The Proof is in the Pudding: Heritage Month Celebrations in Schools

Posted by Jason Novak on 12/14/17 1:51 PM

Growing up, I was quite close with my grandmother. I often found myself with her in the kitchen where she would be cooking for the family. She loved to cook, and, at times, I had the pleasure of assisting her. I remember once asking my grandmother while she was preparing a meal why it was that she loved cooking so much. Her response to me was “the proof is in the pudding, Jason.” I must have looked at her with a confused expression as she chuckled at my response. She went on to talk to me about the joy she would receive from having friends and family at the dinner table enjoying a meal together. She told me that the proof was knowing she was caring for her family, and felt good about filling us all with good food and love. She was quite a special person!

A recent set of Gatherings (Lowell’s version of school assemblies) held in our elementary school reminded me of my grandmother’s thoughts and the proof of our work being “in the pudding.” During the summer months, the Primary School Gathering Committee engaged in our school’s summer grant program. Our grant made it possible for us to ask important questions about our work and our goals for the Gathering celebrations that we would include this school year. Our guiding questions included:

  • Do we continue to celebrate heritage months throughout the school year? If so, how do we plan for authentic student experiences during heritage months?
  • How do we bring more student voice and student leadership into the Gathering experience?
  • For Gathering to feel owned by our community, how do we include more community voices in our experiences?
  • How do we bring more curriculum and learning into Gathering?

In our summer work, we connected to our mission of being an inclusive community in which each individual is valued and respected. As a part of this work, we decided that there needed to be community experiences to honor and celebrate different identities during heritage months, and also throughout the school year within our classrooms and curriculum.

A School Assembly in Honor of Native American Heritage Month

At the start of November, the Primary School Gathering Committee worked to bring an authentic experience to our students in honor of Native American Heritage Month. We spent a few weeks researching what would be most meaningful for our students so that the time would include both an acknowledgment of the past and a representation of Native American culture and heritage in the present. The end result included student leadership and representation of faculty heritage.

As a part of the Gathering experience, 5th grade students made presentations for both our K-2 students and our 3-5 students. The 5th graders from Brian and Cordenia’s class focused their efforts on the expedition of Lewis and Clark into the Louisiana Territories and connected research from various Native American tribes to highlight two perspectives on the same experience. The 5th graders brought forward perspectives from the Cheyenne people, the Tetons, the Blackfoot tribe, and the people of the Nez Perce. In closing, the 5th grade prompted us with a few questions for reflection: “Our history tells one story, but the words of Indigenous peoples offer a different perspective. Whose story is correct? Or could both perspectives have truth in them? What do you think?”

They then opened up the floor to hear reflections from 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students. The first reflection that came forward was from one of our 3rd grade students. This student spoke passionately about the experience of American Indians, the violence they experienced in being forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in the eastern United States. This led into a wider understanding of how to approach narratives and the multiple truths that can be expressed in the same event. His comments led to great depth of discussion and awareness around holding two truths at the same time.

Not only was there proof represented in students safely sharing their voices, there were also many standards from the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards that were met throughout the Gathering experience itself. Some of the standards touched upon included:

  • Justice 11 JU.3-5.11 - I try and get to know people as individuals because I know it is unfair to think all people in a shared identity group are the same.
  • Diversity 10 DI.3-5.10 - I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.
  • Diversity 7 DI.3-5.7 - I have accurate, respectful words to describe how I am similar to and different from people who share my identities and those who have other identities.
  • Action 19 AC.3-5.19 - I will speak up or do something when I see unfairness, and I will not let others convince me to go along with injustice.
  • Identity 5 ID.6-8.5 - I know there are similarities and differences between my home culture and the other environments and cultures I encounter, and I can be myself in a diversity of settings.
  • Diversity 8 DI.6-8.8 - I am curious and want to know more about other people’s histories and lived experiences, and I ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and nonjudgmentally.

The proof that really speaks volumes from this one narrative is that students not only met standards at their grade level, but also met some of the middle school standards. We were also successful in meeting the goals for the Gathering experience as outlined by the guiding questions in our summer work, which felt like a wonderful success so early on in the school year.

Advice for Planning School Assemblies Celebrating Heritage Months

If you are contemplating furthering your own work in school assemblies, my advice would be to take time throughout the summer and school year to think through the needs these experiences require, engage a committee to work with you that represents multiple facets of your community, discuss how you will honor the identities found within and outside of your community, determine how you will be sure that student voice is a part of the programming, and be intentional about sharing authentic and researched curricular experiences.

Why This Work is Important

I recently returned from the NAIS People of Color Conference where I not only had the opportunity to facilitate affinity group work, but also heard from speaker Dr. Anita L. Sanchez. In her recent book, The Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times, Dr. Sanchez includes the following quote to help us all understand that we all must do the work of identity, inclusion, and action together, in community, and that we must continue to share the many gifts each of us bring:

We are not, and can never be, lone individuals. We are the sum total of our actions as a species, and this is why we can leave nobody out. We, as a species, holding one part of the Hoop of Life, are responsible for upholding that part. If we do not, the Hoop begins to fail. The Hoop of Life does not understand “us and them,” the Hoop of Life only understands “We.” ~Pat McCabe, Navajo Elder


(Image credit: By brewbooks, Bighorn Medicine Wheel, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50870603)

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Lowell School is an independent school in the Colonial Village neighborhood of Washington, DC, that offers Pre-Primary, Primary, and Middle School programs. It offers a rigorous and hands-on curriculum that nurtures each child’s natural curiosity and desire to learn, and supports the development of individual voice and self-reliance. For more information, please call 202-577-2000, email admissions@lowellschool.org, or follow Lowell on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Topics: Teaching & Learning, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Jason Novak

Written by Jason Novak

Jason Novak is the director of Primary School at Lowell School. He received his BS in music education, K-12, from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA, and his MA in educational leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University, NY. In addition to his work as a music teacher and school administrator, Jason has also worked closely with educational and child advocacy groups such as the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS), the Pennsylvania Association of Environmental Educators, the Human Rights Campaign, the Friends Council on Education, and local and national chapters of the American Orff-Schulwerk Association.