Tania K. Cowling is a former teacher, a published book author, and award winning freelance writer.
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As educators, it's our duty to explain to our students that everyone has roots in other countries. But trying to explain the melting-pot concept to elementary-age children can be tough! My colleagues and I decided to add an entire multicultural theme to our curriculum in order to embrace diversity. Here are a few of my favorite activities for studying cultures in your classroom in a way that's educational and fun.
Further Reading: How Pen Pals Expanded the World for My Students
I like to begin every morning with a multicultural greeting to my students. Every month, I choose a simple phrase from a new language and greet my class with it. Repeating these phrases for the month is a fun way for students to learn a bit of a foreign language.
Make daily use of a globe or flat map to help your class realize how big the world is. Take inspiration from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days and invite your class on a pretend trip to several places on the planet. Discuss the various landforms you'd have to travel across in order to reach each destination, and build a thematic unit around every country "visited." Because Around the World in Eighty Days is a long, advanced book, it may not be the most appropriate story for younger children, but your school's librarian can suggest a variety of age-appropriate travel books for your class. The important part is to get your students curious about exploring the world and its many cultures.
To encourage cultural awareness and experimentation with food, consider serving different kinds of breads as a snack in your classroom. This is an easy beginning to global food study. As you munch on croissants, pitas, tortillas, matzo, and dark breads, have a class discussion about who eats these breads and the countries where they're most popular. Next, have parents assist you in putting together a globally influenced potluck lunch. Have students bring a food or dessert that represents their heritage. As you engage in this feast, discuss where each dish originated. After the potluck, collect the recipes from each family, compile them, and send a multicultural cookbook home with each child.
Introduce your students to other cultures through hands-on, creative activities. Using my own Greek heritage for inspiration, I taught my class how to make worry beads. The Greek people traditionally used worry beads as a relaxation technique to diffuse their concerns; when they had a problem, they reached for their string of beads, placed it behind their back, and counted the beads two by two. To make our own worry beads, we took about 24 inches of yarn and folded it in half. Then we tied up five pieces of yarn (about four inches long) to make a fringe at the halfway mark on the long strand. Beginning at one end, students strung different colored plastic beads for about five inches, then tied the beads off with a knot. This process was repeated on the other side, and we finished by tying together the long strand to make a continuous loop.
My class also made tissue-paper flowers to honor Mexican culture. These flowers are traditionally used to decorate streets, houses, and churches during festivals and holidays. For this craft, each student needs tissue paper in a variety of colors and a green pipe cleaner. Have your class draw round scalloped flower shapes in different sizes on the paper. After cutting them out, have them stack the flowers from largest to smallest and help them punch a hole in the center. Then thread the pipe cleaner through the holes and twist it to form a stem. To give the flowers a natural look, fluff all the layers.
Further Reading: The 3 Cs for Creating an Engaged and Positive Classroom Culture
These are just a few ways to learn about cultures in your classroom. You can use specific holidays, music, games, and dances as inspiration for your lessons. Leverage your experience, research, and imagination to think of other authentic ways to introduce children to the magical diversity of our world's population.