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Conversation with Anna Sobel

Jewish educator and puppeteer launches program teaching languages through puppetry

By Stacey Dresner

Anna Sobel, director of Talking Hands Theatre, has developed PuppetSpeak, a video-based program that teaches languages through puppetry. Sobel envisions PuppetSpeak as a way to infuse remote education with “fresh energy, just as educators and parents are casting around for ways to keep kids engaged in learning one year from the start of the pandemic.” 

The languages offered in the videos are Spanish, French, Hebrew, Hindi, and English, all languages that Sobel speaks. 

She says the design is based on the latest developments in memory research, and begins with immersion in the language by watching a dramatic scene with no translation, after which the viewer repeats words or phrases while hearing and seeing what each word means. 

To increase cultural awareness, the backgrounds for each set are actual photographs from the country one is learning about. Sobel says she developed the program as a response to the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. 

PuppetSpeak subscribers sign up and receive an access code that they can use to log in to the program on any device.  Currently still building the program, Sobel emails subscribers the video of the week on  Monday mornings. Soon she plans have the full program up on the site, so new subscribers will be able to log on any time and learn at their own pace.  

Sobel lives in Shutesbury with her husband, musician and music producer Brian Bender and their two small children.

She recently filled the Mass. Jewish Ledger in on how she came up the idea of PuppetSpeak and how it helps teach children to become “citizens of the world who speak one another’s languages.”

JEWISH LEDGER: Tell me how and why you developed this program based on the events at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. What were you seeing and experiencing that made you want to do this?

ANNA SOBEL: The riots that day were so completely shocking, and such a wake-up call to the prevalence of racism and xenophobia. In the aftermath, as I saw close-ups of the flags and the t-shirts the rioters had as they desecrated the Capitol, I understood, too, how much antisemitism also played a part in the events that day. My wheels started spinning right away, thinking, what tools do I have that could stem the tide of hate in this country? My own anti-racism work since the killing of George Floyd last summer also played a part in which languages to include; I wanted to lift up languages spoken in countries with non-white majorities, such as Mexico and India. And including Hebrew seemed like the right thing to do to combat antisemitism — I don’t know of a multi-language program for children that offers Hebrew. The idea for a puppet language program had come to me just before New Year’s, and this seemed like the time to launch it. 

JL: How long did it take you to develop this new program and who are your customers?

AS: I started building the program immediately after that. It’s been kind of insane, since we have small children at home, so there have been a lot of late nights and long hours getting everything ready. The subscriptions are trickling in slowly, but the few I have are super enthusiastic. I love hearing from families that their kids are repeating the new words at dinner or re-enacting the scenes with their stuffed animals. I have several homeschool families who built it into their routine, logging in three days a week, as I recommend, to review the week’s video. A couple of families are doing both Hebrew and Spanish. One family is doing the Hebrew program in preparation for a year they’ll spend in Israel. The preschool class at CBI’s Hebrew school is doing the program, as is the whole Hebrew school at Beit Ahavah. 

JL: Why did teaching different languages become the focus? Is it about more than learning a language?

AS: The main goal of the program is really to counteract the phenomenon of the ‘Ugly American,’ who has little understanding of other cultures and only speaks English when abroad. In addition to the language, I try to convey a sense of the culture by setting specific scenes in the appropriate place within the country. So a scene between two monsters in French takes place among the gargoyles at Notre Dame; in Hebrew it’s by the Dead Sea next to a creepy dead tree; in Spanish it’s in a graveyard; in Hindi it’s among sculptures of monsters guarding a temple; and in English it’s in an abandoned mine in Appalachia. Selecting the photographs is a whole other aspect of the program, which is so much fun for me as I revisit places I’ve traveled to, and it adds another dimension of fun and learning, especially during these COVID times when travel is so limited.

The other thing I should say it’s really about is humor! I have so much fun writing the episodes and making them super silly. After so many years doing shows for young children, I have a fair idea of what kids find funny. And the idea is to make you laugh so hard you’ll want to watch each video again and again, until, BINGO!  you’ve learned all the words.  

JL: Do you speak all of the languages that are being offered? Have you taught languages before?  

AS: I do, and others as well. I started with Latin in 6th grade, and that gives you a wonderful understanding of the structure of languages, and it turns out the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes. When I travel, it’s very important to me to learn the language and to stay long enough to get more than just a cursory feel for the place.  Some of my longer visits include living in France for three months at age 15, in Israel for six months at age 19, and in India for a year at age 24. At times I’ve thought of working as a translator or a linguistics professor, but mostly I just really enjoy speaking languages with native speakers—and, not to brag here, but I especially love surprising people by speaking their native language without an American accent, which I think just comes from being a puppeteer and a student of accents and voices. It just flies in the face of what people think about Americans!  In terms of teaching, I’ve mainly taught Hebrew, which I’ve done for many years, but I’ve performed puppet shows and theater shows in both French and Spanish since college, and was on a television show with puppets that was in Hindi when I lived in India. 

JL: How did you develop the curriculum for PuppetSpeak?

AS: Since the beginning of COVID, I’ve been teaching Hebrew on Zoom for the Beit Ahavah kids. When we were in-person, there were certain games I developed and adapted to teach different words and numbers for pre-K -2nd grade, but now I had to invent a curriculum for Zoom. So the puppet language program is somewhat based on the order in which I’ve introduced concepts for my Beit Ahavah students this past year, and also based on my many years of language study.

JL: Which and how many of your puppets are a part of this program, and can you describe them and how they are used to teach?

AS: I have tons of different puppets, so I didn’t build any specifically for the program, although I’ve been limited by those that have a moving mouth. To some degree, the scripts are inspired by who I have to work with, so I have a walrus from my show WHALE TALES who teaches the numbers 1-5 by attempting to build a block tower, but his clumsy flippers keep knocking the blocks over, necessitating lots of repetition, which is the name of the game in language instruction.

JL: How do you produce your videos?

AS: After I write and translate all the scripts for that week’s episode, I set up a green screen, a camera, some studio lights, and a microphone… and oodles more audio equipment that my other half, Brian Bender, has in his studio where I record. Then I point a phone at the back of the camera and connect it to a computer on the ground facing me—that’s my home version of a monitor. That allows me to ensure my puppet is looking right at the camera, isn’t listing to one side or anything, and to check that I’m not visible in the shot. It’s backward, so it’s always tricky to work out which way to move to correct things! Lastly, I get suited up with any masking I need to wear—usually a green hat and sometimes a green sleeve or two, just in case the top of my head or my arm is visible. Then I turn on the camera and audio track and run the scene and the repeat-after-me section in each language, one after the other, in one long track. It’s a great work-out for my brain to have to shift from one language to another! Then I disconnect everything and the editing process begins!

JL: How long is each video and how many you done?

AS: Oh man, after so much work, the videos are only a minute or two long! But that’s actually great, because the idea is to watch them more than once at a time. At this writing, the program is 12 videos long. In the future, I may extend it to more advanced concepts.

JL: What ages and grades is this program for?

AS: This program is beginner level. I always think puppetry self-selects—if you’re a fun-loving adult, I think there’s no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy the program. You’d just whip through it a lot faster than children would. On the other hand, I’ve designed it so you don’t necessarily have to be literate to do it. I’d recommend it for ages three through 10.

JL: When the pandemic hit, what did this do to your work as a puppeteer? 

AS:: I did lose a ton of work at first. Any shows I had booked for schools and public events for spring and summer 2020 were canceled, and most were not rescheduled as online events. But when PJ Library of Eastern Mass. reached out to me to start doing weekly shows starting in May of 2020, from there more Jewish organizations around the country heard about me, and I started doing shows for communities I never would have been able to reach otherwise!

JL: What do you hope PuppetSpeak will accomplish?

AS: World peace. Is that too much to ask? All right, then I’ll settle for cultivating a new generation of kids who are curious about other cultures, who travel with humility, and who embrace newcomers to this country.

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