Fables, Folklore and Culture: Nordic Tales & Songs Onstage April 21

Classic characters of Nordic folklore: cunning Fox, gullible Wolf, clever Hare and powerful Bear, along with pine marten, European adder, rooster, hen and wolverine – will each be embodied on stage by Mount Madonna School (MMS) students as part of their upcoming Cultural Awareness performance.

“Nordic Tales & Songs” will be a culminating presentation of several months of in-depth learning by MMS lower school students, and spotlighted at the performance on April 21. The performance begins at 9:30am.

“Under the passionate direction of fifth grade teacher Jessica Cambell, the much-loved Cultural Awareness performance has been revived for the enjoyment of our MMS community,” said Director of Lower School Lisa Martin. “Our audience is in for a special treat!” Special appreciation, as well, to lower school musical director June Bonacich and choreographer Chelsea Otterness, for bringing this Nordic song and dance presentation to life.

This annual spring performance event was “lost” for a few years during the COVID pandemic. This school year, as teachers discussed whether to revive this tradition, Cambell said she was moved by the memories of several MMS high school students.

“In January during the high school play, I listened to high school students reminisce about their favorite elementary school memories and one thing that came up over and over again was the Cultural Awareness performance,” shared Cambell. “Students talked about how special they felt during those productions, how much fun they had and how their deepest memories come from being part of these performances.

“I brought this back to the teachers at a meeting,” she continued, “and we all realized just how crucial it is for students to have that time to shine: to have that creative outlet to perform, be on stage, embody a character and work together to make something great. This elementary performance truly is a keystone to helping students develop confidence, connecting as a community, and expressing themselves in a creative fashion.”

The performance will be held in the Community Building at Mount Madonna Center; with a reception at 9:00am and presentations beginning at 9:30am. Much in the way that MMS high school students hold a public presentation following their return from distant learning journeys, their presentation is the ‘return’ of the preschool through fifth grade students from their cultural learning journey, and intended to be witnessed by the community.

Students will sing two Nordic-inspired songs and also join kindergarten students to perform a Swedish sun song. Their classroom curriculum has included learning about young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and her efforts to help protect the Earth; viewing and discussing imagery of Swedish children, people and landscapes, learning where the country’s location on the globe and puzzle maps, and exploring Scandinavian flags and countries.

“We have created a Swedish-themed display of landscapes, nature and children playing and at school,” said teacher Danielle Barr. “The children were most excited about the flag, which is wonderful because we are looking at the Swedish flag and moving into studying different flags.”

Students heard stories that originated in Scandinavia including “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “The Little Mermaid” and baked and enjoyed a Nordic carrot cake. They collaborated to create a Dalecarlian or “Dala” horse, a colorful Swedish symbol of good luck, and welcomed MMS teacher and parent Lisa Catterall for a classroom visit and interactive lesson on celebrations from her Nordic family lineage.

“This age-appropriate, cultural awareness unit is especially important for our students to help enrich and inform our concept of global citizenship,” commented Preschool Director Kami Pacheco.

“A wonderful way for children to explore a new culture is through song,” said teacher Hema Walker. “We start every morning with a ‘morning verse’ song and students have learned a Swedish song about welcoming the sun called ‘Sul utte, Sul inne,’ that kindergartners will perform with their preschool friends. Kindergarten students made books illustrating this song and took turns sharing their book with their classmates. They also learned the version of ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ that a child in Norway would sing, as well as a simple Swedish greeting song that they will be sharing at our show.”

Kindergartners and their fifth grade buddies colored Scandinavian designs, students sewed toy Dala Horses and a classroom “Paskris” or Easter tree with decorated wooden eggs and feathers. Kindergartners baked regional treats, including Swedish Limpa bread, and created counting books depicting pictures of Swedish objects, plants and animals, as well as the “Animals of Scandinavia.” Students learned about Sweden’s St. Lucia Day and the landscapes, tradition and folklore of Norway, including the mischievous antics of trolls.

“Exploring a new culture is such a rich experience for our little ones,” commented Walker. “I also love it as a teacher because I always learn so much about our beautiful world.”

First Grade
Students will perform “The Lazybones are Punished,” adapted from “An Illustrated Collection of Nordic Animal Tales” by Pirkko-Liisa Surojegin. Many of the play’s characters are animals unique to that region, including wolverines, pine martens, and the European adder. The play is a “sequel” of sorts, as second and third grade students are collaborating to perform the first part of this story.

Students learned to count in Finnish, and read a Magic Treehouse story about Vikings. Students created Viking ship-inspired artworks, and studied and colored maps and flags of Nordic countries.

“Students learned that all of the Nordic flags have the sideways cross in common, and this Christian symbol is known as the Nordic Cross,” said teacher Cassia Laffin. “First graders are inherently curious and enjoy learning about different cultures, time periods and their lives are similar and different to people in other regions.”

Second Grade
Second graders are focusing on Scandinavian folktales, and specifically traditional animal stories.

“We are reading the folktales of Norway and Finland, focusing with a critical eye on our author study of Jan Brett, using her versions of such folktales as “The Mitten” and others in addition to appreciating her rich illustrations of animals and Nordic scenes,” said teacher Prema Gammons. “We are creating our own Brett-inspired art by creating animal portraits with intricate borders of Nordic ornamentation with pencil which are traditional to Nordic artwork.”

Second graders will perform two short fables from the Nordic tradition with the third grade: “The Forest Animals Build Roads” and “The Hard Workers Get Their Rewards,” which features forest animals such as bears, foxes and wolves. In addition, students were fortunate to welcome a grandmother of one student present about her family connections with Norway, including a presentation around traditional Norwegian folk music using Norwegian flags and Nordic artifacts and textiles. 

Third Grade
Students are partnering with the second grade to present a skit about the rewards of hard work.  Each student is cast as a different Nordic animal, who all work together to create a better-functioning forest.

“Third graders studied the Finnish Marimekko design that is known for its distinct flower pattern,” shared teacher Madeline Hayes. “This style began in 1951 by the couple, Armi and Viljo Ratia. Armi is known as a renowned Finnish female entrepreneur for her co-founding of the brand. This goes hand-in-hand with the class’ broader study of various women for Women’s History Month throughout the month of March.”

“Marimekko” comes from a mashup of Armi’s name and “mekko,” meaning dress in Finnish. These bold, flowered designs are known for normalizing casual clothing, and are the inspiration for the flower bouquets that students created to use as decoration for the Nordic presentations.

Fourth Grade
In a story of mischief and fun with animals fleeing Ragnarök, the end of the world, fourth graders will perform as classic characters of Nordic folklore: cunning Fox, gullible Wolf, clever Hare and powerful Bear. In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is a series of events, including a great battle, foretelling the death of numerous great figures (including the gods Odin, Thor, Týr, Freyr, Heimdall and Loki), natural disasters, and the submersion of the world in water.

“The students and I developed an adaptation of a classic Nordic tale about a rooster and hen that believe the end of the world is upon them, so they make their way out into the world to warn others,” said teacher Nick Cabassa. “On their journey they come across multiple animals that each represent the various personalities found in traditional Nordic stories. Once the animals meet up with the clever Fox, he senses opportunity and takes them on a wild journey in an attempt to best them once again.”

To prepare, students studied Nordic culture and mythology by working collaboratively to create multiple slideshows that they used to teach their classmates about specific aspects of Nordic culture including: food, clothing, traditions and history.

Fifth Grade
Students will present an abridged version of Danish storyteller  Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” to bring to life the tale of how one needs to believe in themselves before they can find true friendships.

This story’s theme ties into the broader fifth grade social-emotional curriculum and developing and defining one’s self-esteem internally rather than externally.

“I think this is a very poignant play for this age group as they are at a developmental stage in life where they start to focus on external validation and self-esteem can suffer,” commented teacher Jessica Cambell. “Sharing the story’s message is yet another way to emphasize the importance of believing in yourself.”

Fifth grade students expanded their studies with an in-depth look into ancient Norse culture and research into Norse gods and goddesses. Students conducted research projects, wrote reports, created oral presentations with slideshow visual aids, and made a creative art piece to honor their chosen god or goddess. Art pieces could take the form of dance, poem, song or two- or three-dimensional artworks. Collaboration also played a role, and fifth graders worked with their kindergarten buddies to study current-day Scandinavian culture through baking projects, books, art and song.

“It is great to return to this beloved tradition and be back in the Community Building rehearsing,” said Cambell. “I love that the students are connecting with a Mount Madonna Center space and have a platform to perform for the broader community. The creative chaos of spring performance includes palatable excitement, and I look forward to having families gather again and be able to honor grandparents and special friends with this experience that seems to be one of the more memorable from elementary school.”


Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 355 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.

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