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UConn Puppetry Department Helps ESOL Students Enrich Language Skills

The ESOL Adventure Club students show off their creations made at a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Representatives from the Puppet Arts Program at the University of Connecticut’s Storrs Campus visited West Hartford’s Wolcott Elementary Schools as an ESOL ‘Adventure Club’ activity.

By Ronni Newton

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) students at Wolcott Elementary School in West Hartford are working on their oral language skills, but thanks to the efforts of teacher Megin Haeflich, a grant from the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools, and support from the Wolcott PTO, the learning is taking place along with a good dose of fun.

On April 3 three students from the UConn Puppet Arts Program led a workshop at Wolcott, sharing their puppet creation skills with a group of 24 students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, who are members of the ESOL Adventure Club. After the students made their puppets, the UConn students taught the younger students how to make the puppets “talk.”

ESOL teacher Megin Haeflich said this is the second year for the ESOL Adventure Club. It started last year as a Cantor Family Scholarship grant from the Foundation for West Hartford Public Schools.

There were six Adventure Club sessions last year, including “adventures” throughout West Hartford to places like Westmoor Park, the Faxon Library, and the Children’s Museum, where students worked on their language skills in a relaxed environment.

“We wanted more time with our English learners,” Haeflich said. “The six-hour work and school day is highly academic. We realized last year that half of the learning process was happening while riding the bus home, getting to meet their families, see their houses.” It was hugely successful, she said.

Haeflich didn’t apply for another grant this year, but the Adventure Club is being funded by the Wolcott PTO.

The puppets the students created, and named, are driven by their cultural heritage, Haeflich said. As the puppets “speak” to each other, the students are enhancing their oral language, she said.

Townwide ESOL Curriculum Specialist Chalise Ross said that the Wolcott students in the ESOL program speak 19 different languages, including Spanish, Nepalese, and Arabic. Throughout the town, 73 different languages are spoken at home by students in West Hartford Public Schools.

“What is remarkable to me is that when I interact with the students I don’t know they are ESOL students,” said Wolcott Interim Principal Lynn Katz. “Their language skills are remarkable and they are learning so much.”

“This is so much fun. Talking through a puppet, for a student who is reticent, is so much easier,” Katz said.

Although this year’s Adventure Club is a bit smaller scale, Ross said, it’s more than just the one-day workshop. The students will also be creating scenes with their puppets and showing them off to parents and other guests at the Wolcott Fair on June 2.

As a whole the ESOL program has taken on more of a focus on family engagement, Ross said.

Also assisting with the Puppetry Adventure Club were ESOL Outreach Coordinator Yadiris Vega, Wolcott art teacher Katie Zeranski, and several ESOL paraprofessionals. UConn Puppet Arts Program representatives included graduate student Noel Williams and undergrads Kat Folker and Aish Gejjagaraguppe.

Folker and Gejjagaraguppe said they both have a background in teaching. “Puppetry in education is an old concept,” Folker said.

Katz said that the lessons from the puppetry workshop will continue to be incorporated into Haeflich’s lessons, and also praised the arts component of it. “Some of these students come from countries where they don’t have arts education.”

As the UConn students packed up their materials and prepared to return to Storrs, the students – through their puppets – gave them heartfelt thanks in English as well as in their native languages.

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Wolcott ESOL teacher Megin Haeflich helps a student hot glue her puppet. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

ESOL students make their puppets talk to each other, part of the oral language enrichment portion of the ESOL Adventure Club program. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

UConn graduate student Noel Williams with one of her own puppet creations that she brought to show the Wolcott students. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Wolcott ESOL students finish creating their puppets. The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

UConn Puppet Arts graduate student Noel Williams teaches the Wolcott students how to make their puppets talk. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Students work on how to manipulate their puppets’ mouths to make words. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

UConn student Aish Gejjagaraguppe, an illustration and animation major, helps a Wolcott student finish his puppet. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

UConn student Noel Williams’ puppet chats with a student’s puppet. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

The ESOL Adventure Club enjoyed a puppet workshop with students from the Puppet Arts Program at UConn. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

Through their puppets, the Wolcott students thank their UConn helpers. Photo credit: Ronni Newton

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