"So if I am able to preserve this writing of mine…I would like you to give it the title 'House of Glass.'"

Wayang kertas–Success and Failure, dicampur bersama (all mixed together)

Paman Sam with my next door neighbor at a late-night wayang performance. Nobody knows what happened to Sam after this photo.

Someday I’ll actually get to writing about real wayang (including the two performances I participated in), but today, I’m only going to write about the wayang kertas assignment I gave to my Seni Budaya students at the end of the semester. Kertas means paper–the assignment was to draw any wayang character the student wanted on a piece of construction paper, decorate it, attach movable arms, and fashion on bamboo sticks in the manner of real wayang puppets. I encouraged my students to think outside the box and expand the concepts for their characters beyond the traditional shapes. After hearing suggestions like wayang Michael Jackson and wayang Spongebob from my classes, I was hoping I would get modern additions to the traditional wayang line-up. I took the classic image of Uncle Sam and turned him into a wayang Paman Sam as an example for the students (Paman Sam was unfortunately left behind when I took him to a wayang performance near my village; I think he ended up in the trunk with real leather characters).

Alas, I got no such contemporary characters. Much to my disappointment, there was no Michael Jackson, no Spongebob, no Ronaldo, and no Justin Bieber. All of the students used the profile of a traditional character. Some free-handed the shape while others used a stencil I provided them (I will not provide stencils in the future). I was initially upset that I didn’t get any original outlines, but those worries were settled when I saw most of my students choose to apply their own motifs and color schemes to the clothes and bodies of what would be common characters. Only a few students attempted to reproduce puppets in their true style, but they did a good job for the most part so I let it slide. I also decided it wasn’t such a terrible thing if a student was interested in making his/her own Arjuna puppet–good for them for wanting to stick to the actual thing.

A student uses small icons of traditional characters to draw her wayang kertas.

Overall, I was pleased with the artistry and craftsmanship in the results. Not everyone has the same abilities, of course, so there was a range of results turned in. The best products were stunning. I’ve shared some photos here.

Most importantly, I think most of the students had fun working on the assignment. It’s almost odd that the wayang kertas exercise activity brought out enthusiasm in my students. Wayang is said to be dying as an art form amongst the younger generations in Indonesia, but from my experience, the stories, characters, and aesthetic allure are still alive in the youth. It was exciting for me to watch my students work on this project.

Student using a razor blade to whittle down a strip of bamboo into a stick that can be used to support her wayang kertas.

The most rewarding part of the project, for me, came when it was time to make sticks to support the body and manipulate the arms. My best suggestion, as I had done with Paman Sam, was to use fallen twigs, but I also would have accepted lesser riggings such as plastic straws. One of the students, however, decided there was no reason real bamboo couldn’t be used. Following this one particular student’s example, a group in each class took charge of hacking down a bamboo stalk and whittling it into thin pieces for the class’s puppets (note how–like many things in my classrooms–this became a group effort).

Despite being relatively pleased with the overall creativity and quality of the products, there were numerous frustrations as well. For starters, almost everybody turned in the project late. I got eight puppets turned in on-time (eight out of–four classes times forty students–one-hundred and sixty students, or five percent). I stopped keeping track, but I’d say most of the students turned in the assignments over a week late. I think I could have improved these stats greatly by giving a rubric and taking responsibility for the grading myself (my CP had a wedding part to plan and was absent throughout the duration of the work, but I still gave him the grading rites). These suggestions are classic teacher responsibilities, so I expect that following through with them will lead to improved results in future Seni Budaya projects.

Students work on their wayang kertas.

Perhaps I should just be thankful for the students who turned in something (eventually), because there were still others who flat out didn’t do the project (this also, I hope, will be cured with more strict assignment expectations). As I said before, most enjoyed the work, but some obviously could have cared less. I knew who these students were as the crafts were still in progress, but I choose to not make it my roll to force wayang out of everyone. There were a few students I remember pushing explicitly to do work–to do something–but overall my encouragement and prodding was inconsistent. I decided to concern myself with the students who were working diligently (though belatedly). A better teacher would have given special attention to the dissident students and would have pushed them towards completion. I did not. Though this could be considered a failure, I think it’s a small one compared to the bigger issue–my bigger failure–at hand.

In addition to teaching our students English–for whatever specific and rare purposes that might serve in the future–I view a more general goal here as instilling values such as discipline, work ethic, and self-confidence in my students. The wayang kertas project was a poor exhibition of those characteristics. Immediately, I realized that no students were drawing their own unique designs. A few had creative sketches on paper, but when I asked them when they were going to turn it into wayang, they were hesitant. One student flatly stated that he was to embarrassed to turn his doodle into a wayang kertas. He ended up making a wayang kertas with very similar decorations to Bima, a popular character in traditional shows. Then, two weeks into the assignment, I realized that projects were going to be late–or maybe not turned in at all. I also realized that a lot of these disappointments were my fault. Without having given strict instructions, deadlines, and a rubric beforehand, I knew that I forfeited any chance to turn wayang kertas into a lesson building exercise. This was the real failure. Without the expectations, wayang kertas was only about the art that could be produced.

Adding color to the wayang kertas.

Intentionally framing Seni Budaya projects as a means of building stronger discipline in my students is something I see potential for in the future. Seni Budaya, as a course, presents much fewer obstacles and allows much greater flexibility than the English classroom. Seni Budaya is enjoyable, free from the pressure of a national exam, and open to any language (e.g., all of the instructions for this project were written on the board in English). English, on the other hand, is a subject that has beaten my students down for several years now and is subject to supposedly strict curriculum standards (not really, but that’s another discussion).

By noting the possibilities that can be immediately identified in a Seni Budaya class, I don’t mean to denounce the potential present in English lessons. Peace Corps training included a lot of time for discussions about strategies to make English instruction more engaging as well as relevant to students’ lives and abilities. This is easier said than done. It’s a lot less difficult to develop these strategies in the Seni Budaya classroom where things are less well defined. The wayang kertas exercise is an example of something that the students responded to, and it can be modified and applied to an English classroom (e.g., as a “giving instructions” exercise in an un-modified form).

I look forward to using wayang kertas again and seeing what sorts of creative efforts I get out of a new batch of students. I also hope that I can make a few of my own adjustments and turn the project into something more than just an art assignment. The students showed off a lot of their talents this time around. Hopefully I can get a more dedicated effort as a whole in the future.

Below are some examples of some of the best projects. Click here for a Picassa web album of even more photos.

This example is an interesting mix of traditional design and unique additions.  The shape, crown, wings behind the left shoulder, and blue body hold strongly to the characteristics of Krishna.  The rest of the design is original.  The flowing sash around the waste says “Indonesia and USA” in latin script and “Aris,” the student’s name, in old Javanese script.

This puppet was, by far, the best example of artistry and craftsmanship in all classes.  I watches the student draw and color the whole thing by hand.  The only part I didn’t see her do was apply the color for the skin on the face, hands, and legs.  I have no idea what she used, but it’s the exact same color as real wayang characters.  The stitching that holds together the arms and bamboo sticks was also well executed with close attention to detail.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: Saat November–Moments of November « PC Indonesia terbakar (Jay)

  2. Karen Boschert

    Hello Jay,
    I enjoyed your post. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. I know you are enjoying your family. Say hi to your mom for me🙂. BTW, Erin wants to know why they put the sticks on the front of the puppets?
    Take care,
    Mrs. Boschert

    2011 December 29 at 23.38

    • Jay Wellik

      Traditional wayang puppets are decorated on both sides, and the bamboo stick is split down the middle so that it is exposed on both sides of the puppet. I didn’t require my students to make double-sided wayang, so the students put the bamboo down the front to replicate the 2D perspective of an authentic wayang. A few students–including the female who is highlighted at the end of this post for doing a fabulous job–designed both sides and split the bamboo stick in the classic fashion.

      2012 January 2 at 13.07

  3. Noel

    This is a great article, Jay, and your reflections on the successes and failures of the project are insightful and honest. I’d love to see how you modify this assignment if/when you use it again with your students in the future!

    2012 January 6 at 03.33

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