Serrano High School Key Club student puppeteers performed for the first time in front of 3rd graders from Wrightwood Elementary on Thursday, May 27, 2021. The skit, part of the “Kids on the Block” program, dealt with multicultural awareness in a way to which young children can relate.
In 2018, Michelle Steinmann was preparing to retire as a Snowline School Counselor at Heritage when she got the idea to use puppets to talk about issues her students encountered in their lives both at home and at school. “I wanted to do multicultural awareness because when I was a counselor at Heritage, I felt that there was a need to have those conversations at a young age,” she said. “We started having those conversations the last couple of years that I was there [at Heritage]. ‘Respect for all people.’ I thought this is something that I want to continue to talk about. This was before everything had happened, before Black Lives Matter, before everything; this is something I was working on with multicultural awareness. I wanted to address all cultures.”
While living in Tennessee before moving to Wrightwood, Michelle volunteered for a service group that performed skits with puppets focusing on children with disabilities. The program was part of a national organization called “Kids On The Block.” Kids on the Block uses interactive puppetry to teach students, generally 3rd graders, about disabilities and sensitive social issues. The skits are informative and engaging, teaching children valuable lessons. Michelle put two and two together and came up with using the “Kids on the Block” puppets to bring the cultural awareness conversation directly to the students.
She then needed to find puppets, scripts, props, and, most importantly, volunteers to bring her vision to life. Serrano Key Club students were the perfect answer; they are service-oriented and supported by the Tri-Community Kiwanis, which is dedicated to helping the youth of the Tri-Community. Michelle reached out to the Kiwanis and Key Club. Both were excited about the idea. All the pieces were falling into place. She purchased one puppet on eBay and then two more. She was then able to find four brand new puppets, props, and scripts from a no longer operating troupe. There would be no cost puppets as long as they were used for their intended purpose. This was precisely how Michelle planned to use them. Michelle now had all the pieces she needed to realize her goal.
Michelle worked with four Key Club seniors, Edward Wehrle, Lauren Crocker, Hannah Hayes, and Lin Cai to prepare them for their first performance. It was challenging with pandemic restrictions in place. Because each skit featured two puppets, she often met with two students at a time, either at the Phelan Community Park or a park in Victorville. They would practice lines, go over potential questions from kids, hone their puppeteering skills and gestures to make them appear more lifelike. All of the students didn’t come together as a single unit until the day of the performance.
Principal Garner at Wrightwood Elementary school agreed to be the test performance for the troupe. Third graders filed in the multipurpose room, sitting at socially distanced tables eagerly awaiting for the show to start. The first skit featured Puppet Nam Nguyen who was upset because kids were laughing at his name. The second skit featured puppet Eddie, who tried out for a talent show and thought a joke about another culture was funny and ended up learning about cultural differences. After each skit, kids were able to ask the puppets questions, and the puppets answered them. At the end of the assembly, the puppeteers were introduced to applause, compliments, and more questions, this time about the puppeteers themselves.
The goal is to grow the troupe, bring on additional subject matter, and perform for every 3rd grader in the district. “What I really liked about having the students perform this week, the kids in 3rd grade really look up to those students. Hearing it from your teacher is one thing, but they like hearing from the [high school] students. It’s good for the high school students because they are talking about these issues too,” said Michelle about using high school seniors as puppeteers. “I was definitely nervous, but the kids did great, they memorized all their lines, and they just did great!”