Sharon Newman Uses a Cast of Puppets to Help Her Teenage Students Laugh Off Growing Pains
She fights an ‘epidemic of inferiority’ among her cherished kids
Lisel is orange, chartreuse and heartbroken. Having failed to make the cheerleading squad, she pours out her woes: “I want to be popular (sniff), everything I try bombs (sob), I’m nothing but a loser (moan).”
Her plight is more than a little familiar to teenagers but one not ordinarily suffered by hand puppets, of which Lisel is a charming, 27-inch-high specimen. Though she has never been to Sesame Street, Lisel is an old friend of Sharon Newman’s eighth-grade interdisciplinary class at the Bloomfield Hills (Mich.) Junior High School.
Newman uses Lisel and her friends (with names like “Tear-a-long, the dotted lion”) in an unusual pilot course popularly known as “Meology.” Its goal is to improve the self-image of the students and, in turn, foster respect for others.
Perhaps a little defensively, Newman denies her course is just another frill to take students’ minds off reading and writing. “This is not a retreat from the basics,” her course outline emphasizes. “It is designed to help junior high students live effectively in a complex world”—or, as she puts it, to cope with “present shock.”
Sharon Newman’s own life experiences have ranged from airline stewardess to Fulbright scholar in India—with no showbiz at all. Yet the dramatics in her classroom are a vital part of her teaching method. “I walk down the hall and look inside the lockers, and I see pictures of Charlie’s Angels and Kiss—that’s my competition,” she says. Newman is concerned that youngsters are bombarded with notions of perfection that breed an “epidemic of inferiority among them.” As Lisel the puppet wails, “Did you ever see an ugly Barbie doll?” Newman echoes, “How do you teach students to value self-discipline when society advocates instant gratification? Every time I see a bumper sticker that says ‘If it feels good, do it,’ I want to crash into that car.”
Newman worries that in school and out “the troublemakers and the beautiful kids” get all the attention; average boys and girls are largely ignored. “I want to teach them to feel important because they are unique and wonderful,” Sharon says. “With the puppets I try to plant a seed.” Says Bloomfield Hills principal John Cullen: “This may seem like a baby technique, but it really works.” One 13-year-old explained earnestly, “The puppets really tell you about yourself. Your deepest thoughts come through.”
Newman’s authenticity originated in her own adolescence as a 180-pound chubette with pimples. At high school in Gary, Ind., her announced intention of becoming a stewardess set off derisive howls. She lost 70 pounds and, after graduating from Michigan State with a degree in history, she flew for United. She was married (but is now separated) and then won her Fulbright in 1970 to study global education. She is presently a Ph.D. candidate in curriculum and adolescent psychology at MSU, which last year gave her an outstanding alumni award.
Even as Dr. Newman, Sharon plans to keep her classroom puppets busy. And in their behalf she is wearing braces on her teeth. Her belated introduction to orthodontics is less an effort to identify with her teenage pupils than to improve her ventriloquism. “I had an overbite condition,” she explains, “that made it hard to talk with my mouth shut.” Then she concedes with a laugh, “I feel like a 35-year-old going on 13.”