A Fulbright Scholar in Uganda
HUH, what’s a puppet?
It is hard today to find a young person or a parent of one, or a teacher who doesn’t know that puppets are part of childhood. Not in Uganda. The students I worked with, as a United States Fulbright Specialist in the fall of 2012 had never seen these familiar whimsical characters created from recycled materials that amuse grown-ups as well as kids.
My task, for six weeks at The School of Education at Makerere University in Kampala, was to introduce undergraduate and graduate students who are majoring in Education and in-service teachers to the world of puppetry. I was starting from scratch. In Buganda, the primary language of Uganda, there is no word for puppet! Also, most of the students have limited contact with television. So you can imagine their surprised and bemused expressions at the first class, when I danced around the room to African music performing with a puppet.
Their initial bemusement turned to contagious enthusiasm and spirited participation in no time. In five different puppetry courses, I introduced hundreds of students to innovative teaching techniques and activities using simple hand, rod and 15’ giant puppets. At the request of the Department of Education, I focused on strategies to motivate and reinforce English Language Arts and Literacy with an emphasis on reading and speaking. English is their language of instruction and the second language spoken in Uganda. I introduced techniques for making puppets from inexpensive materials combined with activities to stimulate imagination. I also showed students how to develop skits that would strengthen critical thinking and problem solving. My essential concern was to share strategies for developing characters with which my students could personally identify along with realistic situations to be enacted. I wanted them to see how real world issues could be inserted into the make-believe façade of puppetry.
I advised my students that the puppetry class would be “different” from their usual courses where a lecturer dominates the class. They had to interact with me and one other person with the goal of validating and critiquing each other’s ideas. I stressed the importance of each student’s oral participation and underscored how valuable it is for each to share his/her creative notions as well as to support each other in the group.
The puppetry program, in its brief moment, altered the environment of the School of Education at Makerere University. “I never used to speak in class,” many students told me, “but puppetry opened me up.” Students reported being more articulate, feeling more creative, discovering new talents, and bringing more of their real selves to the classroom.
I will never forget these students. I will never forget their unaccustomed openness. I wish them Godspeed! #
Carol Sterling is an Arts and Education Consultant in NYC. Please contact her at email@example.com