Sean Thorne explains how he uses Puppetland to help children improve their writing. The RPG allows the students to develop characters, and to participate in the construction of stories so that they're imaginatively invested in what they write.
In the summer of 2002, I chanced upon a copy of John Tynes' Puppetland, a role-playing game set in a world of puppets gone wrong (a classic tale of tragedy, and good against evil, set in a world created by the Maker). The Maker is the only human in Puppetland and was slain by the puppet Punch, who sought control of all of Puppetland by usurping the role of Puppetmaker. Judy, the main character in Puppetland's rebellion against the evil Punch, escaped to a secret valley, hidden from Punch and his evil minions, and had started a new town called Respite, from which she can try to restore goodness to the puppets' world with the help of a few fellow puppets who managed to escape with her.
In the past few years, my writing curriculum has made room to include more nonfiction, such as book reviews or small articles on a student interest. Most free-thought fictional writing produced by my eleven-year-old students took two forms, based strictly along gender lines (boys wrote about how aliens attacked the school/camp/home and they saved the day; girls wrote about an argument with a friend at school/camp/home and how they saved the day). Missing were plot, character development, and engagement with the reader. I needed an effective vehicle to teach and assess creative writing. Perhaps, I thought, this Puppetland would give me some new ideas to incorporate role-playing into the writing curriculum. Four years later, Puppetland has become the major writing project that ends the year.
During the last two months of the school year, each student makes one of four puppet types: shadow puppets, finger puppets, hand puppets, or marionette puppets. Each student plays a series of missions in the role of his or her puppet, in the company of five fellow puppeteers. Each mission provides the material for the student to write a story (from the perspective of the puppet). I divided the puppets as I thought Judy, a kind but firm leader, might: a mix of different puppet types for each group. Therefore, each group had shadow puppets for sneaking under doors, finger puppets for stealth, hand puppets as jacks-of-all-trades, and marionettes for muscle power.
Every mission starts in Judy's kitchen over a plate of warm cookies and milk or hot cocoa. There is a real-time limit to the mission length: twenty minutes, during which all manner of adventures befall the student who play in the character of their puppet. At that time all puppets will fall asleep, no matter where they happen to be, and all awaken later, safe in Respite.
After each mission is played, the students have until the end of the week to write a short adventure story. Reading the adventures aloud on Friday has turned out to be a festival of storytelling. Since each child has a different take on the same adventure, the audience is very attentive and discussions emerge about how something is written. Since I choose class readings with authors who use colorful writing (such as Debi Gliori and Robert Louis Stevenson), my students always try to use simile, metaphor, and alliteration with strong verb use. Many of my most reluctant writers begin turning in multi-page stories filled with clever bits of writing without any prompting from me. Students take advantage of the opportunity to rewrite their stories over the weekend after the sharing. To prepare the classroom for the game we arrange six chairs in a semicircle, one for each student. Everyone else is an audience to the "play," so to speak, and does not offer advice or encouragement; of course, they can laugh and whisper amongst themselves, and even write their own Puppetland adventures at this time. Since many students have not had a theater experience, they learn in this way how to be silent observers in the drama.
Students develop an attachment to their character/puppets. The loss of one student's infamous finger puppet, Green Sick Old Bill, created a tense afternoon while we wrestled with the question of what to do. He rejected the idea that he rebuild the puppet out of felt and marker again. Instead, he opted for a new character, deciding that Green Sick Old Bill just got lost in Puppetland, and his place in the party would be taken by his son, a new felt finger puppet named Son of Green Sick Old Bill.
Other students put their puppets to bed in shoeboxes. Some went home overnight. I saw a puppet left behind after class dismissal only three times. (Considering there have been over 2,400 opportunities for this to occur, I'm amazed; all types of other student paraphernalia are left behind on a daily basis: books, pencils, lunch boxes, and jackets.)
This attachment created a lot of tension in the stories, because there is a very real chance that puppets will perish while fighting the evil and twisted minions of Punch. This is an element that the students responded to with a reserved, but honest, glee. True, they don't want their puppets to perish; however, it creates a sense of uncertainty in the stories (or to the "game," if you will).
It is worth noting that, although puppets might be mangled, or perish in a horribly cartoon-like manner, they always wake up safe and sound in their puppet beds the next morning. However, those few students who did meet a puppet doom during play vividly recalled the incident after class with friends before colorfully recording the incident in their stories.
For example: "Captain B. White tried to ram into him (an evil nutcracker) but instead he ran right into the nutcracker's sword. 'Ha, Ha! Now I have a hand puppet shish-ka-bob!' proclaimed the nutcracker."
True, I did play the nutcracker and said something along those lines. However, this student was able to recall what was said, and used the word "proclaimed" to good effect in his story.
He goes on to employ some alliteration (introduced during our reading of Gliori's work): "When the nutcracker turned away to get some fire wood I slipped down the tree that me and my fellow puppets had quickly climbed following the painful puncture when puppet B. White perfectly was ka-bobbed,..."
This is a first draft and provided me with a chance to review grammatical errors with the student, and commend him on his use of colorful language.
In a later mission, when Judy commanded the puppets to storm a dark tower at the edge of the shadowy forest, our student describes a fellow puppet trying to dodge out of the way of a catapulted boulder: "The boulder was right on top of him and right before he was melishously murdered he daringly dove to save his life. But he cut it too close. His left arm was no more." Our student records a truly heroic act: "We rushed to his aid but before we could reach him he popped up. He went on, using all his will with every step."
The idea that Puppetland is a game is one element in this exercise that worked in everyone's favor. Games are meant to be fun. It isn't hard to imagine children recalling their adventure and feeling excited about writing it down. Again, the element of uncertainty certainly plays a role in the fun element: what lurks behind the closed door, or in the shadows of the forest?
Also, the children are interacting with each other as well as with the characters in Puppetland. Importantly for my goal, they are interacting in their puppet personalities, becoming the puppet for a short time. And this is how the puppet play helps student writing: it aids students in creating stronger dialogue, more developed characters, and adding suspense to the story when they see everything through the imaginative play of their puppet vision. A Puppetland morning is described as "Exactly the same as the one before, frosty dark. It looked like the sun wanted to rise, but it just couldn't."
Every week I carry home new stories to read and correct the grammar. By the time we start Puppetland, I have introduced all the grammar I want them to learn. Therefore, the last two months are a review, a chance to put into practice what has been introduced during the long winter school months. Equally important, however, is that the play engages the students in writing. The dialogue between the students is phenomenal, and this carries over into the stories. Students add dialogue, actions, and insights that clearly didn't occur during the play, but add significantly to the story. For example, Green Sick Old Bill swims in his mug of hot cocoa, which he is served in Judy's house at the start of a mission. Spacey Blue-eyes is disgusted by the bad manners of a fellow puppet that makes a mess eating cookies. And finally, Xavier Moldybones has musings about the odd behavior of his fellow puppets that occurs repeatedly throughout his story.
Some of this may actually be occurring during the role-playing, and in each child's imagination. After becoming familiar with writing about himself or herself and each other's puppets, little creative twists and insights appear in the stories.
It is important to note that it takes time for the characters to develop. Perhaps in today's teaching climate we are rushing to cover as many topics as possible. The idea that more is better is not an unfair assessment of our culture. This is evident in schools when students are lugging home massive tomes, working on various testing skills required to compete in the standardized tests, and sometimes have a frantic after-school life as well, filled with dance, music, and sport lessons. Puppetland would not be effective as a one-shot deal. To have the students play for one afternoon, followed up by a writing session, would be ineffectual and faddish. My experiences with the two-month-long lessons have taught me that students gain immeasurably by being allowed to develop a rich sense of the puppet world and of each other's characters.
This in-depth assault may very well be attributable to the students finally coming to grips with the mechanics of grammar. However, it is taught via an avenue most engaging for human beings: play. Play is not just an afternoon running around; I mean it to serve a purpose.
As an aside, I would like to stress that this play must be purposeful for the child. Former students ask every year, "When are you starting Puppetland? Remember when . . . ?" Those in my class ask every Monday morning if I have a new adventure for that week. If there is a suspicion that I am not prepared, I have a minor rebellion on my hands. They care passionately for Puppetland. It shows in their writing.
Maxine Greene reminds us that it is impossible to see anyone else's point of view without imagination. In fact, she argues quite elegantly, in the first pages of Releasing the Imagination, that it is lack of imagination that is keeping our culture from reaching its potential. An eleven-year-old student engaged in meaningful play will transfer his or her fun to the writing process. And the writing process can be a meaningful, growing experience for the early adolescent (ten- to fifteen-year-old).
Play is a powerful impulse for students to engage in group activities, to grow, and socialize. However, a student must see success, particularly as part of a group effort to grow a positive sense of self. Finally, to understand each other a little better, they must be able to exercise understanding outside of themselves. Most importantly, developing such understanding must be an act freely engaged upon by the early adolescent. I believe that I saw my students reaching their writing potential in Puppetland because they were engaged with their imagination, and reaching deep within to see the world outside of their separate selves.
Greene, Maxine (1995). Releasing the Imagination. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.
Puppetland. John Tynes; Hogshead Publishing. 1999.