Wednesday, January 16, 2013

From the Lower East Side to Communist Cuba: Learning About Culture and Community

This week the 5th Grade spent a day investigating signs of community and culture both at home and in other parts of the world. In the morning, we took 47 students to NYC's Lower East Side, a neighborhood rich in diversity. Students observed tenement apartments and tailor shops, row after row of dumpling houses whose signage displayed both English and Chinese text, and, in a stroke of luck, a beautifully ornate Buddhist temple nestled into a row of construction warehouses. After an excellent lesson from their Social Studies teacher on observing signs of culture, our students were primed to find meaning in a cluster of stores selling signs, panes of glass and metal siding. They noticed architecture, pointing out how small and tight the LES's buildings seemed compared to other parts of the city, and in Little Italy they immediately picked up on the the red, white and green color scheme on display in every bakery window or restaurant awning.

But the major highlight of our walking tour was the Guan Gong Temple, which drew us in with the sweet incense and bright oranges left as an offering in front of its door. After asking permission of the monk inside, we took the students into the tiny space to look around, observe and sketch some of the beautiful alters and statues they saw. The centerpiece of the temple is a huge figure of a buddha surrounded by flowers, fruit and oil, and our students were mesmerized by this rich display in gold, orange and red. The people working at the temple were happy to answer our questions and the students left with a small understanding of religion but a huge appreciation for the unique cultures with whom they share their city.

Another highlight of the day came in the afternoon, when two parents, both native Cubans, came to speak to the 5th Grade about growing up in a communist country and immigrating to the United States. We have been studying the Middle East (Afghanistan in particular) as part of our Social Studies and English curriculum, and the students made excellent connections between life under Castro and life under the Taliban. While there are plenty of significant differences to note, I was impressed with the way students picked up on the more subtle details of living in a place where one feels constant suspicion for their neighbors and at odds with the beliefs of their government. They asked excellent questions ("Were girls treated worse than boys in Cuba?"; "Did you have to dress in a certain type of clothing?") and expressed wonderful self-reflection ("Hearing about growing up like this makes me feel silly for being scared of something like a spider. There are much scarier things in the world.")

The day was all around wonderful -- that special kind of wonderful teachers and students feel when they leave their classrooms together and share a new experience. All morning I felt lucky to live in a city where one can amble through a maze of streets and find hidden treasures of culture and community. Though I regularly use technology in my classroom and consider resources like YouTube and GoogleDrive critical elements of my curriculum, this day was a reminder of how meaningful personal experiences are to both teachers and students.

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