Thursday, February 11, 2010

Teaching Tigers to Monkeys

Wednesday morning, 8:30am, I found myself in front of a group of enthusiastic kindergarteners. I, somewhat apprehensively, had agreed to be the 'Special Guest' speaker for my sister's (aka Mrs. Malsom) K5 class. I was there to teach the children about an upcoming holiday. No, not Valentine's Day, nor Mardi Gras, or even President's Day. I was there to talk about Chinese New Year. This year February 14th will mark the New Year, the Year of the Tiger. But how does one describe this foreign event to 6-year-olds? I started by asking them what they knew about China.

"They have Chinese food. It's good!"

"I have a movie about pandas!"

Pandas and Chinese food, this was probably about all I knew myself when I first set foot in China nearly five years ago at the tender age of 22. I'm now armed with plenty of knowledge, but I had to break it down in a way understandable to their young and anxious minds. To ease the process, we started with a pop-up book that described the Chinese New Year.

The book illustrated what everyday Chinese do in preparation for and during the Chinese New Year. First, they clean their homes, as it symbolizing the sweeping away of bad luck from the previous year. Next, they will decorate their homes and even dress in the color red. Red is an auspicious color, believed to scare away evil spirits. On New Year's Eve, a feast is prepared and it includes fish and (in northern China) dumplings. Dumplings (i.e. potstickers) are shaped like money and therefore symbolize wealth.

On New Year's Day children are given small red envolopes that contain money. According to tradition, an even amount of money is considered best. In Mandarin, eight is pronunced 'ba' which is a homophone for wealth. Similarly, six is pronounced 'liu,' a homophone for 'smooth.' For this reason amounts containing the numbers 8 or 6 are sometimes common. Fireworks and fire crackers are also popular, both on New Year's Eve and during the first two weeks of the New Year. As with the color red, fireworks and crackers are thought to scare away evil spirits.

The students all seemed fairly mesmerized by these Chinese traditions. In one picture, a family sat around a table, ready to begin their holiday meal. In the middle of the table lay a (whole) fish, cooked and ready to be ate. I explained that fish is eaten whole in China--head, skin, eyes, and all, everything but the bones. There were plenty of groans and "ewwwwwwwwwww's." The perfect opportunity for a lesson on tolerance.

"Different people eat different things. We may think it's strange, but they may also think our food is strange too. And that's okay, but we need to be willing to try and understand new things," taught Mrs. Malsom.

After finishing the story, I held out a globe for the class to see. I started with a warmer-up question, "What is this called?"

"A globe!"

"The Earth!"

"Very good," I praised, "This is a globe and it is the earth." I then pointed to the U.S. "Do you know what country this is?"

"China!" three students exclaimed in unison. "Good guess," I encouraged and then asked, "What country do you live in?"

"Milwaukee!!" one student yelled. "Wisconsin!!" another one cried.

"No, Milwaukee is the city. Wisconsin is the state. Can anybody tell me what country we live in?" I asked again nervously. One of them had to know and I wasn't going to give up on them too easily. There was five seconds of rather uncomfortable silence.

"America!" a boy in the back finally proclaimed.

"Yes," I said with relief. I keep my finger pointed to the U.S., rested the globe on my lap, and used my other hand to point at China. "This is China. How do you think I got from China to our country, America?"

"An airplane!" several children cried. They got it! These were no dummies.

Now for the conclusion of their lesson. "What year were you born?"

"In December," one boy answered with enthusiasm. "September 9th," another exclaimed.

Ok, I was going to have to try this another way. "How old are you?" I asked.

"Five-and-a-half!!" "I'm six." "My birthday's next week!"

"Okay, so many of you are monkeys," I tried to explain, leading into my discussion of the Chinese zodiac and Year of the Tiger. This could be tricky. "Every year in China has a different animal. Your year is the monkey. This year is the tiger so today we are going to make tigers."

The children looked on in excitement. Mrs. Malsom taught them how to assemble their orange construction paper tigers with pipe cleaner tails. Everything had fallen together with such ease. It's amazing how much simpler instruction is when students speak the same language as their teacher, even if they don't know what country they live in or what year they were born.

Happy New Year!

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