When my son was in kindergarten through second grade, his school, Central Avenue, did a nice little nod to multicultural education with an annual event called International Holiday. In December of each year, each grade spent an afternoon learning about holidays a certain country or region of the world celebrated in the winter season. Kindergarten learned about Hanukkah, first grade studied Sweden, and second grade did activities about Central and South America. (I don’t know what areas the older grades learned about since he is my oldest child.) The students would rotate among the classrooms to try some food, do a craft, listen to a book, and play a game or learn a dance. While it was a fine way to appreciate various cultures, there were a few things that just didn’t work. First, if you ask any class coordinator from those days, they will each tell you how many hours they spent cutting out the 85 sets of felt hats, shorts, and shoes for the little Swedish gnome tomte doll craft each kid assembled. (I still have calluses from cutting them all out!) Also, while the kids enjoyed tasting the food, my son, who has severe allergies, was always left eating the “closest-I-could-get-to-the-real-food” substitute that I spent three hours finding in various local stores.
The main reason International Holiday bugged me, though, was the lack of authenticity. If we were lucky, a parent in the class would be from that region and willing to come in for the day. But usually, the crafts and recipes were pulled from Pinterest, and the students made little connection to the actual country or culture.
Three years ago, thankfully, it was decided that we needed a more authentic activity. Once I heard that the PTO was exploring new ideas, I joined on. As the child of immigrant parents (from England and Scotland), and a world traveler (before kids–taught English in Japan for a year, traveled to Australia, China, Thailand, and numerous European countries), I understand the importance of learning about and appreciating cultures around the world. Also, as I walked the kids to school each day, I’d hear families speaking various languages at school drop-off. Despite what many people think about Madison, our school does have an amazing variety of families who originate from other countries.
So, for the past three years, we have held International Day at CAS. We invite families who would like to represent their country to set up a table, and then each grade has a chance to come to the fair during the day to learn about some of the countries. Each year, the parents have amazed me. They have brought in beautiful items for display, taught dances and games, and made unbelievable collages of images of their countries. They even wore traditional clothing, including Japanese kimono, Indian sari, Korean hanbok, and Spanish flamenco dresses. The family from Argentina all wore Messi soccer jerseys! To top it off, they have devoted an entire day to come in to be a part of International Day.
The first year, we had 16 countries represented. This year we had 22 countries. Last year we had 23 countries, and, as I like to say, ALL seven continents! The family from Argentina reminded me that Argentina claims part of Antarctica, so, technically, each continent was represented! Some parents have come each of the three years. Some have done it every other year. Others did the first year themselves, and have since brought along other families in the school from the country to join them. Our Brazil table had about 6 families there!
Here are the countries and regions that have been represented in International Day over the past three years: Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Colombia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Peru, Philippines, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Ukraine.
To help build up excitement about International Day, we also invite any student who can speak another language to do part of the morning announcements. This year, we had 11 languages, including Spanish, Polish, Japanese, Gujarati, Ukrainian, and Russian.
I especially love when parents say that their kids kept bugging them to be a part of International Day, so they had to do it! Students are invited to join their parents for a little while at the tables, and they are always beaming as they talk to their classmates about their countries. I love the sense of pride the kids have in their countries, and the genuine interest the other students have in learning about them. My hope is that we have planted a little seed of multicultural appreciation in each of the students, that will continue to grow and blossom.