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Connecting with the Arts: A Teaching Practices Library, 6-8

Breathing Life Into Myths

A language arts teacher draws on puppetry techniques and help from her school's theatre teacher to engage her sixth-graders in exploring Greek myths.



Mineral Springs Middle School


Winston-Salem, NC




Visual Art, Language Arts


Students create ceramic place settings based on literary characters.

HELEN SCHELL, 6th-Grade Language Arts Teacher
I’m trying to immerse the children in the idea that mythology and Greek culture permeate our day-to-day life. I chose puppets because any time I plan a curriculum for the kids, my first thought is “How can I draw them in?” We’re working with art, we’re working with theatre, we’re working with history, and obviously, we’re working with language arts and writing.


JENNIFER LARSON, Theatre Teacher 

The way I worked with Helen Schell is very typical of what we do here. It started out as a passing in the hallway and that turned into a scheduled meeting. Initially we swapped ideas, and then I tried to stay a part of the process throughout. When the mythology scripts reached the level of production I went in and served as an advisor, working with Helen to get the kids to add some theatrics to the project, and doing some critiquing.

Watching the Video

Helen Schell with puppetBefore You Watch
Respond to the following questions.

  • How does infusing theatre into the study of literature help middle school students learn?
  • What roles might an arts teacher play when a non-arts teacher has already integrated the arts into a lesson or unit of study?
  • How do non-arts teachers work to improve the art-making components of their lessons or units?

Watch the Program
As you watch, keep track of the ways that Helen is integrating the arts into her study of Greek mythology. Jot down aspects of this project that strike you as particularly creative. Also note when and where Jennifer, the drama teacher, steps in to help.

How did Helen stimulate and maintain students’ interest in Greek mythology?

Reflect on the Program

  • What evidence did you see that students understood the myths in a deep or flexible way?
  • Which part of the unit you saw – creating the puppet characters, writing original scripts, or performing and polishing the plays – would be most challenging for you to accomplish?
  • What struck you most about Helen and Jennifer’s collaboration? What were the successful elements of this collaboration?

Connecting to Your Teaching

Reflect on Your Practice

  • Which of your units of study most lends itself to a puppetry or theater component?
  • Who in your school might be a good resource in developing a unit like this?
  • What kinds of adaptations would be required for you to use these approaches with your students?

Adaptations / Extensions to Consider

Scale it back: Try “Readers’ Theater” — dramatizing literature without the puppets. Or try using finger puppets instead of large-scale puppets.

Connect to history: Bring the historical events and figures you are studying alive through puppetry.

Compare cultures: Dramatize multicultural stories using puppets, for example, Cinderella around the world.

Additional Resources

Selected Unit Materials

Puppetry Rubric: A rubric for assessing puppet production (PDF)

Print Resources

Barclay, Greta. Mighty Myth: A Modern Interpretation of Greek Myths for the Classroom. Torrance, Calif: Good Apple, 1982. ISBN: 0866530649

D’Aulaire, Ingri, & D’Aulaire, Edgar Parin. D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. New York: Doubleday,1962. ISBN: 0385015836

Fitzsimmons, Robin, & Verniero, Joan C. One-Hundred-and-One Read-Aloud Myths and Legends. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 1999. ISBN: 1579120571

Graves, Robert. Greek Gods and Heroes, (reissue edition). New York: Laurel Leaf, 1965. ISBN: 0440932211

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. New York: Penguin USA, 1993. ISBN: 0140171991

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1998. ISBN: 0316341517

MacRone, Michael. By Jove!: Brush Up Your Mythology. New York: Harpercollins, 1992. ISBN: 0062700235

Rosenberg, Donna. Mythology and You: Classical Mythology and Its Relevance in Today’s World. Lincolnwood, Ill.: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company, 2001. ISBN: 0844255610

Williams, Marcia. Greek Myths. Cambridge, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 1995. ISBN: 1564024407

Taymor, Julie, & Blumenthal, Eileen. Playing With Fire: Theater, Opera, Film. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1999. ISBN: 0810935171

Latrobe, Kathy Howard, & Knight Laughlin, Mildred. Readers Theatre for Young Adults: Scripts and Script Development. Englewood, Colo.: Teacher Ideas Press, 1990. ISBN: 0872877434

Video Resource

Tamao Yoshida, Tamao (Puppeteer), & Takemoto, Sumitayu. (Chanter). Bunraku: Masters of Japanese Puppet Theater [Motion Picture]. Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities and Sciences. ISBN: 0736545328

Web Sites

Myth Mania
A site containing information on Greek mythology for school projects, homework help, and well-told humorous myths

The Puppetry Home Page
This is an extensive puppetry site, which includes many puppet-making resources and supplies

What You Need To Know About: Top 10 Puppet Making Books
Create everything from shadow puppets to fancy marionettes

Make a Rod Puppet

Teaching Is a Work of Heart – 2001: Reader’s Theater Scripts and Plays
A teacher-created site with plays and scripts to print and read

Gander Academy: Readers Theatre
An extensive site with tips, scripts, techniques and resources

Films for the Humanities and Sciences @
An extensive resource for educational media

About the School

Students walking to Hand Middle SchoolHand Middle School,
Columbia, S.C.

Hand Middle School, located in Columbia, S.C., serves a diverse group of sixth- to eighth-graders. The school has received a host of awards for its academic programs, most notably, Time magazine’s Middle School of the Year. The school attributes much of its academic success to its commitment to the arts throughout its curriculum.

The fine arts mission statement at Hand Middle School reads, “At Hand Middle School, all students should be enriched by exposure to the fine arts through high-quality, comprehensive fine arts courses and the integration of fine arts into every subject.”

Arts Integration at Hand Middle School exists on three levels:

  • Teachers design integrated lesson plans on their own.
  • Grade level team teachers share a common planning period, and plan integrated units together throughout the year.
  • A team of teachers, dubbed “The Renaissance Team,” guides the planning of a school-wide culminating arts festival.
    Through these three levels of arts integration the school insures not only that 85% of its students are enrolled in fine arts classes, but also that art reaches every child at Hand.

Through these three levels of arts integration the school ensures not only that 85% of its students are enrolled in fine arts classes, but also that art reaches every child at Hand.

School information compiled from the Hand School Web site:

Q&A With Teachers

Helen Schell, Language Arts

How much time do you spend on the myths unit and its different components?

The myths unit takes about six weeks in all. I see this class 90 minutes a day, and every day we would do some kind of activity related to a myth and Greek word stems. At the beginning of the unit I give the students the puppet-making rubric. We go to the computer lab to look up on-line puppet-making resources. They have two weeks to make the puppet at home. (I stressed using recycled materials – you don’t have to go out and buy things.) After school during those two weeks I host a puppet-making workshop. It lasts an hour and anyone can come; students feed off each other’s ideas.

The scriptwriting can take three or four days. I spend another day on how you breathe life into the puppet, and then rehearsing can take three or four days. The performing and videotaping takes another two days. Finally, we watch what we’ve done, and critique it using the PPQ (praise, polish and a question) technique.

How would you describe the academic level of the students in your class?

This was an AAP (academically gifted) class, but I did the same unit with a regular class, where skill levels run the gamut. I didn’t have that class make the puppets at home because I was concerned about access to resources. So we had everyone bring in a pillowcase and we animated that, using techniques that Jennifer Larson, the theatre teacher, taught us. That class still wrote and performed plays, and did a great job. The scripts were fantastic. But those kids were disappointed not to make puppets and the plays were harder to understand because there were fewer visual cues using the animated pillowcases – so next year everyone will do puppets.

What language arts and social studies criteria did the scriptwriting address?

For language arts, I have a rubric that addresses the fine details of writing that we’ve been covering, including narrative components like a clear beginning, middle, and end; characterization; and the details that reveal character, like a hand gesture or a yawn, or a particular way that clothing is warn. And kids know by this stage to be working with their five senses in their writing, so we should see adverbs and adjectives at this stage of the game.

The scripts have to meet social studies goals as well as C the students have to mention three places or activities from ancient Greece, like the Olympics, going to the agora (marketplace), lion fights at the Coliseum. So the students get a grade from the social studies teacher as well.

What challenges did you face with this unit? How will you approach it differently the next time you do it?

In the future, I’ll only do hand and rod puppets – no more marionettes or shadow puppets, because those require different types of stages, and that was difficult. And this year I’m going to work with a puppetry theatre group here in Columbia, and we may do a field trip to watch a professional marionette performance there.

I’d like to invite other classes in when we perform, and also air one or two of the plays on the school’s in-house morning television program. We’ve done that before and it’s been successful.

Jennifer Larson, Theatre

How do you make time to plan and teach with the classroom teachers who want to work with you?

My planning with teachers starts in the summer before school begins, during teacher planning days. I make a point of putting a note in teachers’ boxes that I am available and would love to work together on a variety of levels. I include ideas and projects that have worked in the past.

I also make a short speech at the first faculty meeting. I let all teachers know that I would love to do some cross-curriculum planning with them. I tell them there is a script out there addressing almost every topic, and if it does not exist, we can produce an original script with the students.

After this, most of the planning occurs unit-to-unit, lesson-to-lesson. You just have to make the time, love to share your art, and know that some positive energy always sparks magic.

How do you engage non-drama students when you visit other classrooms?

With excitement, energy, and enthusiasm! When I was asked to kick off a language arts unit on Julius Caesar at the local high school, I walked in with a soothsayer costume on and some eerie background music. The teacher turned off the lights and I lit a candle and gathered the students close to me on the floor to tell them the story of the play. Really, all I did was explain the plot, using character acting. But at the end when I continued to yell “Beware the Ides of March!” over and over again and then blew out the candle and stood up, students were hanging on every word. I had not mentioned Shakespeare, acting, or any factual history. A little bit of theatre will go a long way to engaging non-drama students.

In the program, we see Helen’s class doing a PPQ critique. What are some of the critiquing methods that you use in your own classroom?

I use a similar oral and written critique method called “Two Stars and A Wish.” Generally, I ask students to find two positive things about every performance and then one piece of constructive criticism.