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Sunday, August 06, 2017

In the Heights: Using the Arts to Learn with Cultural Proficiency

Last year students learned a lot about what it might be like to live in an urban neighborhood like the one that Akeelah lived in in the play, Akeelah and the Bee. For some students, that urban neighborhood was unfamiliar, and for others the neighborhood was similar to where they live. As children watched the many characters in the play interact, many questions arose. We had a good talk about differences and similarities of the places where we live. It was a great way to broaden students' understanding of the world around them.

This year we'll see the play In the Heights. I recently reviewed the play and its music. Students will be introduced the Dominican-American culture of Washington Heights, New York. Similar to the reaction to Akeelah and the Bee, I suspect that many students will find the Washington Heights neighborhood different than what they know or have experienced while others will find familiarity with the Spanish words, Dominican foods, songs and more.

Prior to attending the play, I want to prepare students for the learning experience. We'll start with a discussion about our own neighborhoods with these questions:
  • What do you call your neighborhood?
  • What is the main language(s) spoken in your neighborhood?
  • What kinds of homes do people live in?
  • What are popular jobs that people in your neighborhood have?
  • What are the ages of people in your neighborhood?
  • Do you consider your neighborhood sparsely populated or densely populated?
Then I'll tell them that we're going to see a play that takes place in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York. We'll watch an intro video. Then I'll mention that many of the people in Washington Heights are from the Dominican Republic, and we'll watch a video about the Dominican Republic. We'll also learn about the foods (and maybe even have a Dominican lunch), and study the language a bit using some of the main words used in the musical.

After we attend the play, we'll talk about reactions. What did you notice? What did you like? What did you find surprising? What did you notice that was similar to where you live, and what did you notice was different? What other neighborhoods and cultures would you like to learn about? Why do you think it's important to learn about the many places that people live in and the many cultures that people have? 

I hope that this unit will help our class broaden their respect, understanding, and interest in cultures. I also hope that it will help all children to gain respect for their own neighborhoods and cultures. 

Do you and your students study culture? If so, do you use the arts as a way to learn about other cultures? What activities do you use to broaden students' understanding of the world around them? How do you develop respect amongst students for their own cultures and the cultures of classmates? I'm interested in your thoughts.