As an anthropology graduate I have always enjoyed learning not only about other cultures but about my own as well. I was keenly interested in ﬁnding a way to pass that curiosity on to my own students in a way that engaged them in signiﬁcant discussions about racism, tolerance, and identity.
I decided on a project I had learned about at R. F. Downey Public School in Peterborough, which was based on the book Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine. This book became the foundation for a year-long heritage project.
Hana’s Suitcase is the story of Japanese teacher/curator Fumiko Ishioka who, urged on by her students, investigates the life of a young Jewish girl during World War II after she receives Hana’s suitcase among a collection of articles sent from the Auschwitz concentration camp. I began by reading the story aloud to my class. I then asked my students to assemble their own suitcases that, like Hana’s, would be based on their personal background and identity.
As a natural extension of our look at Hana’s Suitcase and of our focus on tolerance and diversity, students completed assignments based on the countries we were studying: Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Ukraine, and Scotland. These included many different kinds of writing: paragraphs, letters, journals, persuasive writing, and reports. Students wrote a paragraph about our school’s namesake Adelaide McLaughlin and her contributions to our community. They also wrote a persuasive piece about Mahatma Gandhi, his accomplishments, and his nonviolent methods. Cooperative learning was an integral part of the project, and learning and social skills were consistently revisited and reinforced.
Art activities included family trees, ﬂags, Ukrainian Easter eggs, Scottish baskets, time capsules, and the students’ own “passports.” We also hosted parents and community members as guest speakers for each country we reviewed.
One great thing about learning about other cultures is the food! Near the end of the year, students brought in a favourite family dish or one that originated from their ethnic background for our cultural potluck. This occasion became the basis for the Grade 6 Cultural Cookbook.
The culminating activity of our project centred on our heritage suitcases. Students included amazing and incredible artifacts some of which dated from as far back as the 1800s! They then planned and managed our Heritage Suitcase Gallery Opening. Kerry Yates, my grade 6 teaching partner, and her students also took part.