Bringing Media-Making to the Classroom: PUPPETS COOL!
By Steve Schnier, founder of PUPPETS COOL!
Now in our fifth year, PUPPETS COOL! is a Canadian series of media literacy workshops that is created, owned and operated by a media industry professional. Based in the Greater Toronto Area and covering most of Southern Ontario, we never send and intern, a ‘facilitator’, or an ‘Imaginator’ to your school: we send working industry professionals with verifiable credits (on shows that you’ve seen) to your classroom.
The workshops are based on my 35+ years in the film and TV industry. My credits include: The Inspector Gadget Show (sound effects), The Magic School Bus (producer), Freaky Stories* (creator, writer, producer, director), and Atomic Betty (writer, executive story editor) to name but a few. Most recently I designed, built, and performed the title puppet-character for the APTV children’s series, I am Ripley.
(*Freaky Stories was broadcast in Quebec on Canal Famille as Frissons.)
I became interested in animation, puppetry, and filmmaking while in the 7th Grade in the Toronto District School Board. I produced Super 8 and 16 mm films throughout middle school and high school, then attended Sheridan College’s famed Classical Animation Program. I’ve worked with Nelvana Ltd., Walt Disney Television, YTV, Teletoon, PBS, NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox Family, and many more. I’ve been an overseas animation supervisor in Taipei, Taiwan, and I hold a Guinness World Record for creating the largest googly eyes in the world (this actually makes sense in my puppetry program).
It gives me great satisfaction to not only pass along what I’ve learned, but to help students make their own discoveries in my workshops. A few weeks ago, after five years and over 50,000 puppets, a second grade student invented a radically new and different puppet design. For me, there’s nothing more exciting than to see great minds at work!
Here are brief overviews of our PUPPETS COOL!, TOONS!, and YEAH WRITE! media literacy programs:
PUPPETS COOL! (JK through Grade 8) teaches students the art of hand puppetry. We start with a discussion about the nature of puppets and how they differ from toys or dolls. We look at different kinds of puppets, comparing the mechanics of a Kermit the Frog to those of Cookie Monster. From a media literacy aspect, we’ll examine ’character design’ and see how the placement of eyes on a character’s face affects our perception of that character’s persona. This is applicable to student work in art, design, comics, animation, and gaming. There’s a lesson in puppetry where your students will learn how to synchronize their hand movements (the puppets’ mouths) with their voices so that the puppets appear to speak.
Then we build the puppets – the complexity depends on the grade level and dexterity of the students. With the older kids (Grade 4 and up), we compare the mechanics of what they’ve built with those of a professionally constructed “Hollywood” animatronic puppet used on a TV show. Finally, we end with a short play (and for older grades, an analysis of puppet performance).
“TOONS!” is our animation workshop in which kids learn the principles of classic hand drawn ‘Walt Disney-style’ and stop-motion animation. We don’t use LEGO men, toys, cut outs, or plasticine figures simply because these objects don’t facilitate an understanding of the principles behind animated filmmaking.
For students in Grade 2 and above, we start by exploring the phenomenon of ‘persistence of vision’ and how the brain perceives rapidly moving single images as actual motion. Then the students animate bouncing balls to study the animation principle of ‘stretch and squash’. We move onto stop-motion filmmaking, where the kids (following the standard movement charts used in professional studios around the globe) animate articulated figures, and, if time allows, a short exercise in creating lip sync animation using the same techniques used in The Nightmare Before Christmas and other popular films. Our TOONS! workshop uses iPods and free apps so that your students can continue using what they’ve learned in personal or class projects after the workshops end.
In many cases, teachers book our PUPPETS COOL! or TOONS! workshops for morning sessions and then allow the students to explore on their own during the afternoon.
The YEAH WRITE! in-class media literacy workshop explores screen writing – a form of creative writing – in the hopes of nurturing your students’ writing interest and ability.
YEAH WRITE!’s primary market is elementary school-aged children, grades 5 through 8. However, the program has been run successfully on numerous occasions for secondary school students and could be presented as a special interest program for adults.
The hands-on full-day workshop takes students step-by-step through the creative process as they develop their own original ideas. Using video examples and class participation exercises, these ideas are nurtured into concepts which are then pitched to the respective students’ groups. From there, the selected stories are developed into 5-minute dramatic scripts and performed for the class by day’s end.
The students can later use the skills learned in the program to write plays, TV shows, movies, videos, comic books, stories, class assignments, and even letters. While we can’t transform their writing in one day, we can push it forward and show them the path to better writing.
Writing still has a place in this world, and while the focus in this one-day class is on creative writing, the ripple effects will be seen in all of their written work. The program complements the Ontario Media Literacy Curriculum Guidelines and comes with workbooks, marking rubrics as well as the WALT (“We Are Learning To”) Learning Goals and Success Criteria marking checklist.
No prior teacher or student preparation or cleanup is required for the workshops and all supplies and materials are included in the program fee.