Birthdays are so special for kids. Teaching at an international school means that within your classroom there are many different cultures. Don’t think that there aren’t many cultures in your school though! That means there are countless birthday songs and traditions to learn about. One way we work to make birthdays extra special is to sing in as many languages as possible. Kids aren’t put on the spot if they don’t wish to sing in their native language but the opportunity is offered to all kids. This is very important when building a safe space. Students should never be singled out or forced to explain their culture and they should never be asked to speak on behalf of an entire culture.
We always start with English because it is the primary language we use in the classroom. Next, we always sing in Polish because we live in Poland. Last year my class sang every time in English, Polish, French, German, Spanish, Korean, Ukranian, Russian, Flemish, and Mandarin. Every single birthday! It means that you spend a lot of time singing but the kids don’t mind it at all. In fact, it just makes birthdays even more special! This year my class is much smaller but still with a lot of cultural diversity. Now we sing in English, Polish and Hungarian each birthday.
Recently, something exciting happened. We have a student in our class who spoke no English at the start of the school year. Throughout the year this student has gotten better and better at English. This student was sitting on our assistant’s lap (more about that issue here). When I asked if anyone else wanted to sing he rose his hand. I was so excited and so surprised to hear that he wanted to volunteer. He sang in his native language for the first time! My kids were silent and were grinning ear to ear. When he finished they all started clapping and cheering! There were also a lot of thumbs up! It was such a magical moment in our classroom for him, the other kids and for the teachers.
This is just a small but important way to be culturally inclusive within your class.
What do you do to include cultural traditions in your classroom? I would love to hear from you!
I have to be honest, I have never been a big fan of shushing. Oral language is the foundation for student learning. We want to immerse our students in a language rich learning environment. That goes a bit beyond reading stories to them and putting words up on the wall. It also means creating classroom conversations and dialogues. It means letting them share their ideas with one another and it means not shushing them while they’re sharing ideas. Sometimes the most clever ideas and responses are the ones that teachers shush.
Now, I am in no ways suggesting that we should just always allow students to talk all the time. We need to consider the purpose for their talk and allow a lot of talk time throughout their day. That is the way they will grow as learners and as humans. Take a moment right now to think about the kids in your classroom. How much time do they have to talk with one another throughout the day?
Earlier this year my morning routine had students come in, put away their snack, and read a book. I noticed that my class was a very talkative one. For a while I would remind them of the procedures and have them grab books to silently read. Then one day I had to respond to an email while they were arriving and I didn’t have a moment to redirect them. Instead, I listened in. They were talking about what they did the night before and were sharing stories and plans with each other. Regular chit-chat that most teachers have over their first cup of coffee. I love it! Why should they be forced into silence at the start of the day? From that day on I allow the kids to chat amongst themselves when they arrive at school and I can tell you that it has strengthened our classroom community. It hasn’t gotten out of control. I love our morning chats and I actually have less management issues throughout the day.
Listen in while your kids are chatting this week. What are their conversations about? What ideas are they developing together? Does their chat sounds similar to teachers chatting before meetings? Try to build on the language in your classroom.
*Please read the title in Uncle Vernon’s voice if you didn’t the first time. Just imagine how he’s feeling as he screams to Harry that there is NO SUCH THING as magic!*
The Unfortunate Event
Let me paint this picture for you. It was the day of the elementary book fair. Our kids had their zloty ready to go. Their parents had sent them with money that was burning holes in their pockets all day long. It was finally time! We walked down to our library and we listened to directions. If you didn’t have money you could get a sheet of paper and create a wishlist. If you did have money the cost was listed in pounds on the back of the book and you had to come and look at the sign to see what it would be in zloty. You know, a real easy task for first grade. When you were ready to check out you could find the lady and she would check you out. Any questions? Nope! My kids take off with such excitement to peruse some new books.
All around I hear calls of joy. “Oh my gosh look at this!” “Woah! Come here!” “Ms. Natasha! Ms. Natasha!” Suddenly the whole class is summoning me over to a little corner with shouts of, “look what we found!” I walk as fast as I can over to where the kids are standing to see that they have stumbled upon a book series we know and love. One of my favorite animals is an otter and we have a little, stuffed otter named Ruby. When I was in London I went into a bookstore (if you live in a non-English speaking country and visit an English speaking country you must stop in a bookstore) saw this story about otters and bought it immediately.
The kids were so excited when I shared it with them and because a lot of my kids started the year far below grade level they could read the words of this book! It was so amazing to share this story together- no matter how simple the text was. So, here we are at the book fair and they see this!
They were all so excited! They knew we had to tell the other first-grade teacher about the squirrel one because she had a squirrel named Pearl. The kids who had wishlists hustled over and started writing them down. The excitement of the book fair was at an all-time high! I walked away to allow the kids more room in that area. The librarian asked me a question when suddenly I heard, “GET AWAY FROM THE BABY BOOKS! You’re in grade 1! Look at the real books.” The book fair lady had stacked up this entire series and banned my kids from going back to that table. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!!!
Their little spirits were crushed. They felt insulted and betrayed. Hurt little ones came walking over. I reminded them that they brought their money and they could look at any book they wanted. Something that seemed like a fair rule to me but not to the lady selling the books. (Later when kids tried to buy books she denied it to several and told them to pick new books or picked new books for them because she didn’t deem them appropriate. We went head to head but I wasn’t the one selling books and my class had to play by her rules.)
WE MUST STOP THIS NONSENSE!!
You know what? Every time I pick up a book to read I don’t choose one that is my instructional level. For example, I love reading Buzzfeed articles. Do you think those are written at my reading level? Are the fashion blogs I read at my reading level? Are the young adult literature books I love so much at my level? NO! They are far below it. That doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter what I read it should matter that I read and I love reading. I love reading so much that I am always sharing what I read, no matter what it is, with my friends.
We need to stop trying to tell kids what to read and start encouraging all forms of reading! Stop it! So what a kid wants to read a book that is deemed too easy for them. So what that this kid only wants to read Elephant and Piggie but you have decided they are too easy for them. Don’t extinguish a burning love of reading by shaming what a child is reading. If a kid wants to read a graphic novel but you decide graphic novels aren’t books it sounds like you’re the one with the problem, not the kid!
There is no such thing as a baby book. It just doesn’t exist. If you are a reader you can read any book. ANY BOOK!
Truths About Reading
Different books in different cultures
I know that part of this is cultural. Children’s books in Polish aren’t written as children’s books in English are. Right now my kids are reading heavy chapter books with no pictures in Polish. It isn’t because they don’t need the picture support when they read it is because in those books pictures are an “extra” They weren’t added to help the reader gain an understanding of the text. When we talk about picture support that entire skill doesn’t exist in their native language texts. So, yeah it can be tricky to understand why the books they’re reading in English look more childish the books are just designed differently in each language.
Our school has a lot of work to do to explain this to teachers and parents and guests and administrators and children but this struggle doesn’t just happen at my school. Our librarian frequently denies books to children because she thinks they shouldn’t read them. Assistant teachers frequently rip books out of kids hands and tell them not to read them. Parents tell their kids to stop looking at the pictures and “read the book.” I know this might be happening at your school too.
Tell me your stories in the comments below and let’s band together to shift a damaging mindset about reading to a more inclusive and positive one!