Woodside kindergarten class learn with puppetry

By Patrick Donachie

The students in a kindergarten class at Public School 229 in Woodside listened as Kirsten Kammermeyer, the class’ teacher-artist, held up a tiny face mask. She told the children that they could turn the blank paper into the face of a mountain lion by gluing strips of orange and yellow construction paper to the mask, a type of crafting called decoupage.

“With the mountain lion, we also need to use our arms and claws,” Kammermeyer told the class.

“Big claws!” one student replied.

The project was part of “Bridges,” a 15-week program created by ArtsConnection, one of the nation’s largest arts educational organizations. The program, a professional development process for 75 early childhood teachers working in grades K-2 in five different city schools, utilizes puppetry as a way to strengthen literacy in students. According to the teachers in the PS 229 class, the gains the students made transcended literacy improvements.

“We had kids coming in who couldn’t express their wants,” said Lauren Gioia-Chamberlain, one of the teachers in the class. She spoke of a student who had entered the class with significant motor and speech difficulties. “Now she’s speaking more and saying what she needs.”

The teachers said the program was a marked contrast to the core standards that needed to be met in the classroom. Gioia-Chamberlain found the ArtsConnection approach to be a respite that still fulfilled curriculum requirements.

“We’re teaching the curriculum in a new way,” she said. “And it’s their own unique work. They own it.”

Maggie Fishman, ArtsConnection’s director of practitioner research, said using puppetry, crafts and performance could successfully impart the necessary lessons for students.

“The kids don’t always understand how the stories have a sequence, but once they start acting them out, all those things they’re supposed to be learning about story, they take them in,” she said. “You can have literacy learning that is also fun.”

This is the first year of the program’s implementation, and the teachers will work with and learn from “teacher-artists” such as Kammermeyer throughout the process. Fishman said the teachers themselves would integrate the puppetry practices into their own teaching methods in years to come. “Bridges” has been funded with a four-year research grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The class at PS 229 (one of five kindergarten classes incorporating the program in the school) was making the masks and puppets in preparation for their performance of “The Growing Rock,” a traditional Native American folktale that Kammermeyer and the students have adopted to suit their own creative ideas.

Erin Phelan, the special education teacher for the class, said half of the students in the class had individualized education programs, which is a summary of services required for special education students, and noted that special education students had made particularly striking gains during the “Bridges” program.

At one point, Kammermeyer was ready to pass out ears for the lion that could be glued to the mask.

“You can color in the ears with crayons or continue to decoupage,” she said.

“I want to decoupage!” one student replied.

After the class finished, Phelan said the student had suffered from speech difficulties and a stutter at the beginning of the year. She proudly noted that the student said the word “decoupage” effortlessly and without hesitation.

“You’re seeing such growth in all of the students,” she said.

Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdonachie@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.