Celebrating our Traditions and Culture

The month of December lends itself particularly well to the sharing of family traditions and cultural celebrations in the classroom. A book we have used in the Rice OWL Lab to encourage parents to share family traditions with their children is Tortillas and Lullabies/Tortillas y Cancioncitas by Lynn Reiser. This book tells the story of family traditions passed down over the course of four generations, from great-grandmother to grandmother to mother to daughter. The events presented are among the simplest and most routine of life’s daily activities: making tortillas, picking flowers, washing clothes and singing lullabies. Yet these simple activities, in the author’s words, “celebrate their heritage, their rapidly changing lives and the enduring expressions of love in their families in ways that are the same but different.” While most of these activities have changed over time, the one thing that has remained constant is the way each generation has sung lullabies to the next.

This book can serve as an invitation to parents, particularly those of different cultures, to share stories about their own families. During our December Parent Days in the OWL Lab, we ask parents to write about a special family tradition or celebration they would like to share with their child. It can be something they recall from their childhood or something they do in the present day. Some families choose to talk about their Christmas traditions, but many also share moments from other cultural celebrations such as Ramadan, Diwali or Kwanzaa. Still others reminisce about birthdays or other special times from when they were children. Parents are encouraged to write in whatever language they feel most comfortable. We take photographs of the families and mount them on colorful scrapbook paper with the tradition written on the reverse side. Parents read what they have written to their child and then take the card and photo home as a special remembrance of their visit.

Another fun avenue to explore after reading “Tortillas and Lullabies” might be to expose children to lullabies and traditional games and songs from the cultures represented in your classroom. Parents again can be a wonderful resource in this area. If possible, have them come in to teach games, songs and lullabies from their culture. Children can investigate how each is alike and different from the others and draw parallels with games and songs they already know. They can perform the songs for parents and create class or individual books to accompany the music and share them with families at home. Some good resources for authentic songs, games and lullabies from all over the world include:

Many other quality children’s books address the theme of multicultural traditions and experiences in families. Some deal with grandparents and other members of the extended family. Since many children today live far away from such relatives and cannot always be with them, these books about shared experiences can serve as a springboard for further discussion. A few multicultural titles centered around family relationships include:

  1. Abuela / Abuela by Arthur Dorros
  2. A Walk with Grandpa / Un Paseo con Abuelo by Sharon K. Solomon
  3. Elizabeti’s Doll / La Muñeca de Elizabeti by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen
  4. Hairs/ Pelitos by Sandra Cisneros
  5. I Call My Grandpa Papa / I Call My Grandma Nana by Ashley Wolff
  6. I Love Saturdays y Domingos by Alma Flor Ada
  7. In My Family/ En mi Familia by Carmen Lomas Garza
  8. Liliana’s Grandmothers / Las Abuelas de Liliana by Leyla Torres
  9. My Colors, My World/ Mis Colores, Mi Mundo by Maya Christina Gonzalez
  10. My Grandma/ Mi Abuelita by Ginger Foglesong Guy
  11. Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons by Rob D. Walker
  12. Momma Where Are You From? by Marie Bradby
  13. My Dad / Mi Papá and My Mom / Mi Mamá by Anthony Browne
  14. Too Many Tamales! / ¡Qué Montón de Tamales! by Gary Soto

If it is not feasible to invite families into the classroom you can think of other ways to celebrate their cultures. You might consider creating a special basket that children could take home accompanied by a note asking parents to share photographs or objects that are representative of a cultural tradition their family celebrates. The parent could talk about the tradition with the child at home and the child could then share the information with the rest of the class. Since food plays a huge part in the family traditions of all cultures, perhaps families could share a favorite recipe and these could be made into a class cook book that included family stories associated with each recipe.

Parents need to know that their personal experiences are valuable resources that can support their children’s learning and instill pride in where they come from. Even parents who cannot read or write can share family stories with their children. When we invite them to bring those stories into the classroom we honor who they are as families and empower parents to see themselves as true partners in the education of their children.

Authored by Lori Espinoza and Debbie Paz, Rice University School Literacy and Culture
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