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Pretend Personas, Real Conundrums

Julia and Jay are Kindergarten girls from very different backgrounds.

Julia is Latina and lives in the city. She was adopted as a baby from Guatemala by a single mother who is caucasian. Julia is vegetarian, loves to dance and has a dog named Bella.

Jay is caucasian and lives in a suburb of Boston with her mom, dad, younger brother and dog. She loves the Red Sox and the Patriots, and her favorite food is candy. She keeps her hair short and doesn't like stereotypically girly things.

Today, however, both girls have a problem.

Julia's school is holding a "grandparents and special friends day" and Julia doesn't have anyone to bring. Her own grandparents have all passed away.

Jay is upset because her friends have been grabbing her at recess. She doesn't like it but is worried about how to tell her friends without hurting their feelings.

Julia and Jay could easily be children in a school like Foote. They're not. They're stuffed "persona dolls" that are helping Foote's youngest learners navigate social and emotional challenges they face in real life (such as the grandparents day situation), while expanding and affirming their understanding of identity.

This week found our Kindergartners engrossed in conversation about these persona dolls' conundrums.

"What do you think Julia could do in this situation?" asks Kindergarten teacher Susan Keegan.

"Maybe she could invite her mom to grandparents day," offers one student.

"That's a good idea but the school says moms and dads aren't supposed to come," Susan gently replies.

"Maybe she could make a robot disguised as a grandparent," another child suggests. The students go around like this for a while before one child hits on a bright idea. "She could ask her friends at school if they have grandparents she could play with. She can meet them and then they'll be happy."

At this, Susan lights up. "Julia has a friend named Miranda who has four grandparents coming," she informs the class. "Julia will have zero people there. Do you see a way we could make this work for Julia?"

All hands shoot up in the air.

Persona dolls debuted last year in Kindergarten and are taking on an expanded role this year. Our faculty was introduced to the idea by the Foote's diversity consultant, Dr. Sandra "Chap" Chapman, who is Director of Community and Equity at The Little Red School House in New York. Along with Julia and Jay, Susan and Kindergarten teacher Alexandra Wittner will introduce additional dolls throughout the year that have a diversity of ethnicities, economic situations and family structures.

"The idea is to use the dolls to problem solve and explore identity and reinforce the children's identities," says Alexandra, adding that children perform better when they feel known and seen in the classroom.

Susan adds, "They act as a mirror and a window so children can see diversity that is not represented in the classroom and mirror kids who are in the classroom." Last year, Susan introduced a doll who was Muslim. "It supported the one Muslim student in the class by giving other children an opportunity to learn about Muslim celebrations through the doll, rather than putting all the focus on that one child."

Teaching through persona dolls helps children develop social skills such as dealing with common problems and resolving conflict. By discussing events, identifying a character's feelings and doing group problem solving, children teach one another to feel empathy and understand others' motivations while gaining insight into complex emotions.

Susan and Alexandra have planned a scope and sequence for incorporating the dolls (for instance, they'll use them to discuss socioeconomic diversity before winter break), while leaving room for spontaneity when individual classroom issues arise. Beyond the dolls themselves, the teachers are creating a "student population record" for each member of their class to better understand their identities and backgrounds. They're doing the same for the dolls—who are based on real people—and then seeing where the two overlap to create connections that will support the Kindergartners.

"The goal is to help give each child a voice," says Alexandra, "so that everyone feels heard in the class."

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Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.

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