Build classroom tolerance with persona dolls…
Stuff and new stuff
are a tool for teaching about almost anything, but especially diversity.
Each doll is given its own name, racial or ethnic identity, and
a few personality traits, usually by the teacher. “This is Paco. He’s 4 years old and
he speaks Spanish and some English. He lives in an apartment
with his mom and dad, grandmother, brother, and two sisters.
He likes strawberry ice cream, pizza, and Spiderman.”
As time goes on, the teacher tells stories about Paco. One story
might tell about celebrating a sister’s birthday, and another about how someone
made fun of him. Afterward the teacher and children discuss Paco’s feelings
and brainstorm solutions. Among the goals are to introduce children to differences,
help develop empathy, and learn problem solving skills.
Louise Derman-Sparks introduced this teaching tool in Anti-Bias
Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children (National Association for the Education
of Young Children, 1989). The concept actually originated with Kay Taus, a
kindergarten teacher who participated with the author on an anti-bias task
In subsequent years, many teachers in the United States and abroad have used
persona dolls with great success. At least two books have been written about
Kids Like Us: Using Persona Dolls in the Classroom
Written by Trisha Whitney. Redleaf Press, 1999. ($24.95 paperback)
Trisha Whitney, elementary school director in Eugene, Ore., has
been training teachers about using persona dolls since 1995.
Her how-to guide is a primer for teachers who have never used
the dolls before.
She suggests how create a collection of the dolls and map out stories that
reflect real-life situations facing children in the classroom. She explains
how to first introduce a doll so children develop a relationship with it. Then
she describes a five-step method for each storytelling session:
1. Introduction. Reacquaint the children with who the doll is. “Remember
this is Mickey, and he has cerebral palsy. It’s hard for him to get his
muscles to do what he wants them to.”
2. Situation. Outline the situation to be discussed. “Last week his new
baby brother was born.”
3. Feelings. Ask how the doll is feeling. Use active listening, and repeat
what the children say. “Yes, he’s feeling mad because the baby
cries all the time.” “Maybe he feels lonely because Mom doesn’t
have much time for him.”
4. Discussion and problem solving. Ask children what the doll could do. “Yes,
he could scream like the baby. What else?” “Jamal, what did you
do when your family had a new baby?”
5. Resolution. Give the story an ending, incorporating ideas the children have
offered. “Mickey was feeling left out. But one night after the baby was
asleep, he told his dad about how he was feeling. Now his mom and dad take
turns playing with Mickey for about a half hour while the other one watches
The book contains suggestions for adapting the dolls to different age groups
from toddlers through the primary grades. It contains sample planning sheets
and a list of resources. The real-life examples not only illustrate the storytelling
method but also provide ideas for lots of stories.
Persona Dolls in Action
Written by Babette Brown. Trentham Books, 2001. ($29.95 paperback)
Babette Brown, a native of South Africa, credits Derman-Sparks
and Whitney, among others, as influences for her book. As the
title suggests, Brown focuses on how persona dolls can counter
biased attitudes and discriminatory behavior. She cites evidence
from recent research as well as anecdotes from teachers who have
used the dolls.
Brown makes it clear that there is no one right way to use the dolls. She suggests
presenting them to children as small friends with their own special place in
the room or as visitors who come out of the cupboard on occasion.
Teachers can start with one or two dolls and build up the collection. Almost
any dolls can be used as long as they accurately portray children being represented
(not fashion dolls). Many teachers make the dolls from cloth so they can represent
a range of skin colors, facial features, and physical conditions. A simple
body pattern is easy to sew, and a 20-30-inch size fits into readily available
Brown encourages parent involvement at the outset. In the chapter on “Including
Parents,” she describes how to run a training session for parents.
One chapter is devoted to training teachers. It begins with ideas for raising
awareness about different forms of discrimination and ends with an outline
of a sample training session, complete with nine exercises, on using persona
Because the book was published in Great Britain, North American readers may
notice a few references to unfamiliar agencies (“QCA” and “National
Association of Teachers of Travellers”) as well as different spellings
(“colour” and “programme”). In addition, most of the
resources have a London or other British address.
Nonetheless, readers everywhere will find a wealth of information about using
persona dolls to help children learn about similarities and differences among
people and to appreciate the hurt that prejudice and discrimination can cause.
and new children’s books about differences
Written by Laura Langston and illustrated by Lindsey Gardiner.
Viking Children’s Books, 2004. ($15.99 hardcover)
Margaret and her grandmother go for walks, sing songs, play piano,
and gather apples. But more and more Grandma can’t remember.
In joyful innocence, Margaret forgives her grandmother’s
confusion of Chopin for Bach, pears for apples, and roses for
But on the day Grandma can’t remember Margaret’s name reality is
painful: “At first I think she’s teasing. But then I see that look
on her face and I know. My head gets all whooshy; my eyes start to sting. Grandma
can’t remember who I am.”
Readers are reassured that love within families endures, even when memories
do not as the child proclaims: “I am Margaret. I am your remembering.”
Sumi’s First Day of School Ever
Written by Soyung Pak and illustrated by Joung Un Kim. Viking
Children’s Books, 2003. ($15.99 hardcover)
This thoughtful picture book describes a young Korean girl on
her first day of school. Like all children entering a new school,
Sumi is overwhelmed by a new building, unfamiliar people, and
unknown expectations. And for Sumi, the day is extra hard because
she doesn’t understand the language everyone is using.
She decides school is a lonely, scary, and mean place.
The timely intervention of a great teacher and friendly girl helps Sumi reconsider
her feelings. Readers rejoice with Sumi realizing that school isn’t such
a lonely, scary, or mean place after all.