Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Puppet workshop a spring break option

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Jasmine Mendoza (left), a fourth-grader at Harmony Hills Elementary School in Aspen Hill, toots on a kazoo Friday with Broad Acres Elementary School students (background from left) Dafne Hernandez and Chaimaa Benfadil during a Spring Break Puppet Workshop with the founder of DinoRock, a children’s educational performance group that incorporates dinosaurs, music and puppets.
The fourth-graders were learning a song about a haunted house, but Betty Scott could sense they were restless. Instantly, Scott, education program coordinator at Strathmore, ran to the front of the room, grabbed their attention and made certain they knew the proper way to sound like a ghost.

The students from two area schools were attending the North Bethesda performance art center’s first-ever Spring Break Puppet Workshop, and doing their best to stay attentive during a week that usually leaves them far from a classroom.

But Scott, a hyperkinetic, semi-retired vocal music instructor for 40 years, couldn’t help but go into ‘‘teacher mode.”

She knew that for the students — 14 from Harmony Hills Elementary School and 13 from Broad Acres Elementary School, all of which are attending the camp for free — learning something during a week off from school is valuable.

‘‘Assuming all these kids have a television, that might be the alternative [to the camp],” Scott said. ‘‘Honestly, I’m not exactly sure what their alternative is, so that’s why we thought this program would be great.”

The five-day workshop was conducted by Strathmore with DinoRock, an educational children’s performance group that aims to teach students through song and dinosaur-themed puppet shows.

The children were taught how to make paper puppets and wrote songs to go along with the themes of the show, culminating with a full performance on Friday for their parents. A projector was used to illuminate the puppetry and several of the youngsters could be seen on Thursday sneaking over to see their newest pirate or witch creations on the big screen.

DinoRock co-founder Ingrid Crepeau, who makes by hand the life-size ‘‘body puppets” used in the performance and also dons them on stage, said she enjoys a break from performing to help children creatively.

‘‘These kids are my favorite to work with because you can see the impact right in front of you,” said Crepeau, who, along with singer⁄songwriter Michele Valeri has been entertaining children nationally for more than 20 years. ‘‘You can just see the lack of confidence turn into confidence.”

Through sponsorships from the Mead Family Foundation and longtime Montgomery County residents Jeffrey and Carol Leonard, the workshop was offered free to students from federally-funded Title I schools, which have a significant portion of their enrollment eligible for free or reduced-priced meals. The students were provided lunch and bus transportation. Their parents were offered free transportation to the children’s Friday performance as well as family tickets to Saturday’s main DinoRock show at Strathmore.

Diane Mohr, supervisor of the Title I program for Montgomery schools, said Strathmore had come to her with the idea and needed no funding from the school system. She then proposed the idea to Harmony Hills and Broad Acres teachers, who were then asked to select students.

Scott hoped that when the children returned to school, they would be the envy of students with more traditional, less productive breaks.

‘‘Many of these kids might have friends that were on vacation or something like that so next week they can say, ‘We went to Strathmore for a workshop!’” she said. ‘‘We want it to be like a sense of pride for them.”

Anna Gudiel, mother of Antoinette, a Harmony Hills student who attended the workshop last week, said she was thrilled when she heard her child would be able to advance her artistic interests for free.

‘‘She would have to be at home with her older sister and three other kids, probably being bored,” Gudiel said. ‘‘I had nothing else for her to do. And to tell you the truth, I wouldn’t be able to afford to send her to anything like that.”

On Thursday, the students were happy to be in an educational setting outside of a traditional classroom. While happily munching on snacks, many walked around to show their friends the puppet they made or sang along to the pirate-themed tune they penned the day before.

‘‘I’m enjoying this camp because you get to learn new things like how to make puppets and how to use them,” said Faith Wade, a Harmony Hills fourth-grader. ‘‘In regular school you have to learn different things every day. Regular school is boring.”