Online Diary: ‘Mr. Riley and Mr. Pig’ – How I Believe Puppetry and Guitar Help My Students

damien_riley_and_mr_pigEveryone has at least one special “talent booth” in the big tent of what they do. I have a few I like to think. Actually other people tell me I do so it isn’t boasting. I’m good with computers and technology, I’ve been called a “natural teacher” and sometimes I bring puppets to life in my class. I’ve been using Mr. Pig to motivate students for a long time now, probably 5 years I think. He was given to me by a friend who is much more serious into puppets and puppet shows. I approached him about wanting to get a puppet and he basically let me have a pick from a large container of them. I’ll always be thankful to him for that. When you’re trying something new, it truly helps to have support from a friend.

I got Mr. Pig and Mr. Duck that day. Through the years, both have served me well in the classroom. I can make kids smile nd get them excited about boring subjects with puppets. Both of the have a voice and my kids sometimes beg me to “do the puppets.” It’s become a laid-back fun activity we do a few times a month. As someone who works daily with ten-year olds, I can tell you things like puppets that capture their attention are invaluable resources.

Mr. Pig has a voice like Joe Pesci. When I start making him talk, it’s odd because I feel like I really am him. Like Senor Wences and other ventriloquists, It’s like I am talking to someone else. I love getting into puppetry. I also play guitar for my kids. I find it’s good to have something to break up the monotony and lower the affective filter. When you have tricks like puppetry and music at hand, you ca go further than without. I can’t tell you how many people through the years have told me they wish they could play the guitar. Like anything, technology or puppetry, it’s all about getting into a space where you can play with it. I learned puppetry through play with my class. I learned guitar the same way. I played along with every REM album through my teens and twenties along with The Alarm and a few other bands. None of that was hard, it was PLAY! Maybe that’s why the puppets and music I share now make the kids smile. I am sharing play.

I think about what makes life worth living for me and I can tell you it isn’t my college diplomas. At the same time, public education preaches that we teachers should always push college as the end of the rainbow. I think we all know that isn’t worth sacrificing for. It’s the passions and play that we love that gets us off the couch and out into the world.

I earned my degrees so I could pursue the things l love like guitar, drama (puppetry), podcasting, blogging, taking vacations, going to the beach, eating out … now as I write those things I feel excited to be teaching, to be learning. Any one of these things might be called a vice by a schoolmaster but I tell you they are the carrot in front of the donkeys eyes that keeps him/her studying! I believe I need more incentive to go to college and less concern about college itself in my class. I want my kids to have a reason for living that drives them to be educated and gives them a thirst for knowledge. You can’t force play, you can model it though. A kid with no ability to play is truly the saddest kid. My hope is that my own children as well as those in my class will be experts at play. College or a good job and life is just the by-product. That’s why I hope they remember more than just algebra. I hope they remember Mr. Riley and Mr. Pig.

As far as guitar goes, I learned at 8 years old by my father. He taught me 3 chords: A D and E and he showed me a finger technique I called “Pluck brush thumb up down.” It has a kind of “Happy Trails” 2/4 country rhythm to it. That was nearly all I needed to get hungry for playing more. Soon, he had taught me all the chords and I hard started singing along with those. Eventually I would transfer what I learned from Dad into the electric guitar and I played in a few bands … notice the word “play.” I know in my classroom it is difficult to do things that look like play all the time. After all, we are running a school here. Still, I am convinced after 17 years doing this job that kids need to have play modeled for them and they also need time and space to explore their own play. I am always looking for ways to weave play into the curriculum the state wants me to use.

It’s great for me to have things I can go to when I get free time. I want my own children to see me doing things that I enjoy, things that are play to me. Ultimately, that is all we have after the paycheck. If you don’t know what you want to play, money and prestige at work will never satisfy you. I suppose there are people who can play all day at work but I suspect even those people need an outlet, an escape of playing something else. For example, a video game programmer needs to mountain climb. People sometimes tell me I “play” with kids all day so my job is easy. Oh if you only knew a teacher’s days! Still, they may be right for a few days but when you work with kids every day the extent of your contract, you can burn out. I know the things that I like to play and I hope I foster the notion of play in my students so they can grow up and keep a smile on their faces in this crazy, often wicked and heartless (whether meaning to be or not) world.