I would like to begin by saying how impressed I am at the work done overseas by the US Embassy. In South Africa, I saw that they work hard to make a real impact at grass roots level where it is most needed and can have most impact, and they follow up to support their efforts. The American diplomatic staff works closely with fantastic local core staff who are familiar with the essential issues, the communities, and local networks. This was my first (and long awaited) visit to the African continent. Before leaving the US, I was informed by the US Embassy RELO (Regional English Language Officer) in Pretoria that the focus they hoped I could address was not so much
on English language teaching as these tours usually require, but on literacy: a very major problem in the country. I was very excited about this, as this is always a core of my school residency work at home in New Orleans. I received a schedule summary for the two and a half week tour which included workshops for teachers as well as performances for youth. There were to be several surprises requiring last minute adjustments in this extremely inspiring experience.
Puppet Theater Performances
I will begin here as this was my first experience on the tour. A school performance was listed, I was told for 150-200 students (called learners in South Africa). 600 children actually filled the auditorium, wall to wall – and were an excellent, participating-as-well-as-listening audience.
Another audience of fifth graders another day and school was also responsive and thoughtful in post show comments. It seemed to me that the very strong storytelling traditions in the culture lead children to seek meaning in stories beyond simple entertainment. In post show Q & A, they shared morals that they found on their own in these stories. For example, The Hare and the Tortoise has to me, always been about not giving up. However, several students in different venues expressed that it was about the loss the Hare brought on himself through his bragging and over confidence. Many of the learners had never seen puppet theater before and were clearly enthusiastic and engaged in this way of communicating stories. Also, since the show was in English, and the children responded appropriately both during and after the show, this allowed English comprehension practice, as very few if any spoke English as their home language in this nation of 11 official languages.
The theme of universal fables was commented on by school faculty as appreciated and appropriate for their learners.
The teacher workshops were all fantastic, though sometimes presented unique challenges. One was a very large group of 50, when I had support materials, such as scissors, for only 25, but sharing worked fine – and we had more stories to see! Some occurred after I had used up all the construction materials I had brought, but the teachers had been asked to bring a list of recycled materials, which they used for very creative puppet making. I always make sure that any materials I use in demonstration are available to the groups I will work with. In the townships here, I learned, materials are extremely limited and I received many positive comments about the puppet samples I brought using recycled materials. Every group, when they understood that they would create their own stories on curriculum connected themes of their own choice, enthusiastically collaborated.
There were two workshop classes of teacher supervisors near Pretoria whose areas were math, and another, IT, which I expected to be a disaster as the wrong group for what I had to share. But they did fantastically creative work in the low tech media of shadow puppetry, to communicate learning in their topic areas. They commented on the power of puppetry for their high school students to use to organize and share their learning.
We just told the teachers to make their presentations relevant to their specialty topics. They did exactly that!
One story was of a poor man and his over-productive avocado tree. The tree told the man he should go to a business school to learn how to sell the fruit. He does just that, learning specific approaches to business, and returns to the tree ready to make a living. The story carried teachable concepts, within human emotions and reality.
These are a few evaluations from these groups:
“Thank you for an excellent presentation! Allowing us to be physically involved. Learnt that bringing puppets into the class encourages learning. Abstract learning is boring while puppet learning is fun as it brings abstract to life.”
“All good. Will use to introduce complex concepts in class.”
“Learnt to make puppets and use it to teach any subject. Its very effective. Its easy to do and has infinite uses in the class. Will demonstrate to teachers in a meeting.”
“I have learned that a lot of recycled materials can be helpful in making our learners great readers with understanding. Thanks. Keep up the good work across the whole world.”
“The presentation was very educational and progressive. I really found this interesting. I so wish the program was for more than a day.”
“Eye opening workshop. This is inclusive education at its best.”
The three day session with pre-school teachers in Umlazi Township was also a joy as some teachers seemed hesitant at first to speak in front of a group of peers, and blossomed into expressive puppeteers. Much interest by the teachers of younger children was in using the medium simply to engage their students’ attention. Many classes here are enormous, certainly contributing to the literacy problem. Also, in this nation of eleven official languages, many children’s home language is different from the language used at school. The teachers spoke of using the simple power of shadow (and other) puppets to introduce lessons, to influence behavior, to communicate classroom rules, and of course, for storytelling. I learned mid-workshop that the final day would be at a school to allow the teachers to present the work they were creating in the workshop to a class of children. This was a brilliant idea on the part of the embassy planners, as now the teachers had actual experience on the effectiveness of their work. During the workshop, they presented in English, however, for the children, they presented in Zulu as this was the home language of these children who were just beginning to learn English. The children were enthralled and had almost as much fun as the teachers!
I highly appreciated that the venues selected by the embassy were almost all for teachers in township schools – areas of greatest need.
Workshop for Learners at the Mae Jamison U.S. Science Reading Room: an American Spaces partnership between the University of Pretoria and the US Embassy.
The American Spaces are where the US Embassy holds free, publicized events in support of junior high and high school students. The students learn about educational opportunities such as scholarships, have access to online resources, and practice English, among other activities. I was scheduled for a performance here, but decided a workshop would be a better experience for these 8th graders. I didn’t realize how big a group it would be (about 80!). They were very cooperative, creative, and enthusiastic!
I am including publicity in a category here because I did so many interviews, and there was so much interest in puppetry in South Africa – both as performance, and as arts integration media. The Information and Media office at the Pretoria Embassy office, made connections not only with various journals, radio and tv stations, but also with an actual children’s educational show, The Epic Hangout. I ended up filming a full episode and a segment for another episode starting early on a Sunday morning before the three hour road trip to the next day’s workshops. The show allowed me to work with one adult and three youth cast members to show and discuss puppetry as a world wide tradition and puppeteers as a world wide family. The young actors even created a quick story, made puppets, and performed their work. They were so much fun to work with. And their presentation, with my instructions, also demonstrated for the home viewers how to do this.
These publicity experiences have encouraged me to do more at home to share lessons and activities publicly, maybe through a Youtube channel.
Most of the publicity links are available here https://za.usembassy.gov/american-puppeteer-enthralls-south-african-audiences/