Teaching Language, Culture, and Tolerance through Puppets

By Tom Porter
Twenty-one Bowdoin student teachers helped stage a multilingual shadow puppet performance for local elementary school children recently. It’s a part of a program to promote tolerance and to advance the study of world languages and cultures in schools.

The students, from Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Margaret Boyle’s class on teaching languages and cultures, are part of the Multilingual Mainers program, established by Boyle nearly six years ago as a partnership between Bowdoin undergraduates and PreK–2 students and families in the Brunswick community.

They were joined by members of the Dragoncillo Puppetry Troupe, an educational initiative that promotes bilingual learning through storytelling, to perform for children at Kate Furbish Elementary School in Brunswick.

Standing behind a screen in the school hall, the undergraduates helped operate a number of intricately crafted puppets, whose shadows were projected onto the screen. They also provided dialogue in all the languages learned in Kate Furbish classrooms: Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Nepali, and German.

“I really enjoyed the Dragoncillo puppet show because it allowed each of our languages a moment to be showcased,” said Rachel Lin ’25. “We used phrases that we taught in class along with new words for food to expose the students to our languages and cultures more. I hope this becomes a tradition for Multilingual Mainers!”

“This was an incredible opportunity to provide our Bowdoin students training to showcase their languages through shadow puppets and create a joyful and memorable experience for all of the three hundred or so students at Kate Furbish that this program serves,” said Boyle, who also directs Bowdoin’s Latin American, Caribbean, and Latinx Studies Program. “Over our twelve weeks at the school, I was able to observe direct world language instruction for early elementary classrooms and new peer mentoring for our increasing numbers of multilingual students in Brunswick.”

Through daily lunches and classroom visits, undergraduates introduce the children to languages they themselves are fluent in. As well as promoting language learning, Multilingual Mainers also provides children with books and other classroom tools to combat racism and intolerance.

The 2022–2023 academic year was the busiest one yet for the program, with Bowdoin students teaching twelve languages and reaching over nine hundred students, from pre-kindergarten to second grade, mostly in the Brunswick area, but with teacher partnerships across the state.

"When home languages are spoken and represented in school, students thrive." One of Boyle’s students in the Multilingual Mainers program, Jilly Sher ’23, wrote this recent opinion piece for The Bangor Daily News.