Learning about different cultures, and discovering that despite cultural differences we have more cultural similarities than differences, should be an integral part of the elementary school curriculum. This philosophy, however, is not one readily embraced by all classroom instructors.
COMMON GROUND: MASKS FROM A CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE has been created to encourage teachers to explore cultures outside of their own, to stir young minds to experience the interconnectedness of art and the human experience, and to help children recognize that by examining other cultures, we learn about ourselves.
My curriculum unit, divided into three parts, is targeted at students in Grades 1 and 2, but can be modified to include Grades 3 to 5. Math, Science, Social Studies, and Language Arts (storytelling, reading, journal writing...) will be incorporated with art, helping students recognize that for many cultures, art is not created for art’s sake. Students will be encouraged to use their imagination, to apply their thinking ability and artistic know-how through maskmaking and writing activities noted herein. Completed works will be showcased both within and outside of our school community, in our school’s Library Media Center, at the nearby neighborhood public library, and at a well-known neighborhood bookstore.
Part 1 of the unit permits students to take a general look at Native American and African culture. These groups have been selected because they are suited for the framework of our school’s Social Studies theme established for Grades 1 and 2. Our general observation of Native Americans throughout North America will run from mid-October through November. Thereafter, as we near the Thanksgiving holiday season, emphasis will be placed on the lifestyles of the Algonquin-speaking tribes like the Micmac, since this group was indigenous to the Connecticut region and is alleged to have been among the first to encounter Europeans. During the first week in December, as winter approaches, we will study and conclude our unit with the lifestyle of the Yup’ik, residents of areas laden with ice and snow.
Our general observation of African culture will begin in December and will run through February. (This study serves as a perfect complement for seasonal holidays that occur during this time of year, beginning with Kwanzaa, an African American cultural holiday held from December 26 through January 1, and ending with the conclusion of African-American Heritage month in February). Ghanian culture, with emphasis on the Asante (also spelled “Ashanti”) people, will be highlighted. Throughout our study, we will meet with our school’s Library Media Specialist to access additional information on the Internet: we will search for cultural information, masks specific to indigenous groupings, and general information concerning each culture.
Part 2 discusses a few reasons why and how masks have been used by different cultures. Two maskmaking activities are featured in this section to enhance student understanding of subject matter. (I recommend culminating the study on Native Americans with the provided maskmaking activity, then correspondingly doing the same post the study on Africa and its people.)
Although maskmaking is the focus of our unit, photos of Native American and African culture and a few actual hand-crafted artifacts (e.g., a Micmac-created dream catcher, a Navajo mandala, Asante akuaba dolls, Damomo drum, and other musical instruments from both Native American and African culture) will be brought in so that students can get a hands-on feel of the aesthetic qualities of these artifacts, along with an understanding of the creativity and ingenuity of the peoples who created them. These artifacts will be strategically presented throughout our study, particularly during storytelling, shared reading, and/or center activities. (Note: Keeping in mind that socio-religious philosophies are abstract and often difficult for young children to comprehend, such information regarding these cultures will and should be generalized.)
Section 3, outlining two language arts activities to accompany each students’ completed mask creations, conclude the unit. Overall, it is the author’s hope that COMMON GROUND will serve as a springboard to foster enthusiastic learning, and a climate where diversity is welcomed, embraced, and celebrated!
PART 1. TAKE A LOOK
Before beginning our study of Native Americans in North America, I think it best to provide our young learners with a visual understanding of the region. Bill Harris’ Landscapes of America serves as a spectacular pictorial resource to bring this understanding to light. (I engaged my students by taking them on an “airplane trip” across the North American region. Arms outstretched, we “flew” around the classroom, landed in our Shared Reading Nook, and began an informative, geographic journey. Through this kinesthetic/visual experience, my students envisioned what life must have been like in the west, midwestern, north and southwestern regions of North America, and how one could have survived in the environment: my children also began to verbalize their understanding of why we sing “America.” [During this activity, one student, Joshua, noted that purple mountain majesties were the Grand Canyon’s south rim].) Subsequently, we began our study of some of the original inhabitants of the region. I recommend using this or your own creative, geographic activity as a prelude to observing Native Americans and their culture. Additionally, keep a map handy so that throughout the unit, students will be readily able to locate the North American homeland of each studied group.