Yesterday was my first day back to school following the 3 week-long winter vacation (which takes place a lot later than winter break in the U.S.). It's surreal to think that I only have one semester left teaching at my two schools here in Taiwan - time has passed more quickly than I thought! I definitely experienced my fair share of homesickness and culture shock last semester, but now I feel like I've acclimated to living and working in Taiwan. Riding a scooter doesn't make me feel nearly as anxious as it used to, I'm much more comfortable with my everyday spoken Chinese, and I've made a home in each of my schools after working with my LETs for half a year. While I'm looking forward to seeing friends and family again back home come July, the thought of leaving my students is a tough one.
So, to kick off the new semester, I decided to introduce my students at Fuchuen Elementary School to Valentine's Day! (I was later told by my co-teacher, Nana, that she has never taught Valentine's Day to her students, in large part because the holiday usually takes place during winter vacation.) I was happy to hear this - knowing that the students likely had little-no exposure to the holiday beforehand (other than the commercialization of Valentine's Day that you encounter in stores in Taiwan, which is similar to what you see in the U.S., but on a much smaller scale), I hoped that they would find the lesson plan particularly engaging.
I have fond memories of Valentine's Day celebrations back when I was in elementary school.
I remember the time-consuming process of designing a DIY "mailbox" with a recycled shoe box, glue, and colored paper, which every student did in the class as a means to store our Valentines (see right). I remember carefully selecting the Valentine cards for my classmates from the store (usually these were cartoon-themed, e.g. Sailor Moon, Spongebob, or Snoopy). I remember eating lots of sweets - in the classroom, we decorated heart-shaped cookies with red and pink icing/sprinkles, which usually left quite the mess.
While I would've loved to recreate the Valentine's Day activities that I did as an elementary school student for all ~300 of my students, it wasn't exactly feasible given our limited resources.
Despite this, I knew I wanted to have my students make handmade Valentines, learn something new about the holiday, play a Valentine's Day-themed BINGO game, and - for my 5th and 6th graders - create pleated hearts (aka Julehjerter, a type of craft that has origins in Denmark and Germany). Fun fact- they're typically used as Christmas ornaments in Denmark, but shhh! the students don't know that. ;)
Making pleated hearts is a great way for the students to hone their fine motor skills, learn something new, and flex their creativity. I remember making pleated mats back when I was a young student, too, as well as the sense of pride I had when I finished.
To start off, I designed BINGO cards with the eight vocabulary words I planned on introducing to my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade students (i.e., flower, hug, teddy bear, kiss, gift, heart, chocolate, and card.) I found a few Valentine's Day-themed BINGO cards online, but they all included vocabulary that I didn't plan on teaching, so I took to Photoshop to make this one --->.
Students playing BINGO (man, do they get competitive!):
Then, Nana and I bought red and pink paper for the handmade Valentines cards. We had students outline hearts on each piece of paper (the pink one slightly smaller than the red), then cut them out and glue together. We gave them a sample letter to help them write one Valentine to a friend, family member, or that "special someone!" It was cute to see some of the students get all bashful when asked who they writing their Valentine for.
For my 5th and 6th graders, I wanted to challenge them to think more critically about the commercialization of Valentine's Day in the U.S. by posing questions about the mass production of Valentine's Day chocolates and flowers, gifts that comprise a significant portion of the nearly $20 billion that Americans spend on Valentine's Day each year.
Whenever I ask my students questions about geography, I usually hear the same countries tossed around as answers: Taiwan, Japan, and the U.S. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that these are 3 of the 4 countries taught in most textbooks to the upper grades (the 4th being the U.K.)? Nonetheless, it shocks me to see how surprised students are when I show them a world map and ask them to point out Taiwan. Believe it or not, most of them are unable to identify Taiwan's location, and when I do reveal the answer, the entire classroom is filled with cries of disbelief and and sometimes laughter at how small Taiwan is relative to other countries. So, per usual, when I asked students to guess where they thought most of the flowers sold on Valentine's Day in the U.S. originate from, I immediately heard shouts of "Meiguo! (America)," "Riben! (Japan)," and "Yingguo! (the U.K.)." (To be fair, I think many American public schools have Eurocentric curricula that tend to lead to similar problems...at least in my public high school classes, we barely touched on literature/history outside of the American/European traditions.)
I revealed a map of South America and explained that many of the Valentine's Day flowers sold in the U.S. are imported from South America - specifically, Colombia and Ecuador, and the students were quite surprised. (Check out this article from Smithsonian to read more.)
Then I asked students to take a guess as to where most Valentine's Day chocolate is produced worldwide. One student answered correctly after a few tries: "Feizhou (Africa)." I explained that most Valentine's Day chocolate likely originates from West Africa, where ~70% of the world's cocoa is produced.
After the crash course on geography and economics, we began making the Valentine's Day craft: pleated Danish hearts.
I was really impressed with my 5th and 6th graders' ability to make the hearts. It's not an easy task, as it requires a lot of instruction, visual aid, precise measurement, and patience. The students seemed really interested in the design and the process of making the hearts (which I love -- I think it's so elegant!) See below for some pictures (I wasn't able to take many because I was busy helping students).
Overall, I'd say the Valentine's Day lessons were a success! I always enjoy teaching holidays and doing arts & crafts with my students. Today, one of my 5th graders joked that I should be their art teacher! I'm entertaining the idea of leading an art club at one of my two schools, so that's not too far from reality. :P