Saturday, February 2, 2013

How and why we do what we do!

Barnes & Noble Puppet Show
This past week I have been reflecting on my experiences with teenagers and puppets. This was caused by several new friends who, when they discovered what I do in my spare time (provide literary puppet programs for children and teenagers), asked, "Teenagers and puppets?  How and why?" I know how and why I do what I do, but it is not always easy to articulate. So, I decided I would put it down on paper. Admittedly, teenagers are a tough crowd. And, since 2005, when I started providing puppet programs for the adolescent crowd, I have worked with a variety of teens. Some excel in school and are headed for college. But others struggle with school, make serious mistakes or have had ugly experiences which landed them in various institutions. Working with those who excel in school is easy. They want to be in the program. They are motivated and energetic. They are the Book Busters and their live programs are wonderful.

But the institutions are a more difficult endeavor. When I first approached several institutions in Seminole County with my puppets and stories, I was met with raised eyebrows and curious looks. I couldn't blame them for thinking that the tough teenagers they housed would not go anywhere near a puppet. But due to a handful of wonderful teachers, the institutions gave me shot. The institutions included the Seminole Regional Juvenile Detention Center, the Eugene Gregory Memorial Youth Academy, Midway Safe Harbor, Boys Town of Oviedo. So, armed with my books, puppets, and a faith that beneath the hardened teen exterior beat the heart of a creative, energetic, and good child, I stepped to the front of the room. Was I received with smiles by my audiences of 2 to 40 teenagers? Well, I might get a few smiles, but the rest? The rest looked at me with blank, bored, disinterested faces. Some kept their heads down. Some looked at me with distrust, caution, even hostility. But regardless, I took a deep breath and launched into my presentation.  

Why in the world did I take that deep breath and begin? Well, what really helps me is that I am convinced I have something to offer. But, I am realistic. I know that the value of my program is not immediately apparent to most teenagers. I accept that it is my job to shock them into becoming interested. So, that is what I do. I look them in the eyes, smile, and read a poem with the voice of a passioned African-American evangelist expecting a huge "Amen" in response. I rap a children's book to music, sing a children's book with an exaggerated voice, demonstrate principles of flight by blowing toilet paper over my audience, tell a story with my best Irish accent, or include a talking dragon puppet. Frankly, the more I am willing to shed my middle class, white, female exterior, the more ridiculous I am willing to be, the more honest my delivery, the more passion I have for the story I am telling, the more my audience will pay attention, the more they will trust that I am actually there to bring them something they might enjoy. Don't get me wrong, with a large crowd, there will be those who continue to sleep or stare at the ceiling. But I'm okay with that. I don't get offended. Things have been rough for them lately and I can't really understand what they have gone through. I am willing to give them a pass.  

But in small groups, I expect and get more. In small groups I offer puppet shows, puppet movies, and poetry jams depending on the institution. It is always my goal to have each teenager participate before I leave. It is tricky, but the key is to keep their options open. If a teenager doesn't participate at first, I don't take offense. I am not a disciplinarian. I simply ask another to participate and later come back to the reluctant one. I give everyone gentle nudges, compliments, applause, anticipate the best, try to find their interests. I'm not afraid to say "pretty please." I leave the door open to participate and this allows the reluctant ones to come around. What a joy it is to hear, "Can I be a sheep?" or "Yes, I will read this poem for you."

By the end, the teenagers and I have accomplished something worthwhile and they know it. We have produced a puppet show and presented it to an enthusiastic audience of preschoolers. We have written and illustrated a wonderful original poem. We have enjoyed listening to poetry read aloud. We have produced a puppet movie that teaches antonyms, synonyms, the value of jokes, or the cruelty of bullies.  

So, how do I do what I do? Well, I think there are a few reasons. One, I have some skills; two, I have passion; three, I believe in these teens; and four, I can. So I do.  

As to why? The answer is simple - it benefits all. My parents raised me in a climate of volunteerism, my husband supports my volunteer efforts, my children and extended family join in and help when I need them. I started these programs eight years ago and through their success and the support of my family and friends, the Literacy Alliance was born in 2009. Since then, we have grown. I have a supportive, hard-working board of directors. New storyteller volunteers are in daycares providing excellent free storytimes. And, although in the past I entered institutions by myself, now I am joined by wonderful new volunteers. I am no longer alone when I step in front of a teen audience and those standing by my side see what I see. They see creative, energetic, and good teens. They see a beginning, not an ending. They see teens learning about the value of children's literature and how to read to children - thus increasing the chance that the teens will read to their children who will have better educational experiences. They see teens gaining confidence in themselves and their ability to work with a group, speak before a crowd, direct children in a fun activity. They see teens being reading mentors, being creative, looking for solutions, supporting each other. 

Check out our website, See the programs we do, read the thank you letters we receive. Support us in any way you can - volunteer, donate, like our Facebook page, comment on our pictures or YouTube movies, watch the videos. The teens are looking at the site. Let them know you approve of their efforts. Let them know they have made something good and worthwhile!  

And that is how and why WE do what WE do.