LINCOLN — Students, parents and staff of the Lincoln Community School gathered in the building’s recently renovated gymnasium last Friday to celebrate a special month learning about the culture of India. The “India Festival” featured a shadow puppet show, a presentation of student artwork in traditional Indian styles, yoga, delicious Indian food and a magic show by local magician Tom Verner.
Each January, teachers and students at the elementary school dive into an intensive month-long study of a culture different from their own. The tradition has carried on for eight years; in the past, students have learned about China, Ghana and many other cultures.
“Cultural studies are always a multisensory experience for kids,” said Anna Howell, who teaches third and fourth grade. “It’s just so memorable to them. We study different cultures each year and kindergarten through fourth grade are exposed to five different cultures in contrast to their own culture. A lot of their concept of culture develops over those years.”
In today’s interconnected, global society, teaching cultural sensitivity is important, said Addison Northeast Supervisory Union Superintendent David Adams.
“We need to interact with all cultures throughout the world, and early learning in that is really our responsibility here,” he said.
At the India Festival last Friday, Adams praised the Lincoln Community School’s dedication to a multicultural education.
“The teachers have done just a remarkable job of bringing the world to Lincoln,” he said.
The cultural studies month encourages students to look inward, too.
“A lot of our time was spent recognizing assumptions and stereotypes, and what we take for granted as being ‘normal,’” Howell said. “Or just (recognizing that) the way we are is actually part of our own culture. You know, we have accents and we dress funny from someone else’s perspective. I think that’s one of the most powerful things.”
“It’s great for us to learn, too,” said Bonnie Melnick, who teaches reading to students in kindergarten through fourth grade. “As we’re researching and learning we’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’ It’s really fun for teachers in addition to the students.”
The cultures that are selected for study are not random. “We try to vary geographically, and we try to go for some contrast,” Howell explained.
Next year, the school will likely choose somewhere in South America, Melnick and Howell said, probably Peru or Brazil because of community members who have roots in those two countries.
“We try to choose a culture that we can gather resources for … it’s been really important to find real, live people to come so that we’re not trying to represent something in a two-dimensional way,” Howell said.
For this year’s study of India, special weekly visits were arranged with an Indian member of the Addison County community, Vijaya Wunnava. Wunnava, who is the events coordinator of the Economics Department and the coordinator of the Jewish Studies Minor at Middlebury College, lives in Middlebury with her husband, Economics Professor Phanindra Wunnava.
“I thought this was such a great idea because the world is so globalized now,” Vijaya Wunnava said. “This is a great introduction. When they’re young, they’re so open, so ready to absorb anything, ready to explore, they’re curious. As they grow older, I feel like they will be more receptive — their boundaries have been expanded.”
For Wunnava, the teaching experience was also rewarding.
“The kids, like anywhere, they’re not afraid to ask questions,” she said. “It’s spontaneous for them. They’re curious about a lot of things.”
Wunnava’s work was honored at the beginning of the India Festival with applause and flowers. At the conclusion of her month at the Lincoln Community School, she stressed the importance of learning how to understand and love, despite the many differences in the world.
“Washington could take a page off them,” she joked, referring to her students’ ability to work through differences. The fundamental lesson? “We are all so different but at the core, we are all human.”
“I was very touched by the speech given today, especially her quote, ‘Knowledge ends with love,’” said parent Debra Heleba, who added that the cultural studies program is always “a favorite” for her two girls.
“I feel this really captures Lincoln Community School’s philosophy and our teachers’ deep commitment to our children,” Heleba said. “I left the festival feeling extremely proud of our town and thankful for its teachers.”