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Bringing East Asian Stories into the Elementary Classroom

22 April 2011

Classroom

Laura Richardson, an elementary school teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts, took part in a 2010 summer course with Primary Source where she studied East Asian literature, geography, and culture. During the program, she met children's author and illustrator Grace Lin, who inspired her to introduce a new unit of study to her first graders. Read on for Laura's personal account of her experiences and the students' responses to learning about Chinese and Chinese American culture.

This past summer, I participated in the Primary Source class, East Asian Stories and Places, at which I had the opportunity to meet the wonderful children's author and illustrator, Grace Lin. While speaking to the group, Grace shared her personal story of growing up as part of the only Asian family in her entire school, and how she didn't begin to appreciate her heritage until a college trip to Italy. She realized that she knew more about Italian art and culture than her own family's background, and soon began her career as one of the premier Asian American authors/illustrators for children. I found Grace's story incredibly inspirational, and felt that her books would be a valuable asset to my curriculum for two important reasons: they provide an engaging way to delve into Chinese and Chinese American culture, and they are a fantastic jumping off point for class discussions centered on appreciating varied cultures and their contributions to the fabric of the United States.

To launch the unit with my first grade class, I showed a PowerPoint presentation about Grace Lin's life, including a YouTube video clip of Grace explaining why she writes about Chinese American culture. The children loved hearing from Grace herself; it really made the material come alive. As a follow-up, the children wrote about why they think Grace writes about her culture and what they thought they'd learn from the author study.

We began a lesson on her first picture book, The Ugly Vegetables, by looking at actual photographs of the vegetables featured in the story. We decided as a group if we thought each one was "ugly" or not! We then utilized Grace Lin's terrific website to listen to her mother's voice pronouncing the names of the Chinese vegetables. We all tried to repeat after her. After reading the story itself, we planted Chinese leek, cabbage, and cucumber seeds as well as some marigold flowers, just like the gardeners in the story. The seeds are now growing in our class grow lab, and the children are tracking the vegetables' progress in their Science Notebooks.

Last week, we watched some terrific YouTube videos of a kite shop in Beijing and an amazing Chinese American kite maker, Tyrus Wong. We then enjoyed Grace's book, Kite Flying, including the great notes at the back of the story. I then showed an actual Chinese dragon kite I found in New York's Chinatown, which the children really liked seeing. Then, using the template that Grace designed on her website, we made our own dragon kites as a follow-up activity. Many of the children explored Grace's use of patterns on their kites, which are hanging in the hallway outside our classroom.

This week, we are writing our own fortunes to put inside felt fortune cookies as a companion to Grace's book, Fortune Cookie Fortunes. We will be learning about the history of this famous treat, and how it is truly an Asian American cookie. (We will eat some fortune cookies too!) The unit will conclude with looking at her use of patterns in depth and their connections to Chinese art over the centuries and, of course, writing to Grace herself.

I am so grateful to Primary Source for the opportunity to not only expand my background knowledge, but to learn the importance of seeking out and utilizing primary sources to enrich my curriculum.

 

 

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