Health class takes on a different meaning for the ninth-grade students of Anne Niklaus at Franklin Junior High School in Brainerd. The 14 students in Niklaus' class participate in a puppet and skit group called People Enhancing Education with Puppets and Skits, or PEEPS.
PEEPS travels around the Brainerd/Baxter area performing short skits and puppet shows for elementary students, discussing topics such as safety, bullying, rumors, and drugs and alcohol. To date, Niklaus, who grew up in Willmar and has been a teacher for 21 years, estimates PEEPS has performed for more than 800 people in the three years since its creation.
For the students in Niklaus' class, PEEPS is an opportunity to gain confidence and work with children. "I feel that when I go out I can have an affect on the kids," said Danielle Hendrickson, a PEEPS student.
"It makes me feel good that I'm influencing these kids and that they look up to us," said Lissie Jacobsen, another student in PEEPS.
PEEPS grew out of Niklaus' master's research. "For me, it was about what can I do as a teacher to influence other people," said Niklaus, who graduated with a master's degree in educational leadership from Southwest State University in 2001. "My 52 pages of research was about how it affects my own students."
Niklaus said the original idea came from her own experiences with her father's smoking habits and, later, death.
To participate in PEEPS, students must apply for the class a year early. Students must get teacher recommendations, as well as commit to remaining drug- and alcohol-free.
Students in PEEPS still must cover the regular health curriculum in their class. As they do, they write skits and puppet shows about the material they are covering. Niklaus has the students write letters to their former elementary school teachers to get permission to present in the schools and classrooms.
At a recent presentation in a fifth-grade classroom at Riverside Elementary School, students performed a skit titled "The Monster," about rumors and their effects.
"Rumors hurt people's feelings so you shouldn't start them and you shouldn't spread them," Aani Rangen said at the end of the skit.
In a second-grade classroom, PEEPS students performed a skit about bullying and then had the Riverside students join them in a discussion about solving conflicts peacefully.
The PEEPS health class runs for 18 weeks, and students perform at schools two or three times a week in April and May. Niklaus said there were 30-40 applicants this year, with 14 students comprising the final group.
For Kyle Schilling, PEEPS not only has given him a chance to work with younger students, but PEEPS also has given him opportunities to impact students his own age, by helping him tell his peers about drugs, alcohol and why he has chosen not to use either.
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