Chinese New Year is celebrated by more than 20 percent of the world’s population. It is the most important holiday in China, and to Chinese people all over the globe. Since 2013, Westwood High School students in the Asian Culture Club have created experiences of the holiday for children in the district’s Integrated Preschool. This year, the day of celebration on February 5 was bigger and better than ever, with WHS Early Childhood Development students contributing for the first time.
“The high school students went above and beyond,” said Aprile Albertelli, director of the Integrated Preschool. “They led the children in crafts, dance, and storytelling all connected to the holiday. Our kids were so excited to spend this day with the ‘big kids.’”
Albertelli worked in collaboration with Christine Chu, a WHS Social Studies teacher and the Asian Culture Club advisor, and Pauline Chaloff, a Social Studies teacher and the WHS Early Childhood Development class instructor.
“We’re in the middle of our diversity unit, so it’s the perfect time for this event, which also gives my students the opportunity to put together a lesson plan for the preschoolers. They took several days and classes to prepare, just like a classroom teacher would,” Chaloff said.
The Early Childhood Development students created a plan that included making Chinese New Year dragons and lanterns and reading books about the holiday. Five or six high schoolers worked in each of the three preschool classrooms. Two of them were the classrooms’ regular “interns” - Chaloff places students to routinely observe preschool and elementary classrooms throughout the district - who led the day’s activities. In each preschool classroom, a student from the Asian Culture Club greeted the children in Chinese, introducing themselves, asking how the children were, and wishing them Happy New Year.
“Even though most of the students don’t understand Chinese, it’s great for them to hear what the language sounds like. And they all learned how to say ‘Happy New Year,’” said Albertelli.
The Early Childhood students followed with selected readings and got the children organized for the planned crafts.
“Each preschooler received a beautiful red and gold envelope created by the high school students. These were similar to a lai see, which Chinese children typically receive from parents and other adult family members with money inside. Ours contained a card with an animal symbolizing which craft station the children would go to first,” Chu said. “In addition, my club created posters that showed different elements of Chinese New Year - like fireworks, dragons, and celebratory foods - which the classroom leaders used for instruction.”
Chu’s group also has a dragon built from scratch by longtime club president Michael Lo, now a senior, and his family. The preschool students had been told to expect a visit from a dragon that would do a special traditional dance. Lo and a fellow student performed that for each classroom.
“The kids were beyond excited for the dragon to come in and dance. The whole day was so colorful and bright and over the top. They loved it,” said Chu.
“The preschoolers were so proud of their artwork—the paper plates they painted that were then assembled into dragons that now hang in our halls—and the Chinese lanterns they got to take home,” Albertelli said.
“This day really brought home the concept of the classroom be both a mirror and a window, reflecting who the students are and introducing them to new experiences and knowledge,” Chaloff said. “It was such a joyful, fun event with lots of smiles from all of the kids. For me, observing how far my students have come over the course of the year was particularly rewarding.”
She and Chu believe so strongly in the benefits of this event that they wrote a grant to support it as a yearly tradition and allow them to secure more supplies and books to keep making it more exciting and immersive. The Westwood PTO has partially funded the grant.
“This is such a wonderful collaboration and a multi-layered experience for all of the students involved. We’re starting to think about doing something similar for Diwali and Ramadan to keep expanding new and diverse experiences for Westwood students,” Chaloff said.