Above, students in Ellen Stein’s class at Wilbur Charter for Enriched Academics dress up as their ancestors, in costumes representing their heritage.
Reaching across continents and generations, students at an affiliated charter school in Tarzana are learning from their ancestors how to respect other people’s heritage while taking pride in their own.
Second-graders at Wilbur Charter for Enriched Academics recently completed their four-month Ancestor Project, which brings state-mandated social studies lesson to life through the eyes of a beloved relative. Involving students and their extended families, the Ancestor Project has become a beloved tradition at the California Distinguished School, with each class adding customs and experiences from around the globe.
The lessons align with “people who make a difference,” a content standard for California’s second-graders that encompasses history, geography, research and writing. Youngsters trace their history, create a family tree and photo album, write and illustrate a brochure and assemble “artifacts” that reflect their heritage or culture. At Wilbur, youngsters also interview an ancestor, asking, for instance, about their childhood friends, favorite foods, funniest experience and most-cherished memory.
“I want them to really get know their ancestors – not just as a grandma or grandpa or an aunt or uncle, but as a person,” said second-grade teacher Ellen Stein.
The project culminates with a fair in which students – in the persona of their ancestor – give a speech about their heritage and share a traditional or ethnic food from their culture.
Student Shea Weserman related first-person stories about grandma Judy Ballabio’s exploits on the tennis court, then served up the Italian crumb cake the family eats every Christmas.
Dressed in a traditional Russian custume, Michelle Mikhalevich, described how how her grandparents, Valery and Nina, loved the thin, jam-filled pancakes that she served to her classmates. Enthralled by “The Nutcracker” she was also thrilled to discover that her family hails from the same country as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
When he gave his presentation, Brandon Zipori donned a uniform similar to the one his grandfather, Eli, wears in a faded photo taken during his service in the Israeli Army. And Ryan Katal talked about his grandfather, Hassan Samavati, and was happy to learn that he shares Iranian roots with his classmate, Arvin Yazdekhasti.
“Everyone listened to me and was interested in what I was talking about,” Ryan said.
Stein, now in her 42nd year of teaching, said Wilbur students have been doing a version of the ancestor project for more than 15 years. It has evolved with input from Wilbur teachers Rose Dickerson, Stacey Nelson and Felicity Wheeler, who have incorporated the project to their own second-grade classrooms.
Stein said the ancestor project took on new relevance following the death of her mother in 2004, and she realized she’d lost the opportunity to ask questions or learn about her mom’s childhood. She doesn’t want her students to have those kinds of regrets when they grow up.
“I want my students to to hear about their ancestors’ triumphs and dismays, about what they were like as a child,” she said. “I want them to learn stories that will live on through generations.”