06/14/2005

SPLC Grant Sparks Classroom Change

A Teaching Tolerance grant and a "teachable moment" brought real change to a changing American classroom this past spring, a change that Principal Sonya Cole said still is being felt at her school.

Delaware Valley Elementary School has 600 students. Nestled in rural Milford, Penn., the school is just an hour and a half from New York City. Demographics are changing, turning a predominantly white school and community into a more diverse one. With change sometimes come growing pains.

Delaware Valley was awarded a $1,000 Teaching Tolerance grant, which educators and students used to purchase 39 puppets, illustrating a wide range of nationalities, ages and appearances.

The puppets represent doctors and nurses, bikers and police officers. There are Asian puppets, black and Latino puppets, white puppets, young and old puppets. The school uses them in a variety of short skits, with both live performances and televised performances on the school's closed-circuit news program. The overarching theme is "tolerance for all people."

Cole, though, became part of an unexpected and unrehearsed puppet show, one that touched on themes felt in schools across the country — bullying, ostracism and hurt feelings.

A second-grade girl, after viewing a puppet show, stopped Cole as she was passing through the classroom.

"I think we need to start a club (like one described in the puppet show) because a girl is getting picked on in our class," the student told Cole.

Cole knew the Teaching Tolerance puppets were sitting in the neighboring room.

"So I went and got one that looked like me, an old-grandma-type," she said, laughing, "and one that looked like the little girl." Cole took the puppets back to the classroom, and started an impromptu puppet conversation, with several children watching.

"I knew the puppets would engage them, and they did," she said. "It was having the puppets there, available to us, that made this work."

The girl, speaking through her puppet, told Cole that the student was being picked on "for the color of her skin."

That opened the door for Cole to tell a story that's been handed down in her own family, generation to generation: "I told her no one should be judged on the color of their skin. It's the color of your heart that matters. If you're putting someone down, or picking on someone, your heart isn't a good color. I told her we want all of our hearts to be healthy and pink."

Right there, in the space of a short conversation, Cole said she felt the room change.

"And the little girl felt it, too. The puppets helped everyone understand that we should not pick on each other. The little girl told me, 'I want everyone's heart to be pink.'"

School officials say the puppets have proved to be critical teaching tools.

"The puppets are just awesome," said Sharon Siegel, the school's media director. "The children are completely fascinated as the 'little person' talks to them about the many way one needs to be kind in school."

Siegel said the students react to the puppets because they are not simply another adult talking to the students.

"The puppet program will do much to help us make a safe and secure environment for our learners," said Siegel. "The grant is a great investment in the children, staff and community of our school."