Alum helps open toy industry by removing language barriers

August 22, 2019

A diverse field of students aspires to make toys, but knowing English opens doors

By Michael Agresta

Angela Alcerro MAT-TESOL ’14 has been involved in the toy industry for 34 years, with her most memorable contributions coming during the Barbie-versus-Bratz market-share battle of the early 2000s.

Now at the Otis College of Art and Design, Alcerro is charged with training the next generation of toy designers at the only four-year BFA in toy design in the United States.

“My students are basically going to be toy product designers,” Alcerro says. “My part is teaching presentation. Concept drawings, renderings, that’s where I come in. Or just establishing a look and feel, aesthetic and visual development, character design, environments, structures and making it all look cohesive.”

However, the field of future toymakers is also growing in diversity, creating a need for educators who can teach speakers of other languages.

“The majority of my students at Otis are non-native English speakers,” she says. “I felt that they were not getting as much as they could be from their program and wanted to do something to change that.”

Celebrating what students bring with them

Bratz, launched in 2001 by MGA Entertainment, offered a hip and ethnically diverse selection of dolls that Barbie-maker Mattel was initially unprepared to compete with. Alcerro, at that time a toy designer for Mattel, made some of the first sketches for the My Scene line of dolls that became her company’s answer to Bratz.

In her 20 years with Mattel, Alcerro also worked on bilingual comics, He-Man and She-Ra, Popples, Polly Pocket, Disney princesses, The Lion King tie-in toys and collectible Barbies that sold for hundreds of dollars each. Alcerro rose to lead Mattel’s digital effects and package design departments, but in 2006, she left for Lakeshore Learning Materials, where her focus shifted to educational toys. Now she is an independent digital artist, working with companies like Alpha Toys, Funrise Toys, SpinMaster Toys, Charisma Brands and Moose Toys.

Eager to bolster diversity in toy design through education, just as she did through her designs with Mattel, Alcerro went back to school at USC Rossier to get her MAT degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, in order to improve her strategies for teaching second-language learners at Otis.

Alcerro carries the lessons she learned at USC Rossier into her classroom at Otis and beyond.

“One thing that kept being brought home to us is that you have to celebrate prior knowledge,” she says. “It’s a way to respect where the student is coming from. If you start with that, even the most reluctant student will come that much closer to you.”

Each of the past four years, Alcerro has won faculty development grants from Otis to support her teaching, including a prize for infusing diversity into the classroom. Her projects have involved improving the in-class critique process for non-native speakers who are sometimes hesitant to speak aloud, as well as “jigsaw”-style class designs to help students with divergent interests share broad knowledge by developing specific mastery that they can then share with their classmates.

Recently, Alcerro has been collaborating with a fellow designer-turned-teacher, which makes her optimistic that others at USC Rossier can replicate her unusual path.

“I’m hoping there’ll be more of that, people coming from arts into education,” Alcerro says. “I found Rossier to be extremely welcoming to me even though I was not a traditional education-bound student.”

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