This fall we will feature weekly lessons from ArtsEdge, the Kennedy Center’s educational media site. We know thematic units are a popular way to address Social Studies competencies but they can do so much more than that! This Fact Sheet explores ways to make a thematic unit of study a powerful tool in the classroom. Check out some of their other Fact Sheets on their How To section.
Creating authentic cultural experiences in the classroom
As educators, most of us are eager to provide cultural experiences for our students. Songs, dances, traditional dress, food, and relevant objects are wonderful ways to interest students in a variety of cultures. But when you take it a step further to incorporate the human context, you’ll create truly memorable experiences that convey the vitality and vibrancy of a living culture. Some ideas:
- Welcome guests. Whenever possible, involve people from different cultures in your classroom activities. Consider hosting a guest (perhaps a friend or relative of you or your students) to tell stories, demonstrate traditions, and begin a conversation with your students.
- Share your own heritage. Talk with your students about your own cultural heritage. Bring along some special possessions or photos and speak personally about what these items mean to you. Have a day on which your students can do the same.
- Tell name stories. With the class sitting in a circle, give students an opportunity to tell the story of their name, including what it means, where it came from, and its significance to their family. You may want to give students time to prepare for this exercise in advance by having them talk about it with their family at home.
- Learn and convey greetings. For celebrations of a cultural holiday, help your students learn the appropriate greetings. Identify friends or relatives (your own or your students’) who are celebrating the holiday. Reach out to them by telephone or video conference to wish them holiday greetings in their language. Ask them to share how they are celebrating the holiday.
- Tune in to the music. Play recordings and videos of music from different cultures, and give as much context as possible. Discuss whether the music is for dancing, working, ceremonies, celebrations, enjoyment, putting babies to sleep, or another function. Compare listening to music performed live with listening to recorded music. For videos, try the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage archive.
- Bring culture to life on screen. For older students, film is often a wonderful way to bring a culture to life. One Web site that streams cultural films for free is Folkstreams.
- Look to an artist. Invite an artist from the culture you are exploring to speak with or perform for your students. Better yet, consider an artist residency, in which an artist does a series of visits to help students learn to dance, make music, and create artwork. Look to your local performing arts center, your state arts agency (which might also offer funding support), or a national organization like Young Audiences Arts for Learning to help connect you with local artists. When personal visits aren’t possible, check for online resources like the Kennedy Center’s Explore the Arts, which offers free broadcasts of lectures, performances and demos by a variety of artists.
- Gather oral histories. Oral history projects can be a lot of fun for students of any age. With your class, brainstorm a list of questions for students to ask their parents, grandparents, other relatives, or neighbors. Students can record their answers in writing or with audio or video. You may want to use these interviews as the basis for a larger project that integrates social studies, writing, and media skills. Allow plenty of time for students to share what they learn.
- Visit neighborhoods. If possible, take a field trip to an ethnic neighborhood. Contact a cultural center, neighborhood organization, or religious center to arrange a historical tour with someone from that community.
With a bit of planning and creativity, you can create memorable occasions for your students to discover the joy of learning about other cultures. Drawing upon your own personal connections and those of your students, you may be surprised at the breadth of cultures and experiences you can easily bring into your classroom. The connections you make and the resources you discover have the potential to enrich your classroom culture for years to come.