Eileen Mesmer teaches kindergarten and first grade at the Saltonstall School in Salem, Massachusetts, a historic coastal town north of Boston with a socioeconomically and ethnically diverse population. At least 10 percent of the students are Spanish bilingual. Located in downtown Salem, the Saltonstall School opened in 1994 as one of seven choice schools in the city. The school follows a year-round calendar, giving students an additional 10 days of instruction per year. The school day at Saltonstall is also an hour longer than at other local schools. Finally, the instructional focus at Saltonstall, a science- and technology-themed school, is on multiple intelligences.
Ms. Mesmer began the year with a social studies unit called Me and My Family. Students identified family members, defined the term "ancestor," and learned about the diverse cultural backgrounds represented in their class and community. Then the class read Peter Sis's book Madlenka, about a girl who goes around her neighborhood telling her friends -- including the Asian shopkeeper, the French baker, and the Italian ice-cream vendor -- about her loose tooth. Ms. Mesmer used stories like this one and the class's own diversity to teach students about the traditions different cultures celebrate and to introduce the next unit, My Community.
Next, the class studied the history and traditions of the following holidays: St. Nicholas Day, St. Lucia Day, Kwanzaa, Las Posadas, Hanukkah, and Christmas. Ms. Mesmer asked students to identify not only the differences between the holiday traditions, but the common thread among them: light. Ms. Mesmer also used the study of holidays to connect to other subject areas, like science. For example, when studying the winter solstice, students learned about the earth's relative position to the sun as it made its year-long journey around the star, and the corresponding changes in sunlight that produce the seasons.
At the end of the unit, students made posters and gave presentations on the holidays. In the next unit, on built structures, Ms. Mesmer connected the cultures and traditions that the class had just studied to the architectural styles of the buildings in their community.
Lesson Background >>