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March 29, 2004

Drama class uses puppets to teach about tolerance

From: Fayetteville Online, Fayetteville NC - Mar 29, 2004

By Jessica Banov Staff writer

CyEra Gray is proud to be deaf, and she wants younger children to know that her disability does not prevent her from communicating with others.

CyEra, a 12th-grader at Douglas Byrd High School, has found an avenue to convey her message. She is a student in the advanced theater class at the high school. The class is performing the "Kids on the Block" puppet show at area elementary schools to teach tolerance and understanding of the disabled.

The high school students each operate their own puppet children. The puppets have a range of disabilities. Some are obvious, such as being blind or being in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy. Others are "hidden disabilities." Two of the puppets have a learning disability and a behavioral problem. One of the puppets talks about seeing a therapist.

The "Kids on the Block" puppet show has been around since 1977 and has evolved to address current issues.

The theater class visited three elementary schools last week. On Friday, the puppets were at Sherwood Park Elementary.

CyEra, who wears a hearing aid, operates a puppet named "Mandy." Mandy also is deaf and wears a hearing aid. CyEra puts her hands through Mandy's hands and uses sign language to talk to the children. Another person sits behind CyEra to operate the head of the puppet. On Friday, CyEra taught the children signs for "I have a cat," "Yes," "I like to dance" and "I love you."

"My puppet and I have the same experience," CyEra said after the play through an interpreter. "I want the children to learn deaf children can do anything. I live a regular life."

Bob Baker, the drama teacher at Douglas Byrd, said the puppets had been sitting in storage for at least eight years. The school has not had a drama program during that time, so he knows the puppets have not been used. When he learned the school had the puppets, he got permission for his students to perform and learn the "Kids on the Block" script. The puppets, covered in dust, were cleaned and restored.

"I wanted to do some character education," Baker said. "I wanted to give them a real experience. Why learn a show and not go out and perform it?"

The students also learned how to operate cumbersome puppets and a series of sketches that introduces the puppets' disabilities to the audience. The high school students have formed relationships with their puppets, sometimes speaking in character after the show is over.

Relating to puppets

Arroney Holifield, an 11th- grader, said she relates to her puppet, "Melody James." Melody is a girl with four older brothers who tease her, particularly about her glasses. They call her "four eyes." Arroney has older brothers and wears glasses.

"We have a real close relationship," Arroney said. "Everything she goes through, I go through. I'm curious like she is. I went through the same things when she was little."

In the show, Melody meets many of the other characters and asks them about their disabilities. She tries to befriend them, realizing that it isn't fun to be teased. Arroney said she hopes the children learn from Melody that people just want to be treated fairly.

Tamara Biggerstaff, a fourth-grade teacher at Sherwood Park Elementary, said the puppet show made her students more aware of people's feelings.

"It's not necessarily a hardship," Biggerstaff said. "They felt more aware of what the challenged person feels."

That's what the older students hope the younger ones get out of their show.

"Knowing we got through to that one person, he could go around and tell his friends," said Amanda Hockenberry, an 11th- grader who serves as the show's narrator. "To see in their eyes they understand, it's a good feeling."

Staff writer Jessica Banov can be reached at or 486-3562.

Copyright 2004 The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer