Professor uses puppets to teach students, connect with community

Jason Yancey with a few of the more than 200 puppets he has created.
Jason Yancey with a few of the more than 200 puppets he has created.
Image Credit: Elizabeth Lienau & Christine O'Brien

Puppet characters from shows like "The Muppets," "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" have become pop culture icons in the worlds of television, film and theater. At Grand Valley, puppets are teaching Spanish to college and area elementary school students. Well, the puppets themselves may not teach Spanish, but the man behind the puppets does. 

Jason Yancey, associate professor of Spanish, brought his more than 15 years of puppeteering experience to Grand Valley in 2009. Since then, he has incorporated his unique expertise into upper-level Spanish theater and drama courses. During these classes, students write and produce original Spanish puppet shows, and also create their own customized puppets. Students choose the style of puppet they create based on what is needed to tell the stories they write. 

"Some stories work well with shadow puppets where there's music and the story is more emotional, but in other stories puppets might need to be able to pick something up or talk, so they'll need to build wide-mouth puppets, or Muppets, as they are commonly known," Yancey said.

The scripts are eventually narrowed down to about 10, which students refine together in class before performing them at Spanish immersion elementary schools in West Michigan.

"The presence of my Spanish-speaking university students in those classrooms validates the importance of understanding Spanish culture, learning Spanish and going to college," Yancey said. "That message has nothing to do with puppets, but the puppets are a reason for us to be there."

Yancey discovered his love for puppeteering while pursuing his bachelor's degrees in theater and Spanish from Brigham Young University in Utah. He took a puppetry course in order to prepare for a stage adaptation of the children's book "Where the Wild Thing Are," which he would eventually write and direct for another class.

The professor of Yancey's puppetry class was so impressed by the puppets he created and how he worked with them that the duo performed together at festivals, children's hospitals, holiday events and university events for the next six years while Yancey completed his master's degree in Spanish.

Since that time, Yancey has amassed a collection of more than 200 custom-made puppets. When students work with his "stunt doubles," Yancey said they develop the confidence needed to speak in Spanish in front of an audience.

"You can't see the students at all because they're hiding behind a curtain and the puppets, so if there is a grammar or vocabulary mistake, it's the puppet's fault, not theirs," he said. "Because of that, students who are otherwise shy or timid really open up."

Some of Yancey's students have even capitalized on their distinctive experiences with puppeteering by adding it to their résumés.

"I'll often get students who tell me they put 'Spanish puppets' on their resumes and they say people ask and get excited about the puppets," Yancey said. "That unique conversation makes you different and stand out. Honestly, I'm here at Grand Valley, in part, because someone asked me those kinds of questions in my interview."

After the final curtain falls, Yancey said he keeps returning to puppeteering because of the community connection.

"I feel like all of the work produced by myself and my students means something and changes the world, even if only for one kid," he said.