The world is the best classroom: Culture through students’ eyes

Crystal Thiele is a 5th grade educator in Brooklyn, N.Y. She recently received an NEA Foundation Learning & Leadership grant to learn techniques for gathering oral histories. She brought her knowledge back to help her students learn more about their own histories. Here’s what she had to say about her project and its impact.

Culture in the classroom

Tell us a little about your project.

I took part in an oral history gathering expedition in Russia’s Far East, Kamchatka. I trained in collecting culture with Dr. Yelena Minyonok, who is a leader in the field of cultural studies. The expedition taught me how to collect oral histories, conduct interviews, and record and photograph rituals.

From the primary sources, interviews, photographs, and recordings I gathered during the expedition, I created a culture curriculum for my students.

First, students learned about my summer expedition in Russia and the importance of using interviews to collect oral histories. They became inspired to “collect” their own cultures by interviewing family members about their immigration history. They gathered other evidence of family culture, from recipes to photos to write-ups of traditions.

As they researched their family histories, they created culture “scrapbooks”. We shared these scrapbooks at a Family Friday event, and parents and friends were thrilled to see their finished projects.

How does this project help your students?

The skills I learned through this fellowship gave students a deeper understanding of culture, both as a concept and from their own perspectives.

Students used firsthand personal experiences and primary sources as a way to understand a different culture and to focus on their own. During this project, students learned interviewing skills that they can use for the rest of their lives.

What do your students say about the project?

My students loved learning about their families. In their own words:

“From interviewing my mom I learned a bunch about her home country, Haiti, and about the culture.” - Monique

“From talking to my grandma, I learned that my ancestors were interesting people. When they finally got a Ford that they wanted so bad, they didn’t even use it. They just kept it in the garage for safe keeping.” - Foster

“I didn’t really know anything about my ancestors, but after the immigration scrapbook, I was inspired to look into my ancestors and learn more about them. I have been looking into a new ancestor each week! The scrapbook was a really fun project.”  - Chloe 

What inspires you most about your work?

I love the enthusiasm of fifth graders. They have yet to learn how to be self-conscious and are open to trying new things. Fifth graders are naturally curious about the world, and it’s so inspiring to watch them discover it.

What is your passion - in or outside the classroom?

I’ve always enjoyed traveling and learning about other cultures. The world is the best classroom!

I’m grateful to the NEA Foundation for your support!

Want to start an oral history project in your classroom? Check out these resources:

  • Professional development activities via Local Learning, the national network for folk arts in education

If you have a great idea to broaden your capacity as an educator, apply for an NEA Foundation grant of your very own! The next application deadline for Student Achievement and Learning & Leadership grants is October 15. For help developing your proposal, be sure to check out our grant-writing tutorial.

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