photos by Linda O. Schlesinger
Teachers Kathy DeFreece and Jeanne Russell lead the Global Preschool Studies.
A recording of Swedish children singing plays as excited 4-year-olds enter the colorful Global Preschool Studies (GPS) classroom. Its walls are decorated with flags, maps, clothing, and dolls from various countries around the world including Zambia, China, and Sweden.
Kathy DeFreece, the creative GPS teacher, tells her classroom of globetrotters at Christ Methodist Day School to take a streamer from the colorful maypole rising out of their activity table.
The music continues as the children march around the maypole, joyfully singing along with DeFreece and Early Childhood Music Teacher Jeanne Russell. “It’s such a fun class,” says Russell. “It’s exciting watching the children get excited about what they’re learning.”
“Why are we dancing around the maypole?” DeFreece asks the class.
“Because it’s the beginning of spring!” shouts 4-year-old Allie Golden.
After the may pole dance, DeFreece continues. “We are going on an adventure today,” she announces, handing each child a ticket to board the Viking ship Vasa for a voyage to Sweden. She recounts the story of the real Vasa, now on display in a museum in Stockholm.
All eyes are on this lively teacher, who makes waves with her arms as they set sail. “Stay seated,” she warns, “You don’t want to rock the boat! Say hej da” (goodbye in Swedish).” On the world map behind her, DeFreece moves her pointer across the Atlantic Ocean and up through the Norwegian Sea until she reaches Sweden as she describes their route.
Every week is a new adventure in the Global Preschool Studies program, introduced this year to the school’s 160 preschoolers. It’s designed to teach about countries and cultures and the importance of embracing our differences.
“Memphis is such a melting pot of different cultures,” notes DeFreece, saying it’s important students learn to respect those differences.
DeFreece kicked off the program with a unit called “America: What Makes Us Special.” She and Russell begin each unit leading the children in a lively rendition of He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands, reminding them that God made children in America the same way He made children in other countries and that they are special, too.
Until this year, the preschoolers learned Spanish once per week. According to DeFreece, who also teaches CMDS enrichment classes, administrators felt a program exposing students to many cultures would be more age appropriate than focusing on a single language.
“We wanted to give [the children] a taste of what the world is like,” says Early Childhood Director Teena Maginn, and help them “build a foundation for global studies,” they can use throughout their education. When they leave kindergarten they will have covered four to five countries each year, explains Maginn. They will end this year with a unit on Mexico, which sets the stage for senior kindergarteners to begin Spanish in first grade and is perfectly timed to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
DeFreece tries to schedule each four to six week unit in a month when that country has a celebration. Their study of China in January/February coincided with the Chinese New Year. The children dressed up in Chinese costumes, including self-made dragon masks, and paraded through the school with tambourines, wishing everyone a Happy New Year in Chinese. In December, they learned about Christmas celebrations in several countries, and in November, made rain sticks and learned a rain dance while studying Native American culture in preparation for Thanksgiving.
During a unit on Zambia, they ate a meal of oats and grains with their fingers, learned a few words in Swahili and played African-style outdoor games, barefoot in the grass and dirt. “We wouldn’t let them go on the playground because we tried to make it as real as possible,” says DeFreece. Previously, they had watched a video in which they saw African children attending a school with a dirt floor and playing games with small rocks, and a ball made of towels and twine. They developed a greater appreciation for the lifestyle they enjoy in America.
DeFreece incorporates numerous academic skills into each unit as she covers the country’s location, distance from America, language, literature, weather, habitats, customs, religious rituals, foods, music, games, and famous people of each country. She also incorporates technology into the program, by giving virtual tours of the countries using YouTube. In April, they Skyped with a family in Sweden.
Back on the improvised Vasa, DeFreece asks the children questions to test their knowledge about Swedish life and culture, which they began studying in March. The unit was timed to excite the children about Memphis in May, which salutes Sweden this year. The organization loaned CMDS one of their traveling World Cargo Crates loaded with Swedish items.
Students model some of the treasures, including a Pippi Longstocking wig, St. Lucia costume, Viking hat, and a Nobel Prize medal replica, while she explains their significance.
After their voyage ends, the children taste Swedish meatballs and draw pictures of something they learned about on the ship. As they return to their regular classroom, they have one more taste of Sweden. “Line up; we’re counting to five in Swedish,” says DeFreece. “En, två, tre, fyra, fem,” as the children march on.