Celebrating uniqueness

First-grader Aylin Mendoza receives a treat at Supermercado Mexico

Carlos Urbina and Josephine Shindano sat next to each other in Kara Jones’ classroom at the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center. The second-graders colored on worksheets that asked them to create a picture of a tradition their family observes. Carlos peeked over at Josephine’s drawing, which showed an Easter egg hunt she participates in each year.

Students eye the baked goods at Supermercado Mexico on Division Avenue

“They have Easter in Africa?” he asked.

“Yes,” replied Josephine, an African immigrant who has been in West Michigan for three years. She and her classmates have spent time each week since school began working on a project called “Who AM I?” It encourages students to explore and share their culture, language and family traditions.

The project was devised by Jones and first-grade teacher Nancy Stefano, following a weeklong summer course on thematic learning. They created “Who AM I?” to address a phenomenon they had both observed among students: they weren’t proud of their heritage.

Josephine Shindano, a second-grader at the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center, works on her family tree

Fostering pride

“One thing I noticed in the classroom was that during conferences, parents would frequently tell me that kids didn’t want to speak their native language.  They wanted to blend in to the U.S. culture with how they look and speak,” said Stefano. “We want kids to be proud of who they are, where they come from, and the wonderful differences we can share.”

Jones noticed similar sentiments among her students: When asked about their culture and customs, she said, many students would just copy whatever the person next to them said, saying, ‘Oh, I do that, too!’

The teachers have built in time throughout the week to work on projects surrounding family, culture and traditions.

Second-grader Nevah Sivins looks at photos depicting different traditions

Students are creating their own portfolios that contain family trees they created, and other drawings and writings about their families and cultures.

Seventy-five percent of students in the district are Hispanic. While the lessons in “Who AM I?” emphasize students’ individual identities, the teachers have incorporated some elements specific to Hispanic culture into the project, such as taking students to Supermercado Mexico, and having them prepare a song, poem and a dance for a school assembly during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Getting to Know You

“Who AM I?” will culminate around Thanksgiving, with a party for students and their families, who will be invited to bring a dish to pass that is specific to their family or culture.

First-graders from the Godfrey-Lee Early Childhood Center had many questions for Yeli Romero of Supermercado Mexico

Students throughout the school will get a chance to walk around and see portfolios created by those who participated in the project.

Besides instilling some pride and a sense of who they are and where they come from, the project has served another purpose: to help the teachers get to know students and their families a bit better. That has been a major focus at the school this year, said Jones.

“We wanted to find out what makes (students) unique,” said Jones. “Through these different projects, we’ve learned a lot about different people. We’ve learned about their families, we’ve learned about their traditions. It’s been really fun.”

Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting. Read Bridie's full bio.

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