One of the cornerstones of Haddonfield School District’s 21st-century educational mindset is working toward greater cultural competency for all.
On Nov. 20, in one fourth-grade class at Elizabeth Haddon Elementary, students were treated to the wonders of Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s 31 states, thanks to the bright red trunk positioned at the front of the room.
The Red Trunk Project is a cultural initiative based on the idea that children should learn to “Respect Every Difference.” Its goal is to create a brighter, more inclusive future for all children, working to ensure that the next generation better understands their fellow citizens around the world, per the organization’s website.
To that end, the trunk features dozens of cultural artifacts (arts and crafts, clothing, currency, musical instruments) and combines them with documentary-style videos, booklets detailing the lives of local children and a tailored lesson plan, aimed at creating a lasting impression.
“I found out about this project through a parent here, and I felt that it fit in perfectly with the district’s strategic plan and the goal around cultural competency. And I started talking to the organizers of the Red Trunk project, which is relatively new. We are one of the first elementary schools in New Jersey to actually (receive) the trunk,” said Haddon Principal Gerry Bissinger.
The Red Trunk Project allows children to connect with parts of the world they might never witness themselves. While many borough residents have the opportunity, the time and funds to visit Mexico’s more well-known tourist-friendly locales, Oaxaca is a region in southern Mexico which features a rich indigenous heritage along with European influence.
Contents of the trunk were broken down so that there were six separate stations in the classroom, each with their own group of artifacts and accompanying video. Pupils in small groups eagerly devoured the information within: proudly displaying the flag of Mexico, intently watching instruction on how to fashion cocoa beans into various chocolate-based treats, or slipping into a handmade dress.
“The kids are just loving the artifacts and learning about a different culture, bringing that culture here into Haddonfield, and so it’s been exciting. This is the first class to get it, and 4th grade specifically, because it’s really designed for 3rd to 4th graders,” Bissinger added.
“The really cool thing about this is, it’s not just a bunch of random artifacts. Anthropologists work on the trunk, the videos are made specifically for the project, and the kids (within the videos) are from Oaxaca and it’s all authentic.”
Bissinger added that this trunk was the first produced for the project, and Red Trunk’s founder – Kevin Thomsen – is currently working on the second one, which is slated to be from Kenya in East Africa.
Also planned for 2020, according to the site, is a “Green Trunk,” focusing on ecological and environmental issues.
“It’s been fun, but also an exercise in restraint. All the kids were really excited when it came, as was the faculty, too. Next year, or next time it’s out, we’re absolutely going to try and re-apply and get the one that’s coming from Kenya,” Bissinger admitted.