Andy Gaukel Oral History, 2021/06/05

Title (Dublin Core)

Andy Gaukel Oral History, 2021/06/05

Description (Dublin Core)

Puppeteer Andy Gaukel had carved out a comfortable niche for himself in the Early Childhood Center at Bronx Community College. Then Covid-19 hit, and he had to find new ways of connecting with the college’s smallest students. In this oral history, he explains how he learned new skills to teach online while maintaining his rapport with his pre-schoolers and engaging their parents in a way that he hadn’t before the pandemic.

Recording Date (Dublin Core)

June 5, 2021

Creator (Dublin Core)

Ellen Balleisen
Andy Gaukel

Type (Dublin Core)

Oral history

Controlled Vocabulary (Dublin Core)

English Community & Community Organizations
English Home & Family Life
English Education--K12
English Online Learning
English Social Distance
English Technology

Curator's Tags (Omeka Classic)

New York
Automatic Arts

Contributor's Tags (a true folksonomy) (Friend of a Friend)

Early childhood education
online education

Collection (Dublin Core)


Date Submitted (Dublin Core)


Date Modified (Dublin Core)


Date Created (Dublin Core)


Interviewer (Bibliographic Ontology)

Ellen Balleisen

Interviewee (Bibliographic Ontology)

Andy Gaukel

Format (Dublin Core)


Language (Dublin Core)


Duration (Omeka Classic)


abstract (Bibliographic Ontology)

Puppeteer Andy Gaukel had carved out a comfortable niche for himself in the Early Childhood Center at Bronx Community College. Then Covid-19 hit, and he had to find new ways of connecting with the college’s smallest students. In this oral history, he explains how he learned new skills to teach online while maintaining his rapport with his pre-schoolers and engaging their parents in a way that he hadn’t before the pandemic.

Transcription (Omeka Classic)

Ellen: Hello. I'm Ellen Balleisen and I'm here with Andy Gaukel, who's a puppeteer who works with the early childhood Center at Bronx Community College. He is going to talk about his experiences during the pandemic. So, Andy, could you just start by explaining your professional background and how you ended up working with the Bronx Community College Early Childhood Center?
Andy: Yes. First of all, thanks for having me, Ellen. This is really an honor. So I got my start as a puppeteer when I was in graduate school, actually, just before I went to graduate school for acting. I got my MFA in acting from Trinity Repertory Company, or Trinity Rep Conservatory. I actually did my undergraduate work at University of Kentucky, I got a degree in theater and a minor in English. When I got out of college, I auditioned for a company called Madcap Puppetry in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are a children's theatre puppet company that tours around the country performing original shows doing Muppet kind of puppets. So I had this sort of training in professional work and those style of puppets. And in my final year of getting my acting MFA at Trinity Rep., my third year, an incredible playwright named Paula Vogel who wrote How I Learned to Drive. She's actually won the Pulitzer Prize for that play. She was writing a prequel to that piece called The Long Christmas Ride Home, and Trinity Rep was going to produce it. As part of it, Paula wrote in these puppet parts that represented the children in the play. I kind of begged to audition. And especially when I found out there was a really famous puppeteer named Basil Twist, who's like one of the most incredible puppeteers alive today, he was going to be creating and choreographing the puppets for the play. They said yes. And I couldn't believe it.

I'm a big guy and, and one of the puppet characters in the play was six foot leather bound puppet that came onstage riding a giant surfboard style piece of scenery. It was like 100 pounds and, and I puppeteered well. Also, I just really hit it off with with Basil. We became really good friends. That sort of kick started my puppetry career.
I moved to New York City after I graduated from Trinity Rep. and I worked with Basil a lot. I was in his underwater show Symphonie Fantastique, which takes place in a giant thousand gallon tank of water. I was one of five puppeteers who sloshed puppets. It was very tightly choreographed sloshing. It was really cool.
As a professional puppeteer, sometimes work comes and sometimes work goes, and you have to make ends meet. I waited tables for many years and did all that stuff and had odd jobs. I always had this sort of connection with education and wanting to work with young people, and teach puppetry.
My wife, Kirsty, and I moved back to New York City six years ago. Before that we lived in Scotland, where Kirsty is from originally, and when we got married. And then we lived in Kentucky, in Louisville, and then moved back to New York City.
When we moved back, I googled puppetry jobs, and the first thing that came up was this little company called Puppetry and Practice at Brooklyn College. I applied and, I was very lucky, they called me right away. It was actually to teach stop-motion animation. I had some experience doing paper stop motion animation as well. So I started working for them as a teaching artist. I would go into different schools, mainly in Brooklyn, but sometimes to the Bronx, and I would teach stop-motion animation. Puppetry in Practice also had a contract with the Bronx Community College Early Childhood Center.
And, at the time, I live right across the river from BCC in Washington Heights, I had a really quick commute. So, I started teaching there for them. I taught storytelling and puppetry. I did that for about a year and a half under Puppetry and Practice. And that's where I met the incredible Jitinder Walia. She's really incredible. At one point we were talking, I've always wanted to have my own company, and she really encouraged me to start my own puppetry education company called Atomic Arts. So I did. Then she hired me to work at Bronx Community College. It's funny I, I call her my agent, because she really helps me find other people through other CUNY school system to work with. Other early childhood centers, which is really awesome.
That's how I came to Judy and Bronx Community College. It's been wonderful. They're just an incredible, incredible center with an incredible leader and incredible teachers and incredible students, it's been life changing.
Ellen: Before the pandemic, what did you do with the children at BCC?
Andy: Before the pandemic it was all in-person learning and teaching of course We would do a lot of movement based exercises with our whole bodies. I start my lessons with a full warm-up that incorporates doing puppetry with your body, like different hand puppets.Then we would go into a lesson that's based on what their curriculum is through the Department of Education in New York City. For example, the curriculum could based on plants. So we would have a discussion about plants and look at videos.
When I’m teaching in the classroom I always take a projector with me and project giant images of what the curriculum is based on that month. If it was plants, I would project giant videos of plants growing or trees blowing in the wind. I would change this around every week and create and bring new videos for the students to watch based on. The curriculum at the time.
We then would read a story based around the curriculum. And, finally, we would spend the last half of the class building small puppets that made out of something like paper.
Funny, now that I think about it, before he pandemic I would always prep everything. I would pre-cut the pieces paper the students would use to build their puppets. So I would bring all the pieces that we with me to class. Then the students would use those pieces form their own puppet. Now, during this time of on-line learning, the students have to create and cut their own puppet pieces.
Ellen: When you first heard about the pandemic, what thoughts went through your mind?
Andy: Whoa, let's see. Holy cow. I though, “What’s gonna happen?” My first thoughts were like, everyone's safety, you know, how do we remain healthy? And how's my family? And my wife’s family in Scotland and my family in Kentucky?
Work-wise, that weekend of March 13, 2020, when everything stopped, I got the calls. The calls from my clients and schools I worked with through my company Atomic Arts and my other work with other arts education companies. Everything in schools had to stop immediately. This was my only source of income. So, everything sort of felt like it was going under. Everything had been canceled.
So the prospect of staying in the New York City didn't seem feasible or anywhere, for that matter. My wife works in theater, and her theater closed. Luckily, she was able to keep her job throughout all of the pandemic as a marketing director at an Off-Broadway theatre. But we were in shock and though, “What’s going to happen? What are we going to do?” We're not going to have my income. Just like, millions and millions of people around the world, billions of people around the world.
Ellen: And then you started working to create online lessons for the children at Bronx Community, right?
Andy: So actually, Judy from the Bronx Community College Early Childhood Center was the first person to contact me. I lost the contracts I had to my company. They were gone. So there was no income. And about a week after everything went down, Judy from BCC called me and said, “Hey, I have this idea. I want to pay you the rest of your contract.What about what about making online videos that we could put on our Early Childhood Center YouTube page?” She said, “Maybe you could speak right to the children.”
That next morning, I went outside with my iPhone and started making videos of me in nature. Walking on trails. At the time we were living in Westchester County, by the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail. I thought, “Kids at BCC aren't going outside right now. So I'm going to go outside for them”.
I filmed trees and animals and culminated the videos with a puppet tutorial. So I was going to teach the students how to build a puppet based on the plants that they, that we, were looking at. Actually, I think at that time the curriculum was based around plants in March or April time.
I went back to my apartment and went into our little spare room and made puppets. Actually, a shadow puppet show. I created a shadow puppets of a plants and built a little shadow table stage.
In the video, I showed them how to do this as well at home with their families with things they have around their home. Like a little stools and sheets and flashlights.
When I started out, I had all this footage . I was learning how to create online lessons all by myself. I had to figure out what to, how to make these videos. I knew that an hour and something was gonna be way too long. So I had to edit the lessons down.
That was another huge learning adventure. How to edit. And how to create these videos that young people, three to five year olds, are going to like and be able to sit and watch.
Eventually, I was able to dwindle them down to like 20 something minutes, which was kind of fun and interesting. The cool thing is when we would share them on YouTube, the kids would then send me photos, our parents would send me photos, or the teacher could send me photos of the puppets they were doing at home. So they would send me pictures of themselves with their puppets or videos with their puppets, which was really cool. And then I would use those in the next episode to show the students what their classmates were creating.
So I got to share with them what they were doing at home. It was a way that they could connect with each other before the whole zoom teaching experience happened.
Ellen: When did you start using Zoom? And how did that change what you were doing?
Andy: Oh. I started using Zoom during the summer. I had made these other videos. I think I made like 12 little videos or something crazy like that for BCC and then also, Judy got LaGuardia Community College, who I was also working for their early childhood center. They actually contacted me and Judy contacted them to say, hey, that's what we're doing. And then they contacted me and I did similar videos for them, which was really great. So once again Judy was my agent and she was helping me and so she was able to really help me finish that contract as well, which was great. So starting to use Zoom would have been for Bronx Community College, not until we started back up in September, October time of 2020. Just, you know, this, this beginning of the school year, it's now May 2021. So in this, sorry, September, October, time, late September, early October, I started teaching on Zoom with them. And it's like live in person, which is really interesting. So not live in person, sorry, live on camera with every, all the students either at home in their own little squares, or there's also a classroom, there are students that are in the classroom with teachers. So I will zoom in with them. And it's like, I'm a little like, head in a box. And they take me around the classroom with like, I don't know if you remember Max Headroom, but I feel like I'm like this, like little TV screen with my big head in and I go around, and they show me what they're creating. And I tell it read them stories and stuff. Yeah. That makes sense.
Ellen: So you've got the kids in their Zoom boxes, at the same time that you've got the kids in the classroom?
Andy: For BCC it’s actually two different classes. We do we do an in- school class for the students who are able to come into the classroom. They beam me in via Zoom. And then after that session, I hop on another Zoom with students who are at home. It’s the same lesson plan, but two totally different feelings. Teaching via Zoom to a group of students who are together in the classroom can be tough. There can be a lot of distractions in the classroom. It’s hard when you’re stuck in your little computer screen. The in-class teachers are amazing and they really help. But I so with I could just step through that screen and help. I have to really use descriptive language and be super detailed with ,y isnstruction in order to get things to work during those settings.
When students are learning from home, usually their parents will join in, which is really great. Very rarely they're not there, the parents. It’s wonderful. They will help build the puppets. So it's a really nice interaction.
I find Zoom lessons for the students at home really fun and we find creative ways to use our computer cameras to create our own little worlds that we can enter our puppets into and move them around.
Ellen: So what new skills did you need to learn to do all of this?
Andy: Wow, so the main one is video editing. I had very little experience in video editing. So I really had to teach myself how to make these videos. And how to make them look professional and how to pare them down. You know, obviously, you can tell, I like to talk a lot and go on a lot of different tangents. So I had to learn to not go on a lot of tangents, or just edit the tangents out.
I had to figure out how to slice film, the digital film. How to cut and fade/ All that juicy stuff. And I keep it simple. I use iMovie. it's like really easy. And it almost teaches you as you go, which is really great. Once you dive in it really is easy.
It would take me hours to edit these things at first. Now I feel like I can do it in my sleep. Even just this morning I edited a little lesson for a Bronx Community College, to post to their YouTube. When I finished recording it, I edited it and had it sent to them in less than 10 minutes. So, I guess I've really come a long way in terms of editing.
Other skills I had to learn. Hmmm. I've had to like really hone in on are my teaching skills. Before, when I would go into the classroom, I would always rely on my exuberance. I have a lot of energy. I used to be able to get by on just sort of having an idea of what I wanted to do everyday as a teacher, and just going into the classroom and jumping in. Showing love, support and, you know, being creative. But I think during even during the online sessions, I've had to really pare back and really reign it in. Now, I script everything I do, and I keep it next to me every time I teach online. I spend a good amount of time prepping what I want to say. And that's been a really big thing for me. Just keeping me on track because I can go different places, and it's kind of brought my teaching level up… I hope. I want to say it's brought me as a teacher to a better place, because, you know, it just feels more complete. I’m really grateful that this time has forced me to do all that.
Ellen: So when you go back into the classroom, what will you keep from the new approaches you've developed during this time?
Andy: Yes, good question. Hmmm. I would keep all. I actually got a chance to go back in the classroom last week at Bronx Community College. I taught in person. It felt so amazing. And I was able to use the skills I learned during this COVID age. Being prepared and being organized. I even took a script with me. It was a wonderful experience. So I think I'll always keep those aspects.
Ellen: And what are you most looking forward to about being back in the classroom?
Andy: Definitely human interaction and the connections. The ability to help and be there and not have this thing here, this barrier, this computer screen. These physical barriers. I can’t wait to have real eye-to-eye contact and that real connection. Because online, you can never really read how someone is feeling. Whereas, when you're in a classroom, you can read a student or a teacher's body language there, you can feel the room better. You know if someone is having an off day and needs lifting up. I can't wait. I can't wait to be able to do that
I also can’t wait to have somewhere to go. I need that daily need the structure and yearn for the day-to-day adventures, when I’m not just rolling out of bed and into my classroom.
Ellen: How do you think you experienced during the pandemic has changed you?
Andy: I think it's made me more patient. I've had so many personal highs and lows. Much like everyone in this difficult time.
I feel grateful that I’ve had a lot of time to work on myself, which is interesting. Not only just eating better and exercising more but mentally., Dealing with depression.
This time has taught me to be okay with who I am. And look at what I do and, and it's made me sort of love what I do even more
It’s been invaluable, being able to have this time to connect through these opportunities that I've been given. I feel much more grateful for everything, even though I’ve always been a very grateful person. But I feel like I closer to my wife, my family, I'm closer to myself, my dog, you know, my friends, my students. I really have taken the time to really take that in and feel it. Also, I think it's made me more empathetic. Not that I wasn't before, but I feel more like I want to help humanity. Help the world be a better place. In some ways I feel really rejuvenated. I think just stopping has really helped. Just saying, “Whoa, let’s put on the brakes on a second and breathe”. Of course, it’s been so horrible with people dying and getting ill with COVID. Of course. But, I think it was nice to sort of hit the pause button a little bit. And that's changed me.
Ellen: OK, thank you so much. That was fascinating.
Andy: Thank you. Thanks for letting me talk. Take care. Bye.

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