Roosevelt Elementary School counselor Paula Jones Johnson and school psychologist Sara Jensen Fritz have a fun solution up their sleeves for the distance learning doldrums that some students might be feeling.

Literally — the solution is literally up their sleeves. The two are wearing puppets on their arms, performing in a Muppets-style skit show that is posted online twice a week.

Called “The Kitty and Louis Show,” it stars Jensen Fritz as “Kitty” (who is, ironically, a mouse), and Jones Johnson as “Louis,” a friendly brown bear. Each episode is only a few minutes long, but the pair pack a lot of laughter and learning into a short amount of time. They banter, joke around and also tackle some tough subjects, all in creative and age-appropriate ways for kids in elementary and preschool.

One episode, for example, deals with the topic of frustration. Louis is trying to build something with sticks, but it doesn’t come together for him and he gets frustrated. He tells Kitty, who sympathizes and suggests some positive things he can do to make himself feel better.

“You can say, ‘Well, I’m just learning and I’ll get it next time,’” Kitty advises. “Or, ‘If I keep practicing, I will get it.’”

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By the end of the episode, Louis' frustration is gone, and he and Kitty talk to the camera, telling the kids at home to be kind to themselves, to say something nice about themselves every day, into a mirror.

It’s about building self-confidence and teaching valuable social and emotional skills.

With schools closed since mid-March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit Lakes students have been distance learning from home through an online program that’s focused on academics. Jones Johnson and Jensen Fritz wanted to show their students that they’re still there for them, to provide the support and life skills lessons that kids need in order to cope and be successful — especially during uncertain times like this.

Paula Jones Johnson, left, and Sara Jensen Fritz have been partners in puppetry for almost 20 years.
Paula Jones Johnson, left, and Sara Jensen Fritz have been partners in puppetry for almost 20 years.

“One of the concerns we have, as school counselor and school psychologist, is these kids all being out of school for almost six months (including the summertime) … It’s a little bit more of a vulnerable time,” Jones Johnson said. “It’s six months of no real structure and that support they’re used to.”

“There are a ton of supports we give, but this one's just a little bit different," Jensen Fritz added. “I think there’s a call for this. The response has been such that it’s the most bang for the buck, in terms of getting contact for the kids in a way that’s fun and still covers some of the questions they might have or things they might be going through.”

“The Kitty and Louis Show” is available on Seesaw, an online educational app that Roosevelt is using for its distance learning program. Jones Johnson and Jensen Fritz post the videos to their pages on the app, where students and teachers can view and share them. New episodes are now being posted on YouTube, as well.

“We’ll cover a mental health topic one time, and then do a fun one the next time, so it doesn’t get too heavy,” Jensen Fritz said.

In the “fun ones,” Louis and Kitty talk about activities kids can do inside, away from screens, or about games they can play outdoors, to connect with nature. To make it more interactive and engaging, students are encouraged to share photos or videos of themselves doing the activities (such as building a fort) on Seesaw.

Jensen Fritz said she and her partner in puppetry decide on topics for the skits “at the last minute” before filming, honing in on emotions that kids are likely to be experiencing at the time, like boredom or worry. They formulate a basic approach to the topic, and then ad-lib most of the dialogue as they go. They film themselves on a computer at Roosevelt, in front of a green screen that one of the teachers there just happened to have around.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” Jones Johnson said of their casual process. “One day we were particularly punchy, and I think I edited out five or six chunks. Sometimes it takes several takes, other times just one.”

Louis and Kitty’s resurrection from storage

Jensen Fritz and Jones Johnson have a nearly 20-year history in puppetry. “The Kitty and Louis Show” isn’t something they just started during the coronavirus school closures; instead, it’s something they revived because they felt the time called for it.

Before this, Louis and Kitty were collecting dust in Jensen Fritz’s shed, where they’d been sitting in storage for eight years.

“I had taken one puppet class at Hamline (University, in St. Paul) for my master’s degree,” Jones Johnson explained of how it all got started. “It was a two-day course in the summer, where you went and you made your own puppet.”

That puppet was a friendly bear, then named Fonz, who later evolved into Louis.

Jones Johnson started working for the Detroit Lakes Public School District in 1994. When Jensen Fritz was hired in 2001, “We just kind of hit it off, with the way we like to joke around and have fun, and I brought that puppet out of the closet one day, and she got all excited. At that time, I only had one other puppet, a mouse that didn’t have a mouth.”

That puppet would evolve into Kitty.

Louis and Kitty, in earlier days. (Submitted Photo)
Louis and Kitty, in earlier days. (Submitted Photo)

With encouragement from Jan Rootham, the technology teacher at the time, the two started giving impromptu “puppet chats” as part of the student video news announcements that Rootham filmed in the media center. That was in 2003.

In 2006, they launched a campaign at Roosevelt called “Incredible You,” and every kid at the school got a T-shirt with the puppets’ picture and the slogan, “I’m Incredible, You’re Incredible” on the front. The kids wore the shirts in their all-school picture.

Then, the puppets took a back seat for a while, as Jensen Fritz and Jones Johnson started a new business with another friend of theirs and published two children’s books, “You and Your Military Hero” and “Every Kid’s Guide to Living Your Best Life.” They returned to the forefront in 2012, when they were incorporated into the business as a means of character education for kids — but not before getting a redesign by local artist Hans Gilsdorf, and getting their new names, Louis and Kitty.

Organizations loved the program that the puppets were a part of, Jensen Fritz said, but funding was hard to come by, and they didn’t have the support they needed to keep it going. That’s when the puppets were put in storage.

Jensen Fritz and Jones Johnson knew they weren’t done with Louis and Kitty yet, though. They were already talking about bringing the puppets back again, as part of Roosevelt’s PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) programming, even before COVID-19 came along. When the pandemic hit and schools closed, “the rest just happened,” they said.

Jensen Fritz said the feedback on the videos has been great: “Teachers have said they appreciate that there’s something like this, that the kids are enjoying it … They like it.”

The two plan to keep making new episodes through the end of this school year, and may film more again next school year, if there’s a continued demand. They’d like to keep the show going.

On the web

Check out "The Kitty and Louis Show" on YouTube at tinyurl.com/kittyandlouis.