With History, Art and Stories, Students Journey Through Japan

Graceful arched bridges, a three-headed dragon, samurai warriors, a family of mice, taiko drums, and stories of children’s everyday lives all have a role in Mount Madonna School’s (MMS) annual Cultural Awareness Performance on March 30. This popular event – which showcases elementary students’ dramatic talents and creativity– is the culmination of several months of focused study on a particular world culture: this year, the island nation of Japan.

“While watching the delightful presentations of our students in their Cultural Awareness Performance, comments MMS Head of Lower School, Supriya McDonald, “I began considering the learning that occurs during this process, and how it improves test scores and students’ academic performance. The process of integrating the disciplines of social studies, science, language arts, visual arts, dance and music for our Cultural Awareness assembly creates a powerful vehicle of direct learning experience that is evident in our students’ performances.”

MMS’ elementary teachers explain that in their classrooms, studies on Japan take many forms, encompassing geography, history, cultural artifacts, native animals, spoken language and Kanji writing, resourceful guest experts – including two MMS parents who are fluent in Japanese – sumo wrestling, traditional foods, religions, customs and philosophy, such as the national ‘Culture of Respect,’ and natural disasters, including 2011’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Students, preschool through fifth grade are also learning about traditional Japanese arts through dance, music, fine art and haiku poetry. In recent weeks students have created beautiful and vibrant works in different mediums and styles, including Japanese-inspired ceramics, fans, Kabuki stage set pieces, paintings and silhouettes which will be displayed for the performance assembly. Attendees to the performance will have the opportunity to purchase many of these works with proceeds being donated to the Japan Society, a nonprofit  organization providing support for earthquake and tsunami relief efforts in Japan.

Beyond the in-depth classroom learning that is taking place, the performance on March 30 offers a chance for students to celebrate and express themselves for the parents, grandparents and special friends who attend. Here are some highlights of what the show will include:

The Preschool and Kindergarten classes are learning and will perform a dance called “ Hiraite ,” celebrating the blooming of the cherry blossom; and two songs, “ Kira, Kira Boshi ( Twinkle Twinkle Little Star )” and “ Musunde, Hiraite .”

First grade will perform Eric Kimmel’s “ The Greatest of All: A Japanese Folktale ,” about the virtues of humility and simplicity as seen through the eyes of a mouse family.

“I would like to spark my students’ interest in other cultures and for them to realize how much there is to discover about the world around them, outside of what they experience directly,” comments first grade teacher Cassia Laffin. “In exposing students to other geographic regions, people, languages and cultures, I hope to inspire in them a deep-seated respect and appreciation for cultural diversity.”

Second grade will pay tribute to revered Japanese haiku poet and artist Basho, with an original play they created titled “ Basho’s Year ,” inspired by the book, “ Grass Sandals: The Travels of Basho ” by Dawnine Spivak.

Continuing the tradition of dramatic interpretation, third grade will bring to life “ The Perfect Sword ” by Scott Goto. This tale is about an apprentice and master sword smith who make a perfect sword that all are eager to own, and take on the challenge of trying to find a samurai worthy of receiving it.

Fourth grade students have spent recent weeks learning about a day in the life of a Japanese child, and how it compares to common childhood experiences in the United States. Watch for these students to present their research with dramatic flair!

Rounding out the show will be the fifth grade’s taiko drumming and their presentation of “ The Dream Eater ,” author Christian Garrison’s lush tale about a young boy and a baku – a Japanese spirit that eats nightmares. In addition, fifth grade’s studies of Japanese history included learning about the United States government’s Executive Order 9066, which in 1942 sent all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast to internment camps. 2012 marks the 70th anniversary of that internment, and in acknowledgment the class has created a music video and slide show to the song “ Kenji ” by the group Fort Minor.

“When our whole elementary school is working on the same theme or culture, it’s very supportive,” explains third grade teacher Hamsa Heinrich. “When one teacher finds a good resource, such as a great book, interesting speaker or story, it gets shared. The music, dance and art teachers also focus on our chosen culture and incorporate relevant themes into their weekly lessons. Learning across the curriculum has the teachers and students preparing traditional foods, reading, studying, reporting and sharing our learning. Even finding costumes for our productions this year involves teachers, parents, and students in scouring the Internet to learn new things from tying obis to finding a pretend samurai sword. There is something of interest for everyone. The investigation takes on a life of its own and it’s a very rich journey.”


View Cultural Awareness Performance invitation


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, 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.