The Grade 6 Heritage Project

Shawntelle Nesbit

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  Hanas Suitcase by Karen Levine. This book became the foundation for a year-long heritage project.

Hanas 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  Hanas 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.


Group of elementary students standing together at front of classroom

For four minutes and 13 seconds, my classroom was silent.

Three etfo members sitting together listening to someone

Advocacy and social justice work at theOntario Teachers’ Federation takes many forms.