Families Around the World: a Meaningful Multi-Cultural Curriculum

By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher

Families Around the World, Center PM’s winter and spring quarter project, created a very personal and meaningful context in which to experience the rich cultural diversity in our classroom. This five-month long journey around the world to figuratively visit the 21 countries represented by our families became a catalyst for creating our classroom community. The project had a dramatic start with a surprise visit from the Bhutanese royal family arranged by the parents of Center P.M. student Garab Wangdi, Tashi and Dechen, who are Bhutanese, and Garab’s grandfather Mark Mancall, a Stanford history professor.

Bing teachers have long understood the importance of promoting diversity to give young children a foundation for understanding, accepting and celebrating different customs, languages and cultures. We select curriculum materials that fit this philosophy. The books in the Bing children’s library and the songs we sing reflect a variety of cultures and languages. Children also have opportunities to play an array of musical instruments, including guiros, maracas and drums. Our dramatic play area includes dolls of different ethnicities and dress-up clothes from all over the world. However, the most meaningful multicultural experiences have come not from materials, but from our extraordinarily diverse group of children, parents and teachers. We are fortunate to be a part of Stanford University, an internationally recognized institution, whose academic excellence has been a magnet for attracting students and faculty from all over the world.

Our Families Around the World project was truly a collaborative effort. Based on what we knew about our families, teachers identified 21 countries to visit. Our families included first, second and third generation parents, many of whom were part of bicultural families. We began our trip in North America, among the Inuit of Alaska and worked our way south through the plains states to Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Columbia and Brazil. We crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Africa, visiting Nigeria and South Africa, then headed north to Europe. We traveled to England, Ireland, France, Germany and Russia and arrived in Iran on the first day of spring, just in time for Nowruz, the Iranian New Year festival! Our trip led us east to India then north to the tiny country of Bhutan, with an unexpected side trip to Spain to welcome Alice, a new girl to our classroom. We spent two weeks in China, and then went on to visit Vietnam, Korea and Japan. We crossed the Pacific Ocean and arrived back in North America, traveling through Canada and across America to finally reach California, just in time for our end-of-the-year potluck picnic!

We mapped out our itinerary and the date of arrival in each country, established a different story time teacher each week as a contact person and invited parents to join us. Organization was key so that parents could schedule time to participate. Activities were coordinated to take place in all areas of the indoor and outdoor classroom with a teacher acting in a supportive role. Every parent embraced the project with generosity of spirit, welcoming us to share in their traditions as if we had been honored guests invited into their home. They were our greatest resource and it was an honor to work together to support them and make their visits successful and memorable.

This project energized teachers as well. The teachers met weekly to develop an innovative and developmentally appropriate curriculum that engaged children’s senses as well as their minds. We researched each country for images of flags, textiles, stamps, clothing, handcrafts, music and dance, currency, cuisine and literature. We also selected a story, folktale or fable to read all week at story time, often embedded with moral lessons about good and evil.

The project had a tremendous impact on the children. They enthusiastically participated in activities that included weaving, crafting Native American dream catchers, constructing flags, planting hyacinths, making castles and crowns, folding fans, lanterns and origami, painting Chinese characters with calligraphy brushes, and playing chess, London Bridge and broomstick hockey. They expanded their culinary horizons [see sidebar] and became familiar with traditional clothing from various countries. The children learned to recognize and name the national flags of many countries and were intrigued by the symbolic meaning of the colors of the Bhutanese prayer flags. Each color of the Bhutanese prayer flag represents a different element. Blue symbolizes the sky, white is the wind, red is fire, green is water and yellow is the earth.

They learned how to say, “Hello,” and count in more than a dozen languages, the names of vegetables in Korean, colors in French, and how to sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan. A wall map and globe helped them develop skills in map reading: an understanding of landmasses and oceans, countries and continents, borders and topography, comparative size and direction.

As the project progressed, the children began to infuse their play with references to countries and cultures they had recently visited. “We’re going to China!” Hannah exclaimed as she and several friends began to pack their bags. Yaya and Jadyn dressed up for a party in pink ao dais (traditional Vietnamese dresses) donated by a family after the Vietnamese fashion show.

The project also inspired the children to think and ask questions as they recalled the activities. “I know how to count in Dzongkha because I was born in Bhutan!” Sophie declared after a recent visit by the Prince of Bhutan. “Beh choo means cabbage in Korean,” said Peyton. “Beh choo sounds like a sneeze, doesn’t it? I wonder how you say tamales in Korean?” “I’m thinking of an animal that makes the sound of how you say radish in Korean (moo)” said Kiran to his classmates during a game at snack time.

We had many visitors in addition to the Bhutanese royalty. Wilhelm Grotheer, Bing’s resident woodworker, shared stories about wearing wooden shoes as a boy growing up in rural Germany in the 1930s, and then invited children to his workshop where he cuts wood for our projects. Many grandmothers came to visit. James’ grandmother shared indigenous textiles and tapestries from Guatemala as well as musical instruments including a marimba. Kiran and his mother sang a Tamil lullaby that his grandmother had taught him. Allegra’s and Yaya’s grandmothers made scones. Sebastian’s grandmother made pirogis and blinis and served tea in a lovely lacquered Russian samovar and Yaya’s other grandmother carried 36 little lanterns on a plane all the way from China to give to each child.

Our end-of-the year potluck picnic culminated our project. Everyone brought food and picnicked together, friends both old and new brought closer by a project that made the world just a little bit smaller. On the patio, festooned with flags from many countries, children, parents and teachers danced to our project play list that included the Mexican Hat Dance, Brazilian Carnaval music, African high life, the Beatles, Bollywood and the Beach Boys and wished the trip would never end!

It was only after we returned home to California that we had time to reflect on the scope of the incredible cultural immersion we had all shared. It will be interesting to see what each child takes away from this experience. What memories will quietly emerge or be unveiled later: a word, a phrase, a song that once sounded strange, a willingness to try new foods, a desire to “revisit” a favorite place through travel. We truly believe that the children’s eyes have been forever opened and that this project will be a springboard for a lifelong interest in other cultures.

Foods children made during the project:

• Native American corn bread

• Mexican pan dulce, tacos and tamales

• Guatemalan empanadas

• Chilean sweet rolls

• Nigerian jollof

• South African mieliebrood

• French crepes and madelines

• English scones

• German brezels and sausages

• Russian pirogis, blinis and Napoleons

• Persian lavash

• Indian parathas and mango lassis

• Bhutanese buttered basmati rice

• Spanish pan de horno

• Chinese glutinous rice balls and scallion pancakes

• Chinese and Vietnamese spring rolls

• Korean and Japanese sushi

• Canadian butter tarts and crepes with maple syrup