January 15, 2013 | 02:30 PMGENOA CITY — Brookwood third-grader Will Kunz didn't know a major part of his heritage until recently.
"I just knew my great-great grandpa's name was Phillip Kunz," he said.
That was until Will told his mom about the project students recently completed in Brookwood's three third-grade classes. Then, he said he discovered his family was from Germany.
Jaime Juchems, one of Brookwood's third-grade teachers, said it's common for students not to know where their families are from until they embark on this project.
She said last year, she even helped make a welcome discovery for one student's family.
"I Googled (the student's) last name and we found out that he was probably from France," Juchems said. "His grandmother said me pushing him (to do the project) led to the discovery that they had relatives from France."
But some, like Emma Czyznik, go into the project already knowing at least something about their heritage.
Czyznik said she knew her family was from Finland before the project started last November.
"I didn't know about all the different kinds of foods that come from there," she said.
Food is one aspect of the project.
"Some kids brought in food from their countries," Juchems said. "Recipes, cookies and tamales we've had."
Others brought in speakers. One student's grandfather from the Czech Republic came in. So did someone who lived in Germany.
According to Juchems, the heritage project is a Brookwood tradition and a rite of passage.
"Kids have been doing this here, their brothers and their sisters have been doing it, for years," she said. "The parents are excited about it, too. They'll ask me, are you going to do the heritage project again this year?"
And it looks like there's no reason that would change. For one thing, Juchems said it's a child's first major research project in the Brookwood district.
The skills they hone while doing it will come into play more as they progress academically.
Another reason is the shift in the educational climate brought about by Core Common Standards. Almost every state has adopted the initiative to provide consistent educational standards aimed at making children ready for college or careers.
In making these preparations, teachers at Brookwood have increased emphasis on exercises involving technology and team learning.
Juchems said she enjoys the heritage project, listening to her students asking each other where their families are from.
"I'll hear them talking about it and they'll be like, 'Oh, I'm Polish, too,'" Juchems said. "It's interesting to see them identify with each other in a different way."
Wikis and dolls
For the heritage project, Juchems said they polled students on where they're from.
Then, the third-grade teachers compared notes.
For example, if one student from each class said they were from Ireland, they would assign them to work in the same group to research Ireland, "just so that they could work as a team" and help them get to know students from other classrooms, Juchems said.
The groups conducted their research and created a wiki, or a website developed by a community of users who can add and edit its content.
When they weren't working with students from other classrooms, the third-graders were reading the book "Molly's Pilgrim" by Barbara Cohen.
According to scholastic.com, the book is about a Jewish girl. Her family emigrated from Russia to the U.S. to escape religious persecution. Molly is the only Jewish child in her third-grade class. Around Thanksgiving, her teacher asks students to make a pilgrim doll. Molly is embarrassed by her mother's attempts to help with the project. She makes the doll and dresses it in Russian clothing.
At Brookwood, students made dolls clothed in attire reflecting the cultures of their heritage.
"We have kids from all over — Japan, Russian, Wales, the Czech Republic," Juchem said.
The final stage of the project, which was expected to be completed last week, involved students giving presentations on their family histories. On Jan. 3, Abby Jusczyk discussed her ancestral tales during a Smart Board presentation about Poland. Afterwards, the class was treated to Polish foods such as pirogies.
The most important part of the project, Juchems said, is her students are learning more about other places in the world.
"I think it's good to broaden our horizons," she said. "Children, by the time they're in third grade, they are in their own world. Most of them haven't had a huge experience of going out into the world."