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Pilgrims’ Story Hits Home for New Americans : ‘They’re thankful to be here and that their families are safe’

Times Staff Writer

Students in Robyne Kajszo’s first- and second-grade class at Fremont Elementary School in Santa Ana were having a tough go of it.

On the lesson plan, in the words of one 8-year-old girl, were “the pildrens.”

The children weren’t sure why the Pilgrims, English Puritans who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, had left their home for America or, for that matter, where their home had been.

“India,” offered one.

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“South America,” suggested a second.

“California,” said a third.

The 7- and 8-year-olds did, however, know about the big boat in which the Pilgrims arrived--"the Flowermay ship,” as one little girl said--and about the Indians who helped plant crops because “there weren’t any stores.”

Like other elementary school children across the country, Kajszo’s students spent a day recently studying Colonial American history while counting down the days to Thanksgiving.

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In their ethnically diverse Santa Ana school, however, the lesson there, repeated districtwide in increasing complexity from kindergarten through the fifth grade, took on special meaning, said Assistant Principal Bill Hart.

The lesson figures importantly in “the acculturation process” for the school’s largely Latino and Southeast Asian student body, he said.

“We’re very respectful of each other’s cultures here, and we try very hard to bring everybody’s culture into focus at one time or another throughout the school year,” Hart said, noting that the school goes all out to celebrate Mexican Independence Day, Cinco de Mayo, Black Culture Week and Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

“Thanksgiving is our opportunity to bring the American culture into sharper focus,” he said.

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Observing the holiday does not come naturally to many students in Kajszo’s room, where the class calendar is decorated with turkeys but also bears a Vietnamese translation for November--Thang Mu’o’i Mot.

Kajszo classifies 18% of her students as Asian. Though some are from the Philippine and Samoan islands, most are refugees from Laos or Vietnam, said Kajszo, a language development specialist in Asian cultures who was designated as one of the school’s four master teachers last spring. (Master teachers earn a stipend to serve as mentors for other teachers.)

Up until two years ago, many of the families did not celebrate Thanksgiving at home, she said. “They knew they got the day off and had a four-day weekend, but that was the end of it.”

But traditional Thanksgiving “feasts” staged in many of the classrooms have begun to drive the Turkey Day lesson home, she believes.

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“For some of them it was the first time that they had had gravy,” she said. “Now most of the kids are saying that they’re having turkey” for the holiday meal.

Wave of Immigrants

The lesson on Thanksgiving has been slowly evolving in Santa Ana since immigration from Latin America and Indochina began to build in the 1970s, said Marjorie Sawyer, district director of elementary curriculum.

“The historical aspect has not changed, of course, but we have a bigger job to do,” she said. “When you’re born in this country, you hear about Thanksgiving practically all your life, but when children just come in, you have to try to make (the history associated with the holiday) more vivid.”

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In addition to participating in “feasts” that introduce traditional foods, younger students often play at being the first Americans, dressing either as Indians or Pilgrims, Sawyer said.

Whereas the historic Thanksgiving is formally introduced into the curriculum in first grade, details of the Puritans’ fleeing religious persecution in England are not covered until fifth grade, when the district teaches American history, she said. But the story of the Indians and Pilgrims is at least mentioned during the intervening years, she said.

“Teaching holidays helps the children become integrated or part of our national tradition and culture,” Sawyer said. “Holidays bind a people together--particularly our national holidays and the ones that have to do with our country’s beginnings.”

Latin, Asian Students

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With an enrollment that is 87% Latino and 7% Asian, Fremont falls in the “middle range” for ethnic diversity among the 24 elementary schools in Santa Ana Unified School District, said Betty Poggi, director of English as a second language and bilingual programs.

Nine languages are spoken at Fremont, at least 15 at Jefferson and two at Grant and Franklin elementary schools.

Kajszo’s Thanksgiving lesson began in early October. An art project assigned three weeks ago reintroduced the topic. Each student was given a paper feather and instructions to list “things that they are thankful for--and it can’t be a new pencil from the media center. They have to be important.”

Now, leaf-shaped pieces of paper scrawled with “family,” “people,” “food” and “money” surrounded a paper turkey that hangs in the front of the classroom.

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A social studies lesson and two stories on the first Thanksgiving then prepared the students for three- or four-sentence compositions about the holiday.

Aside from teaching American traditions, Thanksgiving offers an important lesson in self-esteem, Kajszo believes.

“That the first people who came to America came here from somewhere else to make a better life for themselves is something they can really relate to,” she said. “Without my even telling them, they were able to pull out the similarities. Some of them even pointed out, ‘That’s what we did.”’

In addition, the message of Thanksgiving is easily grasped by the children whose parents still carry a strong memory of their homeland.

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Families Overcome Obstacles

“They say they’re thankful to be here and that their families are safe,” Kajszo said. “A lot of them are very appreciative of what they have in this country because when they first arrived they didn’t have much. Now their parents have done fairly well for themselves considering the obstacles they have had to overcome.”

All these considerations were remote for Kajszo’s 33 students when they gathered to work their way through the review session. A long pause followed her first question: “Why do we have Thanksgiving?”

“Because we’re thankful,” cautiously offered Lisa Guerrero, 8.

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The menu of the first Thanksgiving feast?

“Popcorn.”

“Strawberries.”

Finally a tiny voice in the back of the room called out: “Turkey.”

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Later when a visitor asked why the Pilgrims left their homeland--a lesson not to be formally introduced until the fifth grade--the children at first drew a blank.

Then Phi Nguyen’s hand shot up. “Because they didn’t have freedom,” said the Vietnam-born 8-year-old, smiling broadly and stunning his teacher.

The school day was ending, but the children were so excited Kajszo had them let off steam by singing.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way,” they began.

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Looking over her shoulder, Kajszo said, “We’re also learning a song for Tet.”


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