On the Silk Road to Learning: Students in Elizabeth immersed in the cultures of far-away lands
As the dancers swirled their streamers in a choreographed design, the kindergartners from the Elizabeth public school "ooohed" their delight.
Using Chinese music and traditional Chinese dance, costumes and instruments, the students of this globally focused school have spent the spring traveling the Silk Road, learning about the cities, cultures and resources along the 4,000-mile trade route that linked Asia and Europe.
The school-wide program is intended to foster connections with other cultures and emphasize similarities between people, rather than their differences, principal Howard Teitelbaum said.
"We want learning that traverses subject areas, and learning by touching, seeing, singing, playing, dancing," said Teitelbaum, who dressed in the gold embroidered robes of an emperor for the event last month. "When you think back to school, you don’t remember that essay you wrote or that math lesson. But you remember things like this."
The school’s journey on the Silk Road — a partnership between the district and Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company in Fort Lee — began in January and included all 10 grades from pre-kindergarten through grade eight.
Also involved were students from its sister school, the East Street School in Dunhuang, China, one of the cities along the Silk Road. The Elizabeth and Dunhuang students collaborated on the development of the show, and several dozen students from that elementary school watched the performance via Skype. (Since Dunhuang is 12 hours ahead, the students had to return to their school at night to watch.)
When the internet connection to East Street was established, the Elizabeth students, who study Mandarin Chinese, yelled hello in Chinese. The Chinese students responded in English.
The five-month project was a risky undertaking because it included so many elements, its creators said. Nai-Ni Chen company members taught and rehearsed the dances, while band director Tom Siebenhuhner led the advanced band and the jazz ensemble in movements of "Dreams of the Past," a piece Nai-Ni Chen commissioned from Chinese composer Gao Dengxian.
"It was important that the whole school was involved, since that’s pretty rare," said Nai-Ni Chen, artistic director of the contemporary dance company that has worked with the academy since it opened in 1998.
The original music was important, too, because it gave the students a real sense of Chinese culture.
"It was a real East-West mix," said Chen. "That was a true collaboration."
Audience members learned that Antioch merchants "drive a hard bargain" and that Damascus was known for its beautiful purple dyes. They watched as traders from Quanzhou offered tea in return for silk, and Tyre traders bartered with cedar wood.
"The kids were really engaged," said second-grade teacher Julia Lehman. "It was really an experience in (having an) open mind. It was an exciting school project."
Seven-year-old Tameesan Miller, dressed in a green tunic costume, recited a poem in Chinese about his grade’s city, Dunhuang. Afterward, he said he enjoyed working on the project.
"It was fun because we said a poem and the third-graders did a dance," he said.
Members of the band were enthusiastic about the music, a three-part composition filled with Eastern influences.
"You get to learn about different cultures through music," said Deiontay Hall, 13, a seventh-grade sax player.
"I loved the music and its different sound," said trumpet player Brandon Wreckler, 12, also in seventh grade.
"It wasn’t easy. It took weeks and weeks of practice but we pulled it together."