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Sock Puppets and Learning
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 04/25/2016

Prison at night

The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

This is a true story that lead to inadvertent learning and unexpected classroom rapport. It occurred in the classroom of a college the college for which I teach. And when you hear the old saying that trainers learn from their students, I realize that it is true.

Let us go back to Gogebic Community College in 2010 during a lesson on contraband control for CJC 104 “Client relations in corrections”.

The stage was set. The class was divided into two competitive teams. Each team was provided with a sock and a small metal container filled with mints [i].

In a purposely vague manner, I told them that the sock and the tin of mints were all that they could use to construct a weapon (or weapons). They had fifteen minutes to complete their task.

The only other rule was that they had to conceal their work whenever I was within arm’s length of their work area. As I “made rounds”, the students were very creative in camouflaging, making distractions, and keeping me oblivious of their craftsmanship.

While making a round to the team that dubbed themselves “The Average Joes”, I was knocked off my square (albeit briefly) by what I saw. One of the participants had used a marker (an unauthorized tool in this exercise) and drawn a Joe Bouchard puppet on one of the socks that I provided. It was unflattering, but amusing. In the many times that I have facilitated this exercise, I had never been “rewarded” with a sock puppet of myself. Live and learn.

The sock artist looked at me with an expression of amusement and challenge – clear provocation. What is an instructor to do? Did I risk losing face by letting this insolence go unchecked? Should I take control in a commanding way? Should I feign indignity to lighten the mood?

I simply looked the artist dead in the eyes and demanded with faux disapproval that the sock portrait should have a goatee. Without missing a beat, the artist’s teammate implored that the puppet should also have hair. It was a great teaching moment for me. A student’s creativity pulled us into a spontaneous bit of levity. I believe this loosened the class a bit more and allowed for more creativity.

There is a fine balance in training between command and clownery. This condition is complicated by the various classroom personas that instructors adopt. I am sure that one can chart on a continuum the dogmatic and entertaining types of facilitators. And certainly, more instructors are plotted in the middle rather than on the extremes.

When things work out well, the facilitator recognizes creativity among the students and allows this to lead the class in other directions. Therefore, the instructor must be willing to give up a little control in order to let others instruct. Otherwise, the lesson is more of a two-dimensional lecture with unrealized possibilities.

The flip side of that is pandemonium. The instructor must be able to ride what may become a high powered sports car in the form of creativity run amok. And when participants are very creative, it is not unlike a white knuckle drive in a very powerful and dangerous vehicle.

This philosophy of balance has been with us since ancient times. Remember that Icarus was advised to take the middle road – not to fly too close to the sun, nor to have wings wetted down by the sea foam. Moderation is the key.

In addition, facilitators must be true to their natures. If you are more comfortable as a factual conduit of knowledge, that is the path you should take. If, on the other hand, you shine as an entertainer, that should be your teaching tactic.

And all of this is tempered by the nature of the training. Some topics are dry due to their content. That does not, however, lessen their importance in the scheme of things. Also, there are very serious topics and debriefings that should be presented in a straight forward, serious manner.

Keep your eyes and minds open, trainers. In training, one never knows what funny, strange, or instructive things can occur. In addition to providing circumstances where pre-professionals in a college class could learn about contraband, there was more. I saw teamwork, camaraderie, quick improvisation, and humor. Plus, I have a sock puppet souvenir.

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

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