While most students do not have the chance to study abroad until college, hundreds of children in Brookfield and LaGrange Park get the opportunity to travel the world by the time they leave the fifth grade. And last week, that’s just what they did. 

Well, sort of.

For the eighth year in a row, Brook Park Elementary School celebrated a tradition they call “Cultural Week.” For an entire week, students “travel” to different continents and explore various cultures and traditions the many countries have to offer.  

The program is the brainchild of Brook Park’s visual arts teacher, Lynda Nadkarni, who was inspired by a presentation at an art conference in which a teacher decided to educate her American classroom about customs she learned while studying abroad in China.

“When I first started, I only did it with one grade level,” Nadkarni explained. “I had this idea that if we did this for every grade level, first through fifth, and they went to a different continent, that they would have traveled the world while they were at Brook Park.”

Every day of the week is a different day of “travel” for the different grade levels. Starting on Monday, first-graders travel to Australia, followed by second-graders traveling to Africa on Tuesday, third-graders to South America on Wednesday, fourth-graders to Europe on Thursday and fifth-graders finishing off the week on Friday in Asia. 

Students start their day of travel by sitting on a paper airplane taped to the floor of the school’s multipurpose room, eat an “in-flight” snack and watch a slideshow presentation about the continent they will be learning about. 

From there, students then rotate through different classrooms and participate in art, social studies, literature and science related to the countries on each continent. The students also get a passport to collect stickers from each of their travels so that by the time they reach fifth grade, they have collected stickers from dozens of countries. 

For Cultural Week, faculty members act as tour guides and parent volunteers coordinate the activities.

“Activities are based on volunteer knowledge and expertise,” Nadkarni said. “For example, in fourth grade, every year we’ve been able to find parents who are native Europeans and they’ll bring something from their own culture to the table. We’ve had people from Bosnia, Great Britain, France, Germany and Italy.”

Aside from parent volunteers, people from various outside cultural agencies also help out with the event every year.

“This year, we had people from Focus Yoga in Brookfield coming to teach yoga to the fifth grade since they’re [visiting] Asia.”

Since students bring their excitement about the events at home, several parents have decided to volunteer for the event based on their children’s positive reviews. 

Brook Park parent Carolyn Morriss decided to volunteer for a second year after having so much fun coordinating the events and learning about the different countries.

“It’s just really fun to talk about different cultures with the kids,” Morriss said. “We’re focused on living in Chicago and in Illinois, and there are actually a lot of kids that are from other countries that go to our school, so it’s neat for them to have that interaction of, ‘Wow, this is where so-and-so is from!’ Kids are really interested in what other cultures and people do.”

Parent Tanja Murray agrees with Morriss, saying the event is a smart and unique way to show kids that there is more out there than the customs and lifestyles they are familiar with. 

“It’s so great for them, especially [how it] exposes them and teaches them about how there’s more out there than just the United States,” Murray said. “They love learning about the different foods, activities that they do and where the country is.”

Both of Murray’s daughters have enjoyed Cultural Week, with fifth-grader Fiona saying she enjoyed the learning process that was shared by the entire school community.

“When I was in fourth grade … we traveled to Europe [and] went to Italy,” she said. “I remember painting while lying on the floor with the canvas taped to the bottom of my desk [mimicking the way Michelangelo was painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel]. 

“Cultural week is definitely one of the things I’m going to miss at Brook Park. It’s also great that parents and the kids can share where their families came from.”

   Brianna Murray, now a seventh-grader at S.E. Gross Middle School, believes good lessons came from the message behind Cultural Week, because of the growing diversity amongst students in the district.

“It’s important and pretty interesting to learn about where your peers and fellow classmates’ families are from,” she said. “I think Cultural Week has the potential to [expand] the way students think of each other, since the students obviously aren’t all originating from the same country.”

Overall, Nadkarni is pleased that Cultural Week has grown to become a special tradition at Brook Park. She hopes the idea of using travel as a way of teaching kids about the world could be helpful for other area schools looking to incorporate new cultural lessons into their curriculum. 

“My advice to other teachers who are thinking about it is to start small [until] it becomes part of the school culture,” she said.

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