After a tense summer that included the COVID-19 pandemic, wildfires and protests against racial injustice, Lawrence High School art teacher Deena Amont approached the fall of 2020 with a determination: to reinvent her entire curriculum.
“One of my goals this year has been to focus on artists of color,” Amont said.
She emphasized art criticism and appreciation of artists who identify as BIPOC — Black people, Indigenous people or People of Color — and developed an antiracism art unit for her classes. She asked her students questions like, “How does art challenge beliefs, traditions and stereotypes?”
With district students starting the school year remotely, the need arose to construct assignments with accessible materials for classes like jewelry and ceramics. Eventually, Amont added puppetry to her lesson plans with the idea of addressing the global pandemic.
She teamed up with puppet expert Spencer Lott, a 2006 graduate of Free State High School, to teach students the art of puppetry.
“The puppet project isn’t something I would have thought of doing, except that I read an article about Spencer at the beginning of the fall semester,” Amont said.
Lott has worked as a puppeteer, designer, director, actor and voiceover artist in numerous productions, including “Sesame Street,” “America’s Got Talent,” and the film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in which Lott and fellow puppeteer and wife, Grace Townley-Lott, recreated the puppets of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Lott also serves as associate artistic director of Trusty Sidekick Theater Company in New York City.
“I talked with one of her classes about the potential of puppetry to enhance storytelling,” Lott told the Times in a message. “Puppets can do things that we, as people, cannot. This explains why there is such a rich tradition of utilizing puppets in political theater.”
In the 1960s, for example, companies like Bread and Puppet Theater — then located in New York City’s Lower East Side — helped effect change by shining light on social and political issues such as housing policies and the Vietnam War.
Amont said her partnership with the FSHS alum proved successful for her students and for her.
“I’m new to puppetry myself, so this was a really great learning opportunity for me.”
The beauty of the assignment — to design a puppet and film the show in iMovie — Amont said, was that whether a student attended school remotely or in person, they could use cardboard and other reusable materials they could find.
“They may not have a lot of specialized art supplies at home, so kids have had to be really kind of creative about coming up with things. I’ve been really impressed with what some students have done.”
As for crafting a puppet in a class teaching sculpture or art metals? It’s all about design, Amont said.
“It’s figuring out how to construct something … so big-picture concepts fit in together really well. It’s just different material.”
Amont originally conceived of the final project as focusing on the pandemic in one way or another, but in the end she didn’t require it. About half of her students chose to create a pandemic-related puppet show.
“It gave the students a lot of choices in terms of the direction they wanted to take their puppet show. It could be serious, humorous, nostalgic and light-hearted, it could have a lot of action,” Amont said. “One student’s puppet was a bottle of hand sanitizer. So her story was the pandemic from the hand sanitizer’s point of view.”
“It did serve the purpose of kids having a safe outlet or a safe way to address some of the things they were feeling. Some kids were really quite honest about how difficult this year has been for them.”