NEW PORT RICHEY — Owen Rocks, a River Ridge High School senior, knows what it’s like when classmates shy away from someone with a learning disability.
Rocks worked to overcome his disability and is an honor student with plans to become an environmental attorney. He sat recently with New Teacher Academy classmates who listened intently. They also shared stories of how being “different” was a troubling experience.
“My first language was Polish, and I had to learn English," said Vanessa Crespo. "Sometimes kids didn’t understand what I was trying to say.”
“I was born in the U.S., but went to live in Colombia when I was 5 months." said Allison Isaza. "When I came back to the U.S., I was 7 years old.
"I’d earned a ticket at school and went to collect it. Another child said I couldn’t have it because I didn’t speak English.” She wants to help change the culture, so others kids don’t experience similar challenges.
Rocks did, too, and he had an idea. Why not create a puppet show and take it into local schools?
The puppets, with Teacher Academy student voices, could teach younger kids how to treat those who are different. Rocks named the project: “No Strings Attached.”
The name was appropriate for the hand puppets and also implied that differences should not be limiting. Students liked the idea, and so did Beth Hess, a River Ridge teacher and Teacher Academy advisor.
Much work lies ahead. Students must write scripts and build a portable stage.
Hess says 23 is a good number of puppets, allowing one for each category listed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and 10 more for conversation interaction. Hess and her students hope the show will go “on the road” in late spring.
Hess and students are grateful for a 2018 Innovative Classroom Project grant from the Pasco Education Foundation, that has helped.
"That will help build the set but is only a dent in the budget for the total roll out," Hess said.
A late spring inaugural show is planned.
Quinton Stedman, who joins classmate Ryan Reiche with stage construction, picked up a puppet dressed in jeans and a striped T-shirt, with brown fuzzy hair. When he made the puppet talk, classmates chuckled but they knew the message was serious.
“All disabilities need to be treated equally so others understand,” said Reiche.
Lea Mitchell, Pasco County Schools' director of leading and learning, observed the interactions.
“I wish every staff in the county could be like the Teaching Academy," she said, "where there is so much potential to relate and to covert one another.”
To help by donating a puppet or helping to pay for them, contact Beth Hess at [email protected]
Times Correspondent Gail Diederich is a retired teacher. She has 32 years of experience, including 28 years in Pasco County Schools, where she taught gifted students and was a reading specialist. She also taught education, general studies and business leadership at Pasco Hernando State College and at Saint Leo University.