November 20, 2017

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How Puppets Power Literacy at Nashville Public Library

Wishing

NPL’s Wishing Chair Productions truck. All photos courtesy of NPL

It’s a crisp morning in Nashville, TN, when a 15-foot box truck pulls up to Mt. View Elementary School. The truck looks ordinary enough—a lot like the hundreds of others that make deliveries in Nashville every day. But this truck is carrying something special in its cargo bed: puppets.

The puppets come from Nashville Public Library (NPL), and the truck drivers are actually professional performing artists and puppeteers who form NPL’s Wishing Chair Productions troupe.

This day, they’ll perform their production of “Hansel and Gretel.” On the surface, the Wishing Chair performance can seem like mere fun and games. However, the puppetry is actually part of NPL’s strategy to nurture the city’s kids into confident, eager young readers.

What’s more, other educators around the country can take a cue from NPL and build their own performing arts-inspired early reading strategy.

Puppets: Part of a Broader Early Literacy Strategy

NPL’s early childhood literacy outreach team, called Bringing Books to Life (BBTL), works closely with Wishing Chair’s traveling puppet troupe. BBTL staff go into schools slated for puppet performances weeks prior, working with the teachers and school librarians there and ensure the students have a series of positive experiences with books and stories leading up to the day of the puppet truck’s arrival.

For example, weeks before the puppet show at Mt. View Elementary, students read, told, and retold the story of “Hansel and Gretel”—with teachers, friends, and during a rollicking BBTL story time. Everything led up to the day of the puppet truck’s visit, when students saw “Hansel and Gretel” brought to life with puppets.

“When the students have been reading the book before we come, they are thrilled to know something about the book already,” said Morgan Matens, a member of the Wishing Chair troupe. By the time children see the puppet show, the story is already like an old friend. 

Puppet characters from "Little Rabbit." / All photos courtesy of NPL

Puppet characters from “Little Rabbit.”

Many Ways to Tell a Story

Puppets appeal to children on a sensory and imagination level. This gives us a clue about their powers as literacy instruments. Consider this: a puppet show can still—in this age of mobile devices, flashing screens, and digitized gadgets—captivate a room of toddlers for a good 30 minutes.

Moreover, when children fall in love with our puppet shows, they want more stories. And when kids want more stories, they begin to want to learn to read.

Just as puppets are reading motivators, they’re also powerful advocates for the diversity of storytelling.  Take the “Hansel and Gretel” example again. Students experience this story multiple ways: their teacher reads it one way; their school librarian reads it another way; and meanwhile, BBTL staff put a different spin on it; then the library’s puppeteers add the performance dimension.

Hearing stories in different ways—and getting opportunities to retell them creatively—build children’s narrative skills, which is a very important part of early literacy. In fact, this is why we give teachers storytelling tools, such as puppets and dolls, and encourage them to share with their students.

A Tool for Diverse Learning Communities

Nashville is home to one of the fastest-growing foreign-born populations in the United States.  Nearly 30 percent of Metro Nashville Public School students come from homes where English is not the predominant language.  By offering a variety of storytelling opportunities through the BBTL puppet truck strategy, we can help this student population work on their English language literacy.

“The puppet truck and its shows are able to transcend language,” said Courtney Haley, a library media specialist at Tusculum Elementary School in Nashville.

NPL's Liz Atack

Liz Atack is the program coordinator for NPL’s Preschool Literacy Program.

BORROWING FROM NPL’s TRADITION AND Strategy

NPL and its tradition of puppetry are unique. In 1938, a teenager named Tom Tichenor showed up at the library with some homemade marionettes and asked if he could perform the story “Puss in Boots” for children. The librarian at the time said yes. The rest is history.

After a productive stint working on Broadway shows and in television in New York, Tichenor returned to Nashville and continued writing, building, and performing puppet shows at the library. Tichenor passed away in 1992, but his legacy lives on through Wishing Chair Productions.

So, without your own troupe of performing artists, what can you do?

A puppet performance doesn’t need to be elaborate to be effective. You can use a store-bought or homemade puppet to tell a story. (I have effectively told stories with homemade stick puppets.) If you treat a puppet as “real,” children will accept the puppet as real. Interact with puppets as you tell the story, and make sure you look at the puppet when it is talking!

Also, give students ample opportunities to interact with puppets. Having puppets in the school library or classroom, along with copies of well-known books, will allow children to retell stories and add their own embellishments, plot twists, and turns. Students will even begin performing puppet shows for each other.

Another approach is to forge partnerships with local arts organizations in your community. This could be a theater or a dance company, or even a high school or college drama department. Puppets are powerful storytelling tools but by no means are they the only instruments to get children excited about stories.

Parting Thoughts: Measuring Success

Make sure you discuss how to measure success metrics in your planning sessions. How will you know what success looks like? When we created BBTL more than 10 years ago, we always kept our desired outputs (i.e. “how many partnerships formed with other community agencies?”) and outcomes (i.e. “how many teachers report an increase of storytelling and use of visual storytelling tools in the classroom?”) in mind, and I urge you to do the same. If you can articulate the differences you have made among students, your partnership will be stronger and more sustainable.

No matter the route you choose—puppets or another performing art—the children you serve win.  Providing them with positive, engaging experiences early on with books and stories motivates kids to want to learn to read and read better.

Who knows where that spark will take them? Maybe their own story will turn out like a little girl who approached a Wishing Chair puppeteer after a recent performance to say, “I have something to tell you. When I grow up, I’m going to be a librarian.’”


Liz Atack works at Nashville Public Library, where she helps brings book off the shelf and into the hands of Nashville’s children through the library’s literacy outreach program, Bringing Books to Life. In early 2014, Liz was named Toyota’s Family Teacher of the Year.

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Comments

  1. Nashville public schools are so fortunate to have the Wishing Chair Productions team in our schools supporting literacy and reading. Their creative approach to storytelling ignites an interest in reading and the arts. I have been fortunate to have them perform at my elementary, middle, and now high school libraries. I have never seen anyone-at any age– not completely engaged when they are performing. I want to thank the Nashville Public Library Foundation for supporting them and other programs (Limitless Libraries) that make a huge difference in student’s lives by opening them up to new learning experiences every day.

  2. The Nashville Public Library has an impressive link to puppet shows of an earlier era: the 1930s. Kids in those days were exposed to many puppet shows in schools and Department Stores. I got to see some of that in the Los Angeles area. Like Tom Tichenor, who was a friend many years later, I was hooked on puppetry for the rest of my life.

    I congratulate the Nashville Public Library for maintaining a puppet project which increases literacy. Tom Tichenor would be proud.