Heritage, History and Immigration: Celebrating the Cultures of America

From the year of the rooster to the Mayan calendar, Ukrainian pierogies to hip hop dance, folk tales, belly dancing and classical ballet, all have impacted America’s unique “melting pot.” It’s this melting pot – and the myriad cultures that contribute to our country – that is the focus of Celebrating the Cultures of America, a culmination of months of in-depth classroom learning for Mount Madonna School (MMS) elementary students, and spotlighted at the upcoming Cultural Awareness performances on March 30-31.

The performances will be held in the Community Building at Mount Madonna Center; with receptions at 9:00am and presentations at 9:30am. Much in the way that MMS high school students hold a public presentation following their return from distant learning journeys, these performances are the elementary students’ “return’” from their cultural learning journey – and intended to be witnessed by the families and friends.

Preschool and kindergarten students studied the countries that are in the family backgrounds of the students themselves – 21 countries in all! Students baked breads from around the world and “filled” dishes such as empanadas, pierogies, Cornish “pasties” or “hand pies” and Chinese dumplings. Preschool/Kindergarten Director Hema Walker and teacher Prema Gammons integrated different cultures into the curriculum by creating books in several languages; singing versions of a “good morning” song in Spanish, Italian and German; learning how to count in Greek; performing a famous Iranian tale for a class story circle; and naming the yoga asana “animal poses” in Spanish as they practiced them. They focused on the original American culture, Native Americans, and incorporated a Cherokee blessing into their daily “closing verse.” Students also learned songs in Welsh, Turkish and Portuguese to sing for Cultural Awareness.

“The most wonderful thing about our topic this year has been the involvement of our families,” said Walker. “The children are delighted to have family members come into our classroom and teach us songs and dances and share stories that are precious, because they come from their childhood. Although the continent of Europe is well-represented on our classroom family history map, there is a wonderful amount of diversity as well. The children are getting a sense that the unique qualities of their friends’ families are something to be celebrated and make our classroom community richer.”

Ever the good citizens, first graders focused on America’s southern neighbor, Mexico. Students learned about the work of painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, as well as traditional Huichol yarn painting and Mayan calendars. They were introduced to the civil rights and social justice contributions of Cesar Chavez and many every-day topics, including families, schooling, food, clothing and geography. First graders will perform La Lagartija y el Sol or The Lizard and the Sun, based on a story by Alma Flor Ada.

“Students chose an area of interest to learn about, and then presented their learning in poster form to the rest of the class,” said teacher Cassia Laffin. “We all enjoy learning from one another.”

For their cultural focus, second and third graders studied Russia’s influence on California, including history, literature, and stories; with group discussions about social studies, geography, current events, immigration and emigration.

“Although we are all global neighbors, I want students to understand some of the factors that cause people to move from place to place,” said teacher Hamsa Heinrich.

Students wrote reports in class, so that Heinrich could observe and guide their note taking and writing process. They created sandpaper prints inspired by the work of painter Wassily Kandinsky, and for the presentation will perform The Three Questions, a play based on a short story by author Leo Tolstoy.

The history, heritage, and stories of China are the focus of fourth grade’s culturally-focused learning. Working collaboratively in groups of three, students created slide show presentations on different aspects of Chinese culture to present to their classmates.

“Once we had background on the homeland of China, we looked at immigration to California, how they got here, what they went through, the conditions they encountered, and what happened to them when they arrived,” explained teacher Nick Cabassa. “Students learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the first federal law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States) and about the significance of Chinese labor to the expansion of the railroads and gold mining.”

As part of the presentation, fourth graders will perform an original play drawing from Chinese New Year myths and stories, including the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac and their associated symbolism.

Fifth graders studies have focused on the African American influences to American culture. For their presentation, they’ll perform a play of Br’er Rabbit tales.

“These original slave stories are about outwitting, surviving and holding on to hope during an extremely oppressive time,” commented teacher Jessica Cambell. “This is not the Disney Song of the South version. I went through the University of Georgia and researched the original stories. We did update some of the language, carefully, in way that upholds the integrity of the connection of where these stories came from and what they represent. Our play is three intertwined stories that are brought together in the epilogue.”

Fifth grade students are reading the novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor. Set in 1930s Mississippi, it’s a story of the Great Depression and racism as told through the eyes of a nine-year-old African American girl. Each student also chose a person who broke social or racial barriers and influenced American culture to research and share with their classmates. Those selected by the students include Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, mathematician and aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, and media proprietor, actress and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey. As a complementary art piece, students chose an inspirational quote by their chosen person and reproduced and framed the quote.

Music and dance are significant aspects of the Cultural Awareness performances.

“It is an especially important part of my music education with the elementary students, that they learn music and hear languages from other cultures to help them understand their part in a global family,” shared musician and music teacher Sarojani Rohan. “To complement first grade’s Mexico study, I chose a traditional lullaby, Arrorro mi nino, as it fits nicely with their play. Second and third grade students will perform Dva Veselih Gusya, a Russian children’s folk song about a grandmother and her pet geese. The children thrilled to the effervescent energy of the Russian language!

“Fourth grade will perform Ge Sheng Yu Xiao or “Singing and Smiling,” a Chinese folk song,” she continued. “I loved the message as it is so poetic and affirming of the power of friendship and music. A portion of the lyrics translate to: Please bring my songs back to your home/Please leave your smile here/Tomorrow this song will fly to the ends of the earth/Tomorrow your smile will blossom like flowers everywhere. For the fifth grade, I created a medley of songs from the African-American experience. Some of the songs arose from the Civil Rights movement of the 60s whose words are just as powerful today as they were then.”

To complement their songs, dance teacher Saki worked with second through fifth grade students, and Isa Stead with first graders, on choreography. First graders will dance to Son De Toloache, a song by the all-female group, Mariachi Flor De Toloache.

Second and third graders will perform a Ukranian folk dance that reflects a respect and love of nature, contrasting high kicks with tempo changes and artful, gentle movements. For fourth grade and inspired by Chinese New Year celebrations, Saki engage students in a series of student-led, collaborative movements with acrobatics. Fifth graders will do a hip hop dance.

“They’re a mature group that knows the nuances of syncopated movement and rhythm,” noted Saki. “They understand the complex, larger choreography and are able to hold parts within a whole, much like the harmony of a song.”

At the event, attendees will have the opportunity to purchase the student-made artworks inspired by the cultures and countries that students studied. Purchases are by donation and proceeds will be gifted to The Santa Cruz County Immigration Project (SCCIP), an organization that supports the well-being of the immigrant community in Santa Cruz County and the Pajaro Valley. Their work includes providing legal services, reuniting families and helping eligible immigrants obtain U.S. citizenship.

“I love that MMS has a social service project tied to our Cultural Awareness program,” commented Director of Lower School Jenni Leach. “Kids helping kids, I believe, helps students understand who they are in the world, and that they can make a positive difference in the lives of others. By creating and donating their art pieces to make money that will be used to help others, MMS students learn the values of empathy, compassion, generosity and gratitude. They learn, together, we can make a difference.

“Through our annual cultural awareness focus, teachers create a coherent, in-depth unit of study across the elementary grades,” she continued. “In June, teacher meet to decide the cultural theme for the coming year based on historic and current global topics. When the study units begin, teachers engage students with complex content and delve in at depth that is appropriate for each grade level and students’ development. Students learn about a variety of cultures and this helps to enrich and inform our concept of global citizenship.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Director of Marketing & Communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 mountaintop acres, Mount Madonna is a safe and nurturing college-preparatory school that supports students in becoming caring, self-aware and articulate critical thinkers, who are prepared to meet challenges with perseverance, creativity and integrity. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville.