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Cultural Experience Night:
Dance, Passports, and a
"Wheel of Cheese"

For more than two years, students and families have gathered at Highlands Elementary School in Naperville, Illinois, to enjoy entertainment and cuisine from places like Africa, Ireland, the Philippines, and more. The very practical goal of "Cultural Experience Night" is to improve student relationships and interactions with each other.

In a survey, students at Highlands Elementary were asked to react to some statements about their school. When asked to respond to a statement that said students at the school were tolerant of other students who look and act different from them, 80 percent of the Highland students agreed with the statement.

"Our specific goal was to create cultural awareness and better understanding for all ages involved; we think this definitely translates to better relationships in the classroom and on the playground," recalled Leslie Cameli, a parent who is co-chairperson of the School, Family and Community Partnership (SFCP), which sponsors the event.

A team of four parents and two staff members designed, promoted, and executed the first Cultural Experience Night. Some of the students' favorite activities were the "Wheel of Cheese" -- which was part of a Netherlands exhibit -- watching a student perform with the Chinese yo-yo on stage, and eating baklava from Greece and lasagna from Italy.

"We experienced an overwhelmingly positive reaction, with people asking us to bring back the event next year," observed Lynn Gissler, the other parent co-chairperson of the SFCP. "We did offer it again the next year. We don't recall one negative comment, and that is unheard of."

Despite the flurry of activity around the 20 colorful booths, more than 150 attendees gave their undivided attention to the performers and demonstrations on stage, which included Swedish maypole dancing. It was a testament to the level of interest among the families and children who had come to explore new cultures and collect stamps on their "passports."

Early promotion ensured that the event was well-attended. Cameli and Gissler made it clear that they were open to all types of ideas and fun ways to promote cultural awareness and even extended their search outside the school community. The city of Naperville has a sister city in Nitra, Slovakia, so they extended an invitation to this group, and it set up an educational booth at the event. The Naperville Cultural Center also shared its programs with the audience.

"During the planning stages, we would never have imagined a Wheel of Cheese as a feature, but it was incredibly popular with the audience," Cameli admitted.

The "Wheel of Cheese" game invited visitors to the Netherlands booth to spin a wheel for a chance to answer questions in a handful of categories, including

  • Dutch Trivia,
  • True or False?
  • Try to Say a Dutch Word, or
  • Free Treat.
  • The questions related to Dutch culture, and the presenters offered Dutch cheese and Dutch chocolate for players. Participants got both types of food whether they answered correctly or not, which may explain why the game was such a huge hit!

    Their personal experience with planning Cultural Experience Night illustrates the importance of simple, straightforward communication of needs to the school and community, say the co-chairs.

    "People told us afterwards that they wished they had set up a booth, but they weren't sure what we were looking for," added Gissler. "If you make it clear that you aren't just looking for country displays with a map and a flag, people will be encouraged to participate and think outside of the box."

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