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Behind the Mask

Behind the MaskTransforming a local program in Medford, Tufts senior Rachel Klein is using puppets as an innovative tool to teach young children about their peers with disabilities. Medford/Somerville, Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.29.04] As a puppeteer, Rachel Klein works hard to ensure her audiences hardly know she's there. But the Tufts senior's work on stage - part of an innovative program to educate elementary school children about people with disabilities - has made a lasting impact on many children in the University's neighboring city of Medford.

"People never seem to understand when I would say that I perform puppet shows," Klein said in a Boston Globe profile of her work. A Spanish and community health major at Tufts, Klein has spent the last three years transforming a struggling initiative to use puppets in the classroom into a popular and successful educational program in Medford's public schools.

"For the first six years [since the equipment was purchased by Medford], a variety of volunteers performed the shows sporadically," reported the Globe. "Then along came Klein. The Stamford, Conn., native was looking for a community service project and was attracted to the puppet show. Klein had no background with puppetry, but learned the scripts and techniques by practicing."

Working with students from Medford High School, Klein has been performing the innovative educational puppet show for students in kindergarten through fourth grade. Using the bunraku style - a genre of Japanese theatre in which the puppeteers dress in black and wear hoods - the Tufts senior manipulates four-foot tall puppets to perform skits that teach children about their disabled peers.

Since jumpstarting the program, Klein has performed for hundreds of school children - capturing the hearts of her audiences and recognition from the local community. She was even awarded the key to the city of Medford by Mayor Michael J. McGlynn.

Klein says the task is often challenging - especially when she and her fellow puppeteers field audience questions at the end of the show and ad-lib the answers. But the Tufts student says that the most nerve-racking part of the performance can also be the most rewarding.

"The first time that I performed and it was time to ask the kids if they had any questions, they began talking directly to the puppets," Klein told the Globe. "It was very surprising, but it was also very fulfilling that they forgot that I was even there."

Klein, who is in the process of training a local Girl Scout troop to take over when she graduates, says that her work has been a rewarding experience.

"It's very committing," Klein told the Globe. "But it's something I love doing."

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