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Puppets, Kids and Critical Thinking

FOR THE RECORD: Isabelle Kessler’s name has been corrected in this story.

One chilly morning, I could think of nothing finer than the opportunity to sit in an elementary school and watch a puppet show. It started like you might expect. Longtime Albuquerque puppeteer Loren Kahn strapped on her theater box, a one-of-a-kind performance space decorated in silk and brocade, and soon she was eliciting squeals and laughs with a one-woman burlesque of kazoo, tin horn and a trombone-playing, wisecracking frog starring in a revamped version of Grimm’s fairy tale “The Frog Prince.”

Things quickly turned existential.

“This is an hour we will spend together,” Kahn’s theater partner, Isabelle Kessler, told the third- and fourth-graders at Eubank Elementary in a thick French accent. “And when it’s over, we will never have it again. You have expectations for today, which I think is not to be bored, and we have expectations of you, which is to feel. So I hope our expectations meet.”

It was Kessler’s way of asking for complete attention to the program “The Art of Being a Spectator,” which Kahn and Kessler have been taking to elementary schools under funding from the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico Arts and the McCune Charitable Foundation.

That request, as it turned out, was hardly necessary.

The 40 or 50 kids sat in rapt attention as the puppet show unfurled and as Kahn and Kessler led them through a discussion of art and perspective, the difference between thinking and feeling, how the reactions of others influence how we feel.

“What is the difference between being a spectator and being a witness?” Kahn asked.

“What is going on in your head when you see art?” Kessler asked.

“Feelings,” Kessler said abstrusely, “they can multiply.

When someone asked whether the frog in the puppet show was really a frog or a prince, Kahn and Kessler both exclaimed, “Ahhh!” Now we were really getting to somewhere.

“Everyone,” Kessler said, “has a prince or princess inside themselves.”

Then Kessler made a reference to the humanist philosopher Montaigne and told her ponytailed and sneakered audience that Montaigne believed “inside of us we have a crowd of people.”

I turned to the kids to check for yawns or frowns or giggles.

Nope. They were locked onto Kessler.

When Kahn and Kessler asked the 10- and 11-year-olds what a spectator is and what he should do, hands went up.

“They sit and watch.”

“Stay and be quiet.”

“Look carefully.”

“They build.”

“Yes,” Kessler said. “As a spectator we build something in our head.”

Kahn and Kessler developed this interactive curriculum to influence how children think about the various media that surround them – television, video games, movies, theater, art and music.

Instead of zoning out and wasting time, or accepting messages without analyzing them, they want to encourage even the youngest children to engage with everything they see.

“I want to tell them that if you are looking at something, you are alive. Take the time to enjoy what you see, what you feel. I hope that they understand that when they are spectators, it’s a nourishment. To not think, to not engage, it’s terribly dangerous.”

As the world of media grows and fractures into special-interest outlets all with their own “facts,” engaged, critical thinking might be what separates shepherds from sheep.

When “The Art of Being a Spectator” program is complete, Kahn and Kessler will have put on 42 shows for a couple thousand kids – all for $15,000 in funding, which seems like a bargain.

Kessler is a theater director who was a professor of cross-cultural communication in France and who believes preschool isn’t too early to start talking to children about philosophy.

I pointed out to her that she uses some sophisticated language and concepts in a presentation to elementary school kids.

“And they get it!” she said.

When I talked to the kids before they lined up to march back to their classes, they said they loved the show. In fact, it had gone a half-hour over the allotted hour and no one had gotten fidgety.

They all told me they watch some TV and movies, but spend more time with video games – the “screen media” that is becoming a constant in the lives of children.

Jack Lockhart, who is in fourth grade, told me he liked to play “Madden NFL 13” and to watch “Adventure Time” on the Cartoon Network.

But when I asked him to tell me his favorite thing to watch, he surprised me.

“Watching my baby brother sleep,” he told me. “It makes me feel good.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal