Pilgrims, Politics and Immigration

Student artwork and educational posters adorn the walls in the classroom next to the Farmhouse Office, alongside shelves filled with literature and non-fiction books and neatly-organized desks. This inviting space is where Mount Madonna School’s (MMS) first grade class spends time each school day, writing, reading, discovering and learning together. The curriculum is rich and varied, and recently involved lessons on the pilgrims, geography, politics, immigration and family heritage.

Sharing family history is frequently an oral activity: rich narratives passed down from one generation to the next, replete with stories of love, hardship, conflict, drama and aspirations for a better life. For their class project, MMS first grade students talked with their parents and other relatives about their own family’s history, and then shared their findings with their class. Students learned that their ancestors emigrated from different countries. Referencing maps and a globe, they found where each of these countries are located, and more specifically, on which continent. To reinforce their continent knowledge, they learned and practiced singing “The Seven Continents” song together.

To help students gain a better sense of period and time (such as which families immigrated shortly after the arrival of the pilgrims in the new world, and which immigrated more recently), the class created a timeline including the first pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock. They then added the year each student’s family arrived in North America to the timeline, providing a visual immigration snapshot.

“As a class we talked about the pilgrims’ journey aboard the Mayflower,” explains first grade teacher Cassia Laffin, “and how difficult the trans-Atlantic journey was. We discussed how the pilgrims’ troubles continued once they finally made it to land, the kinds of struggles they faced, as well as their relationship with the Native Americans they encountered.”

Students have now moved on to the colonial period and are creating maps of the original 13 colonies. Following group discussions about life during colonial times, students began journal writings about whether they would rather be a boy or girl during colonial times, explaining their choice and giving examples.

“Roles were very different for each gender,” notes Laffin. “Together we are discussing these differences and creating a Venn diagram showing the similarities between past and present.”

In celebration of their family heritage and the rich diversity of cultures represented, the class shared a potluck Thanksgiving feast with students bringing in foods representing the countries from which their families emigrated, including Serinakaker, a Norwegian almond cookie, Palacsinta or Hungarian crepes – and Japanese apple pie!

Election Day: Elmo by a landslide!

Politics and Election Day were part of the fall studies, too, with first graders voting, but not for Mitt Romney or Barack Obama; instead they voted for Sesame Street characters, with Elmo winning the election by a landslide!

Laffin designed a simulated voting experience, and students created ‘licenses’ or identities (some became elderly voters in their late 70s, while others chose to be 18-year-old first-time voters). Just as in real elections, students showed their ‘id cards’ and were checked off on a master voting list to be sure they were eligible to participate and there was no duplication. Voting was done by secret ballot, and the students received “I voted” stickers – which they proudly wore all day long!

“We talked about the importance of having an opinion and participating in the voting process,” shares Laffin. “I shared facts about the chronology and evolution of voting in the U.S., which I believe helps them to understand how voting is a privilege that many did not have until very recently. We spoke a great deal about respecting the opinions of others, and what characteristics we feel are important for a president to possess.

“First graders really enjoy learning about the world, especially when they can connect it to themselves and others in their classroom,” says Laffin. “It was neat watching students delight in their heritage and begin to take interest in their family histories. The activities we did surrounding immigration and politics provided great reference points for talking and learning about geography, our nation and our world.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, Media & Public Relations,

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.