Tra-Digital Storytelling, Part 1

There is just something about listening to a good story. Whether it is a monologue, a picture book or a puppet show, a good story goes a long way. Many of our students today have not been exposed to or have had the luxury of hearing some of the great old tales that I heard as a child. So let’s bring them back; but, with a twist. I loved puppets as a child and have returned to seeing the importance of using them to tell stories to our children today. We need to blend where they are in this digital world with those traditional stories and hands-on building skills to transport students back to the wondrous world of stories…….

This is my introduction to Tra-Digital Storytelling.  This summer I was able to again share my thoughts, ideas and passion about this topic with many fellow educators through ISTE2013 and DENSI2013.  In both instances, I learned that there are others out there that want to try out these ideas in their classrooms as well.  So, this is the beginning of a multi-part series on Tra-Digital Storytelling where I will explore the various forms of traditional puppetry and how to combine these techniques with our digital world.

Part 1:  Don’t Give Up the Overhead Projector Just Yet

For many years now, I have been a Board Member of the Asheville Puppetry Alliance and have had the privilege of being able to go behind the scenes of many puppet shows in order to learn how these shows are put together.  Little did I know that the overhead projector was such an integral part of producing a shadow show.  Overhead projectors?  What?  Really?  We have those in our schools and they are becoming the most discarded item in this technological world!  How can I use this piece of almost outdated technology in the classroom today to motivate and inspire storytelling?  Drum roll……. It’s time to bring back shadow theater!!

Yes, it is true that there are many forms of shadow puppets but this is one that we already have the tools and equipment to create.  I have found boxes of overhead transparencies sitting on shelves in many classrooms and overhead projectors filled with dust in the back of equipment closets.  I have even found large boxes of the overhead transparencies that have an outer frame allowing the transparency to resist being bent or folded.  Other important items that will be needed for your show are:

  1. Permanent markers in various colors
  2. Scissors
  3. One white shower curtain with hooks or white sheet
  4. Clothing rack or some way of hanging the shower curtain or sheet so that it can stand on its own as a screen
  5. Students creative minds
  6. Story or idea to tell

Once you have all of these items, you are ready to begin.

Designing the setting or background scene can be done through coloring the transparency using permanent markers. If you can find the type of transparencies that can be used with printers or copy machines, then you could design your setting in a drawing or paint program and print it out for use during the show.  Either way, remember to leave a majority of the area blank to allow room for your characters to move through the scene.  Next, you will create your characters by drawing or printing them out using transparencies and cutting them out for use within the show.  There are two options for working with your characters on the overhead projector.  One, you can attach a straw or skewer to maneuver your characters through the scene or two, leave some of the transparency attached to your characters to use as handles. After your students have practiced their puppet show, it is time to put it in front of the audience.  And again, you have options for presenting the show to an audience:

  1. Projecting backward – This is the traditional way teachers have used the overhead projector to teach content and still be able to see their students.  They stand next to the overhead, facing the children, and the students watch the projection that is on the screen behind the presenter.
  2. Projecting forward – This puts the puppeteers behind the screen (white shower curtain/sheet) using the overhead projector to project in front of them.  The audience is forced to focus on the show being projected onto the shower curtain while the puppeteers are hidden from the audience. Depending on the viewing screen size needed for the audience, the overhead projector can be pulled further away from curtain/sheet to produce a larger picture.

Click here for a retelling example of the story Swimmy by Leo Lionni performed by 2nd graders.

If you have any questions or issues along the way, feel free to ask.  I can’t wait to see all of your creative ideas and shows.  Please send me a link when you get them online.

**Other creative options:  If you don’t have transparencies, you could create your background scenes and characters using construction paper (color would not be an issue) as all you would see would be the black shadow.  More intricate cutting would need to be done using this technique in order to give your characters eyes, mouths and necessary details.  Blending the two techniques would give the audience both a colored and a black and white show.  Additionally, colored plastic folders can be used for very deep bright colored items.


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  1. dietra garden said:

    Connie, your idea is cool. I only have one box with a few transparency sheets left in it (i use them for all sorts of different things), but I might put out an all call from my school – maybe there are boxes hidden somewhere. I’m putting your idea in my project folder for sometime in the future. I’ll send you info when we’re rolling. Hey, maybe I’ll track it as an artifact, ha ha ha ha!

    Thanks for sharing your ideas! Dietra

    • Conni Mulligan said:

      Did you ever get started or even finished with the project?

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