Paddling with Puppets: A conversation with Glen Caradus

One of the first things I noticed about Glen Caradus was that he was always bringing really fabulous teaching materials to the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre. There was the treasure hunt he had made, with reference to stands of birch and cedar in Anishinaabemowin. There was the terrain map of Peterborough where you could place animals where you had seen them. And then, one day, he came into the Environment Centre and unrolled three huge map segments. It was a fully interactive, hands on, foots on, map game that he had created from his experiences with Adventures in Understanding (a canoe trip that he helps coordinate that connects youth from First Nations and other communities/nationalities as they paddle from Peterborough up to Curve Lake). I was literally blown away by this map! It is interactive, embodied and playful: an astounding educational game.

We hear a lot about creativity and innovation in teaching. These are linked to entrepreneurship, often seen as a key component of education in world that desperately needs new ways of relationship to the planet (Kelley & Kelley, 2013; Kelly, 2016; O’Brien, 2016; Robinson, 2020; Robinson & Aronica 2015; Zhao, Y., 2012). Glen embodies all this: he is a creative educational entrepreneur with a passion for kids and the planet. Many know him as one of the Paddling Puppeteers: a daring duo who paddle the Kawarthas telling and singing stories about our relationship to this land. I know him best for his work in outdoor education and for his deep connection with the land and it’s peoples, human and other-than-human.

I asked him to chat with me about his experiences and his journey to where is now, teaching outdoors at Rowan Tree, a Waldorf inspired nature school in Peterborough, Ontario. In these COVID-times, during lockdown, we eschewed the usual fireside meeting we might have had and met over ZOOM. We began with a land acknowledgement which I invited him to do. Glen gracefully spoke about both of us being at Nogojiwanong, “the place at the end of the rapids” on the traditional lands of the Michi Saagig Anishinaabeg, with whom we are in relationship with specifically through Treaty 20 of 1818 and the Williams Treaties of 1923 (personal communication, January 23, 2021).

Glen speaks our land acknowledgement

What inspired this guy to combine puppets and canoes and sing about our planet and especially this region of the Kawarthas? It turns out a strong supportive family with roots in education, music and gardening coupled with a transformative moment in his own education at Trent when he took Native Studies 101 as an elective. Three weeks later he changed his major: “everything about it intrigued me, moved me, outraged me. It was such a gamechanger” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). What a poignant example of how pivotal education can be in our lives! Glen also speaks about the importance of ‘fertile ground’ within community for growth and development, echoing Sir Ken Robinson’s voice talking about the similarities between good soil, education, and community (Robinson, 2020, Timestamp 7:00-10:34).

Glen speaks about his schooling, family and the importance of community.

I was excited to talk about his adventures with the Paddling Puppeteers. I don’t just have a passing interest in this: puppets have transformed my teaching with my son, enabling our homeschooling experience to be peopled by many classmates, all local animals (plus a dragon, of course), who have aided my son’s education by having, and overcoming, with his help, their own educational challenges.

Glen talks about one of his shows: Plugging into Nature (Caradus 2016). It was filmed at the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre.

Glen recalls that the Paddling Puppeteers started in a local coffee house, as so many creative ventures do, with his friend and colleague Adam Brown. Both of them had experience with puppets working through the Canadian Mental Health Association “promoting wellness and mental health awareness for children in a really sort of fun and creative way” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). What came of that coffee was genius. “We thought: ‘Wouldn’t be fun to do our own puppet show, but with, you know, history and the environment as a theme?’” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). Glen was deeply inspired by Pete Seeger’s grassroots activism “promoting the cleanup and the caring” (personal communication, January 23, 2021) of the Hudson River in his retrofitted boat, the Clearwater (The Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc., 2021). Glen recalls his excitement: “Let’s replicate that. Let’s do that in a canoe!” (personal communication, January 23, 2021). He goes on: “Our lofty goal was to clean up the Otonabee River through our puppet show. To raise awareness about it’s beauty and to draw people to the river. The show really was, you know, all about the water and the shoreline. The river still needs some love, bit we feel like we made a contribution” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021).

Glen recalls the beginnings of the Paddling Puppeteers.

The winter of 1998-99 was a time of passion and puppets, with scripts being written in time for a summer launch – in a birch bark canoe – through the waters of the Kawarthas. But it was also a time of community. Glen and Adam put up posters saying “Come help us”. They were overwhelmed by the response. Their first puppets were “low budget – in the best sense of the word” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). And they were made by friends and community. Glen brings up the Bread and Puppet Theater, founded in 1963 by Peter Schumann: “his whole thing is no budget. You don’t need a budget. You need people, ideas, cardboard, tape. And you can do incredible things” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). Since that time, the puppets have expanded in scope are are now made, in part, by a puppeteer in Toronto. But, I take the original point: creativity doesn’t have to be expensive! And, indeed, when we are talking about sustainability (a key message of the Paddling Puppeteers), this is an important consideration: what can we use that we already have?

I asked him how a puppet, coming to life in his hand, brings connection to kids and enhance their learning. Glen muses: “It’s transformative in the moment for me. It makes me happy. And, you know, it sustains me. And it’s obviously such a great medium, suspended disbelief” (personal communication, January 23, 2021). He talks about a play he did with the Canadian Mental Health Association, Feelings are Important, where they were able to discuss some pretty deep issues. Glen notes: “Putting a puppet on your hand and creating characters or voices. Yeah, it seems to pull kids in for the most part” (personal communication, January 23, 2021).

Glen speaks about the power of puppets to discuss hard issues.

The tapestries behind him, where he is sitting in his Rowan Tree classroom, are from his puppet shows. There is an interactive time at the end of one of the shows when the kids get to restore the shoreline and attach them to the stage. “It’s the idea that they become the stewards. The idea we can all play a role” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). This is key: enabling kids to be agents of change.

Glen talks about getting kids involved in his puppet shows through re-wilding the shoreline.

But the Paddling Puppeteers isn’t the only thing that Glen is involved with! As I noted in the beginning, I got to know him at the Environment Centre, where he works to connect kids with nature. As with his puppetry adventures along the waterways, he roots much of these teachings in connecting kids with Indigenous wisdom and developing community ties between cultures. What he has to say about this is deeply moving.

Glen speaks about his incorporation of Indigenous knowledge.

“I’ve also incorporated Indigenous knowledge. You know, the expression “Nothing about us without us” is a useful one. That comes from an elder. So, I’ve tried to really work on partnerships. So, anything that I’m presenting the elders have give me some input and permission. That’s really important. And I’m just amazed at the generosity of the elders. That’s been a really nice journey … As a non-Indigenous person, it’s a process of reflection, constantly… The beauty of the culture is what really drives me but also the profound connection to land through the language and culture of the Michi Saagig Anishinaabeg is really remarkable and I feel like it’s important on so many levels, that window into Mino Bimaaddiziwin – you know, living the good life – which is acknowledging yourself, your family and all your relations living in the natural world around you. It’s an amazing teaching.”

(Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021)
Glen’s song Aki miinawa Niibi (Land and Water) incorporates Anishinaabemowin introducing kids to the animals of the Kawarthas.

His deep passion for this work profoundly impacts this region. One of the ideas about creativity is that it’s not just enough to have the ideas – that brilliant flash of insight – you actually have to put it into action, have to birth it into the world (Robinson & Aronica, 2009, p. 67; O’Brien, 2016, p. 4). Kelley & Kelley call this “creative confidence” (2013, pp. 10-11). Glen exudes this creative confidence in his entrepreneurial endeavours which all focus on building community and connection with the world. I am recalling that large map game he often brings to the Environment Centre. But this map game wasn’t the beginning of the story. That story starts with another canoe trip.

(Fuentes, 2019)

In 2014, Glen “jumped at the chance” to be the on-water coordinator for the annual Adventure in Understanding, a five night canoe trip for First Nation and non-native youth from Nogojiwanong (Peterborough) up to Ashigamog (Curve Lake). This program was developed and supported by the Rotary Club of Peterborough, Curve Lake First Nation Youth Committee, Camp Kawartha and the Canadian Canoe Museum. During this 100 kilometre canoe trip, youth canoe together and connect through games and meetings with elders at the various stops along the way. “It’s really a piece on reconciliation”, Glen notes (personal communication, January 23, 2021).

This inspired him to create “giant map game of the route” to be used for outreach throughout the region. This has been a partnership between Curve Lake Cultural Centre and Camp Kawartha. Interestingly, he has had little uptake from the school board. This prompted him to work with local film-maker Rodney Fuentes to produce a documentary to promote this interactive embodied learning experience that truly situates the kids within the social and natural landscape. How it works is that you roll your dice, and move a birch bark canoe along the route, answering questions about peoples and the land along the river. Of course, all canoe trips are an adventure, so there’s an element of chance: mosquitoes might just drive you crazy and you end up back at a previous campsite or position along the river! Or you might make better time with a tail wind at your back!

(Fuentes, 2020)

Glen speaks a little about “the fine line between appropriation and appreciation” of Indigenous practices and understandings (personal communication, January 23, 2021). He encourages teachers to work with the Indigenous consultants attached to their boards, acknowledging the nervousness many non-Indigenous people feel when trying to incorporate cross-cultural knowledge within their classes. Glen points out how outdoor education has a natural role here, reaching a lot of kids through centres such as Camp Kawartha. Of course, some of the most poignant moments for educators is when the students become the teachers. Glen recalls a Anishinaabe youth at one of the camps at the Environment Centre last summer who led a tobacco ceremony and harvested cedar: “It was really something else. This kid’s 9 years old and what an impression he made on the other kids” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021)

Glen speaks about sharing stories and cross-cultural connections.

Glen, himself, is researching his own cultural (Scottish) traditions on the land and working to incorporate that into his current teaching at Rowan Tree: “I think if we all go back in our culture we realize that we have some similar traditions” (personal communication, January 23, 2021). He tells the story of the red stark who brought fire from the land of Tir-Na-Nog, noting the parallels between this and the stories of Coyote from Indigenous tradition. Glen further recalls two Rwandan boys who, two weeks after having arrived in Canada from a refugee camp, were in a canoe on the Adventure in Understanding trip: “They were quite amazed at how similar Anishnaabe traditions were to theirs” (personal communication, January 23, 2021). I think this underlines the importance of stories to human connection, both to each other and to the land. As Caduto & Bruchae note: “Stories form a link between our imagination and our surroundings. They are a way of reaching deep into a child’s inner world, to the places where dreams and fantasies are constantly sculpting an every-growing world view” (1994, p.11)

Glen’s most recent foray into storytelling, creativity and education has been at Rowan Tree, a Waldorf inspired forest school. “Waldorf is a lovely approach to education with a real emphasis on nature, creativity and gratitude,” Glen notes (personal communication, January 23, 2021). He mentored his class in producing a Solstice Play: “the kids wrote the script, which, you know, brought in literacy, and then they designed the set and made masks. It was a story of a giant snowball hitting the sun and breaking it into pieces and then the animals have to go out and find the pieces of the sun because they were unhappy with the dark and the cold. So they went on this quest and each of them found a piece of the sun and put it back together … It was such a great process of them learning cooperation because how do you take all these different ideas and facilitate that and come up with a script” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). An important lesson here was also finding the balance between ambitious and simplicity: “You know ambitious is good,” Glen notes, but he had to remind the kids to keep it simple (personal communication, January 23, 2021). Though in my mind, directing fourteen “rambunctious” kids into creating a play has a lot of ambition and is far from simple!

Glen talks about the Solstice play his Rowan Tree School class created.

But here, Glen is embodying the type of teaching Fullan (2014) and others are calling for: a teacher that focuses on “the learning process, developing students’ ability to lead their own learning, and to do things with their learning. Teachers are partners with students in deep learning tasks characterized by exploration, connectedness and broader, real-world purposes” (2014, p. 7). Furthermore, he is actively embracing play. Deborah McNamara, clinical counsellor and educator at the Neufeld Institute, calls play “the birthplace of personhood”. She states that “there is no greater task in raising young children today than creating the conditions that will protect the space ad time for play” (McNamara, 2016, p. 55). I think Glen brings so much to his students because his teachings always incorporate play and because he doesn’t teach his students, he provides opportunities for learning.

Glen speaks about the importance of working through challenges with kids.

One of the pieces that came up at the end of our conversation was the importance of working through challenges: building resilience. I asked if there was anything he wanted to share, either about personal development or teaching practice. Glen reflects: “On some level it’s daily isn’t it? Situations one-on-one with a child that’s upset or a child that’s, you know, has overcome something and is really pleased”. Then he brings up the Adventure to Understanding: “100 kilometres – it’s modest in some ways. Now, there are two days that aren’t modest – the kids are paddling all day long – but, you know … when we arrive at Curve Lake and you see those kids .. they’re proud” (Glen Caradus personal communication, January 23, 2021). He talks about a time when two kids didn’t want to be on the trip and didn’t want to paddle. They worked through this difficulty with some help from their peers – the canoe floated in the middle of the lake for awhile. However, when they arrived at the shores of Curve Lake, their excitement and pride was enormous, having worked through the challenges that come with cooperating in a canoe!

Glen talks about the importance of challenges for adults too!

Glen further recalls his own experiences with his friend James Raffin who was involved with Connected by Canoe, a two-part journey from Kingston to Ottawa that took place in May of 2017. It was about reconciliation, about connection and about community, much the same way Adventure to Understanding is. Glen termed it “a floating conversation about Canada”. The weather wasn’t the best (to put it lightly!) and Glen recalls James Raffin’s quip that “Miserable is memorable. Fair is forgetful” (personal communication, January 23, 2021) with the lesson being that challenges are where we grow. I think even had the weather been fair, that canoe trip would have been memorable! But I also know that I don’t tell as many stories about the times when my canoe trips have been lovely. Instead, I talk about the time in Temagami when the waves filled the canoe with water and we lost our map and our compass! So, point taken!

(Canadian Canoe Museum 2017)

I end my conversation with Glen, regretfully, but with the knowledge that this is just one piece of a larger, on-going conversation. As I write this, I feel grateful for the time Glen took to speak with me about his own experiences. They have not only enriched my understanding of Glen’s amazing contributions to our community and our children, but also of my own pedagogy and place in the larger web of educating in this marvellous community where canoes and puppets and music are all a part of teaching not only our youth, but ourselves in how to belong to this world. Thanks Glen!

Reference List

Adventure in Understanding. (n.d.) Adventure in Understanding. Adventure in Understanding.

Bread and Puppet Theatre. (n.d.). Bread and Puppet. Bread and Puppet Theatre.

Caduto, Michael J., & Bruchac, Joseph. (1994). Keepers of life. Discovering plants through native stories and earth activities for children. Fifth House Publishers.

Camp Kawartha. (n.d.). Camp Kawartha. Camp Kawartha.

Camp Kawartha. (n.d.). Environment Centre. Camp Kawartha.

Canadian Canoe Museum. (2021). Canadian Canoe Museum. Canadian Canoe Museum.

Canadian Canoe Museum. (2021). Connected by Canoe. Canadian Canoe Museum.

Canadian Canoe Museum. (2017, November 13). Connected by Canoe. . The Canadian Canoe Museum.

Caradus, Glen. (2020). About the Paddling Puppeteers. Phil and Glen.

Caradus, Glen. (2016, December 8). Plugging into nature. . Glen Caradus.

Curve Lake Cultural Centre. (n.d.). Curve Lake Cultural Centre. Curve Lake Cultural Centre.

Curve Lake First Nation. (n.d.). Curve Lake First Nation. Curve Lake First Nation.

Fuentes, Rodney. (2020). Map Game. Rodney Fuentes.

Fuentes, Rodney (2019, January 28). Adventure in Understanding 2018. . Rodney Fuentes.

Fuentes, Rodney. (n.d.). Video Productions. Rodney Fuentes.

Fullan, M. & Langworthy, M. (2014). A rich seam: How new pedagogies find deep learning. Pearson.

Hudson River Sloop Clearwater Inc. NY. (2021). The Clearwater Story.

Kelley, T., & Kelley, D. (2013). Creative confidence. Unleashing the creative potential within us all. Crown Business.

Kelly, R. (2016). Creative development: Transforming education through design thinking, innovation, and invention. Brush Education Inc.

McNamara, Deborah. (2016). Rest. Play. Grow. Making sense of preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Aona Books.

O’Brien, C. (2016). Education for sustainable happiness and well-being . Routledge.

Peterborough GreenUp. (2012-2017). Green Up. Peterborough GreenUp.

Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative schools. Penguin Books.

Robinson, Ken. (2020, August 23). Creating a new normal. . The Call to Unite.

Rotary Club of Peterborough. (2021). Rotary Club of Peterborough. Rotary Club of Peterborough.

Rowan Tree School. (n.d.). Rowan Tree Children’s School. Rowan Tree Children’s School.

Zhao, Y. (2012). World class learners: Educating creative and entrepreneurial students. Thousand Oaks.

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