a ‘Big Production’

Elly was teaching young children last year, and began teaching 3rd and 4th graders this year. It has been quite an adjustment for her.

She was planning to begin new puppet strategies when she was approached last week, as many so-called creative teachers often are, to volunteer by her principal. The principal had been approached by the head administrator who happens to be a priest in her school Collegio San Piedras, a well-respected religious school.. An author was coming to the school to read from her recently published storybook. The administrator had heard about Elly’s puppetools puppets, and wondered if she could make some puppets to be used in the upcoming Author Visit & Storybook Reading Event. There were 9 animal characters. The school head would be the one reading the story and using the puppets.

Elly was as busy as anybody else—busier—but she agreed. She was excited about seeing puppetools be part of a school wide event. She has been wanting to get other teachers involved. Since the author was on tour, Puppetools would also be seen in other schools.

Elly believes in puppetools—it has done amazing things for her. She told me that she had given away all her cloth puppets because they were too cumbersome and not easily adapted for her teaching. I had been out of touch with Elly for a while. There were connectivity problems on her home lines, and she was not easy to reach at school. So when I reached her on Sunday, she was getting nervous about her deadline 5 days away on Friday. Suddenly she was under a lot of pressure.

I felt guilty. I didn’t want my teachers burdened with big productions. This is not an isolated problem. Creative teachers are targets. If more teachers had creative self-esteem, the pressure would not build on one or two individuals. I believe that a school can be filled with creative teachers. I appreciated Elly’s enthusiasm. I wanted to do everything I could to help her meet the deadline, and to make the event truly successful.

There were already a number of problems we would have to overcome. Although she had begun working at home on the puppets, she had no Internet at home. (She could be reached by cell.) She only had access to the web site at school. She would have to obtain all the puppet ‘ideas’ on Monday, and aim to have the puppets constructed by Tuesday—
a tall order. On Wednesday she would meet with the school head and show him storytelling techniques—for he would do the reading on stage. I sent Elly guidelines for making the puppets and organizing the on-stage reading which would be presented before multiple audiences ranging from pre-k to 6 and numbering well over 500 kids at a seating.

On Monday, the head-of-school visited her classroom and he immediately bonded with Elly’s pig puppet. He was a good storyteller and immediately saw how the puppets could support the reading. Elly watched the Rainbow Crow video on the site home page that also provided a Book & Puppet methodology.

On Tuesday, the principal and head of school asked Elly to make additional ‘scenery—a chapel and a wall. Elly, as politely as she could, said no. Further, it was storming all day. There was no Internet at school, and time was lost.

On Wednesday, the principal leaned harder on Elly about the scenery, and Elly relented. Not only did she not have the puppets made, but now she was scrambling. She was angry and upset. She called her uncle, a retired carpenter. He would help her make the scenery that night. My last contact with Elly was Wednesday afternoon when the cell battery gave out. The grand puppet event was turning into a disaster. Taking on a creative project is difficult enough without having the world around you take even more advantage of you. On top of this, she was teaching all day. I felt very bad—and helpless.

On Thursday, Elly and I finally had a work session. Using the site search function, she quickly found the puppet examples she wanted. When we found the owl, we both discovered that she really had not fully understood how the paper hinge works—for example, that the wrist should be bent; that things like wings, legs, and bodies should be glued to the back of the hinge. She was learning some important essentials and building the puppets at the same time. Call it “Just in Time Training.” We viewed several slide shows together, and I realized how hard it was not to be able to pause the construction slide shows, and made a note to fix that!

On Thursday night we connected once more. She was on a roll. Her uncle had helped her by building the façade of a simple chapel. The puppets were all coming together. I prayed for no more surprises

On Friday morning, The Day of The Reading, Elly called. I picked up the phone to a burst of happiness, “Jeff, they are beautiful. They love them!” I let out a loud laugh and a release of tension. I could hear her class bubbling with voices and happy energy. The head-of-school came on the phone. He was grateful and happy. Elly had somehow prevailed. With little sleep, pride and relief buoyed her voice.

She would call again later that morning to tell me that the program went wonderfully. And we would talk later when she would try (unsuccessfully) to email 12 pictures of the event. During that conversation, it stormed—in central Virginia a drought-breaking rain came down in buckets for the first time in 2 months—and my electricity went out. I shook my head. This online stuff is a myth—at least in part. Not all teachers are computer literate—not even Elly’s computer resource teacher was able to successfully gmail the pictures. And I wonder what kinds of stories and experiences you who are reading this have had with computers. Using a computer is not easy for many teachers, and that fact may partly explain why many of you are not participating actively.

I think the lessons here are this: Without online connectivity, Elly would not know about using puppets, certainly not to the extent that she does now. Neither would she believe in them so deeply, nor would she have had this valuable experience. Because she was able to weather the storm, she will certainly be a stronger self-advocate, and an even more valuable resource for her school.

It’s fair to say that Elly took on too much, but it was her belief in the medium that made her act on behalf of her school. I call that leadership and selflessness and risk-taking. Schools need more of this human energy. Perhaps it’s easier in Puerto Rico for such creative pioneering to take place because schools are not locked down by standardization and accountability.

Considering the visibility of the event, and how complex the effort was to have one teacher working online constructing 9 puppets to be used by someone else in a staged reading, some credit has to go to the practical ease of Puppetools even in the most intense of circumstances.

Now that the Event is over, Elly plans to make some puppets to deal with two girls in her class who have been uncooperative and disruptive. She knows now that making the puppets is no problem. More important, she knows that whatever she tries has a very good chance of working. She is developing literacy on two fronts: in her use of ‘play language’ (which she is becoming a skilled practitioner of) and in the use of the computer. Both fronts have their challenges and surprises, but isn’t the willingness to be surprised and to even screw up what we all need in order to learn?
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