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Lincoln students look east

LINCOLN — Only tiny shoes were visible beneath a red and yellow papier-mâché dragon as students at Lincoln Community school wove down the hallway last Friday, leading the other students in a colorful parade past classrooms.
Students created the traditional Chinese New Year dragon to kick off the festival that marked the culmination of the school’s month-long unit on China.
For the entire month of January, students in kindergarten through fourth grade studied various aspects of Chinese history and culture to gain a greater understanding of the world outside Vermont.
“It is something we do every year,” third- and fourth-grade teacher Mikaela Frank said. “Each January we choose to study a different culture. Last year, it was Mexico and the year before that, we studied the Gullah culture from the Southeast. They spend the entire month of January submersing themselves in that culture and cultures. We focus on questions like, ‘How does where you live affect how you live?’ and ‘How does your culture or land affect the decisions you make?’”
Frank said the unit helps students comprehend what “the universals of culture are and what those serve.” These universals are things like food, music and clothing.
“We look at how these things vary from culture to culture,” Frank said.
After two weeks of introductory lessons and tai chi sessions in the multipurpose room, the students split off into “expert groups,” or smaller groups of students that zeroed in on one specific piece of Chinese culture. Groups studied Chinese acrobatics, kite making, food, folk tales and more. Frank led a group that studied zodiac charts and astrology — among other projects, each student constructed a papier-mâché animal head to represent the year they were born.
“The topic was really interesting to me, but the challenge is getting the kids to truly understand the belief system behind it and exposing them to the idea that it’s more than just being an animal and that those traits supposedly live in us,” Frank said.
Frank, like the other LCS teachers who led expert groups, spent months investigating her topic before drawing up her lesson plans.
“It took months of research,” Frank said. “As teachers we decided on a culture in the spring or early summer — toward the end of the school year. We immersed ourselves, watched movies, read books, did research on the computer — we want to make it as authentic as we can for the kids.”
At Friday’s festival, students got the chance to show off what they had learned over the course of the unit through costumes, cooking, art displays and musical and acrobatic performances. According to Frank, the excitement was palpable leading up to the big event.
“Oh my gosh, it was hard to reign them in,” Frank said. “They were so excited to share what they know.”
Thanks to parents and other volunteers, the event was a success.
“We had parents and community members — at least 15 — that volunteered throughout the month of January to help make this a successful and experiential unit of study,” Frank said.
But the cross-cultural learning experience will not come to an end once the month is over.
Third- and fourth-graders will be starting an e-mail-based pen pal program with students from China.
“We think it’s important for students to be able to see that the world is bigger than just where they live,” Frank said. “It’s important that they do the compare and contrast and see how much they have in common with people from other cultures and that the differences really aren’t that huge. They break through those stereotypes and see themselves as a bigger culture.”
Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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