New teacher diaries

Year of the rabbit

New Teacher Diaries Feb. 3 was the kickoff of Chinese New Year, a 15-day celebration filled with food, family and bright colors. I work in the heart of Flushing, which boasts a large and growing Chinese population. This year I have a self-contained beginner English-as-a-second-language 3rd-grade class. This is my first year teaching 3rd grade after three years of teaching ESL kindergarten. And though Chinese New Year was a celebration in my class in the past, it was a modest affair with some books about the holiday and Chinese food.

I thought this year’s celebration would be no different, but when we came back from winter break in early January my students couldn’t stop talking about their plans for Chinese New Year. I quickly realized that this holiday is a much bigger deal than I originally thought.

Unlike my classes in previous years, most of my students were born in China, and for many of them this would be their first year celebrating the holiday in the United States. I decided that the standard classroom celebration I had organized in the past wouldn’t be enough. As an ESL teacher, part of my job is to make my students feel comfortable in my classroom, and, for those new to the country, in their new life in the United States. I want my students to feel welcome to share their traditions with the class, and a great way to facilitate this was to plan the biggest Chinese New Year party I could.

I didn’t know much about the traditions surrounding the holiday, so I put my students in charge. I allowed them to be the teachers and teach me about the history and the customs of Chinese New Year, and what it means that 2011 is the year of the rabbit.

When my students came to school that day, they all helped turn our classroom into a large family-style Chinese restaurant. They brought in food that they had prepared with their parents the night before. They used red construction paper and glitter to make decorations for the classroom, and when it was all ready they invited a non-ESL class to join us in celebrating the New Year. We feasted on dumplings, rice cakes and sesame chicken, the students told the class all about the plans they had with their parents for that night, and we finished off the day by walking in a dragon parade around the school.

The celebration was the best I have ever seen in a classroom. My students did a wonderful job sharing their customs and teaching me about Chinese culture. I learned that sometimes it’s important to let your students teach you something new.

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