Students in this semester’s ECE451 class had no idea they would to be immersed in the world of puppetry for fifteen weeks. But they found themselves sewing, hot gluing, bedazzling, drawing, and creating a magical world for children, while garnering knowledge for their future careers as teachers.
The early childhood theory class takes a look at a variety of influences on early learning. Some of the topics include how social play facilitates learning, the elements of an inviting, tolerant, and safe learning environment, issues related to building an inclusive community of learners, and hidden curriculum of early childhood education such as social skills development and learning "school" and "community" behaviors.
Maryanne Mong Cramer, assistant professor of special education, based the semester-long project off of the same class taught at University Park by Joe Valente. For her, the point was two-fold. “First, it's an opportunity for pre-service teachers to experience constructivist learning in an area outside many of their comfort zones. It is not simply a matter of standing back and watching children explore. Constructivist learning requires extensive forethought, guidance, and continuous monitoring.” The puppet show, from concept through performance, allowed students to experience that kind of learning first-hand. Working in small groups added a peer-mediated component whereby they relied on one another to solve problems and offer advice.
Students were given a pattern, fabric, and sewing supplies, with the only directive: ‘make a puppet.’ “I think most of the students thought it would be easy, and as a first semester professor, and first time with a project like this, I was surprised by how challenging this task was,” Mong Cramer states. Nicole Bagley, a junior from Altoona, was not expecting the amount of work that went into making it all come together. “It was fun, though. It really brought out our creativity and made us step out of our comfort zone to create something new and different. I think I’ll be able to use this experience as a teacher someday.” After the puppets were made, each group wrote a script for a short educational vignette, then created backdrops and props for a puppet stage that the entire class built. Says Courtland Pannebaker, “Seeing how all of the little parts come together to make an impressive final product was great. Plus, play is such an important thing for children so for us to be able to learn how to incorporate that into our classroom is very beneficial.”
The final product was the full puppet show, “Toona-Tunes,” modeled after Sesame Street, including a theme song with music and lyrics written by the students to open the show. The class was able to take “Toona-Tunes” on the road to the Blair County Head Start Program for two performances as well as put on a show for the children of Penn State Altoona’s pre-school. Students were nervous, but excited to share their work. “The nerves were definitely there, but after the first show, we were all like, ‘that was awesome,’” Kelly Shillaberg recalls. “This is something we worked on for an entire semester, and it finally came together. We didn’t think we’d actually get here and have it turn out this well, so I’m proud.”
“It's always a learning experience in the first round,” chuckles Mong Cramer. “Next semester is already looking quite different. I have some ways that I think can provide a higher level of support to avoid some of the frustration that I saw in my students this semester, and additional work that will add some synthesis and continuity that seemed to be missing in this first try.”