Throughout the school year, Mount Madonna School (MMS) preschool students are invited to share their family heritage at school. Teacher Danielle Barr encouraged families to send an object to school to honor the different cultures that are represented in the classroom. This week, preschooler Koa Houston brought a live goldfish in a bowl for the classroom’s Haft-Seen table, as the tradition of Nowruz or “New Day” was introduced to the students.
“By preschool age, children start to understand the concept of a bigger world than their immediate family,” commented teacher Danielle Barr. “It is the perfect time to broaden experiences for each child by learning about other cultures, including the arts, language, music, dance, traditions, land, food and more.”
Nowruz marks the first day of spring and the Persian New Year. The holiday usually falls on or around March 21 and is widely celebrated across the Middle East and Central Asia. In the United States in 2021, Nowruz is celebrated on March 19, but includes many stages and weeks of preparation.
“Iranians begin preparing their homes for Nowruz weeks in advance,” shared Nikta Houston, mother of MMS parent Jai Raj Houston and grandmother to preschooler Koa and first grader Kailani. “The annual spring cleaning is known in Farsi as khoneh takooni, or “shaking the house. Families meticulously wash rugs, windows, curtains and repair furniture. They throw out or donate old household goods and purchase new clothing to greet the coming spring.
“My most vivid memory of Nowruz is when Moman (my mom) would take me and my sister shopping for fabric and pattern,” she continued. “She would sew our chosen outfits with many try-ons to make sure the fit was perfect. Sometimes she would be up all night before Nowruz to complete sewing, so on the day we would be wearing everything new from head to toe. She also had a government job while she had to do all the preparations, cleaning, baking special sweets, cooking the traditional new year meal in addition to creating beautiful outfits for us.”
One of the most important Nowruz traditions is setting the Haft-Seen table, which includes seven symbolic items all starting the with an “s” sound: sabzeh (sprouted wheat grass) for rebirth and renewal; samanu (sweet pudding) for affluence and fertility; senjed (sweet, dried lotus tree fruit) for love; serkeh (vinegar) for patience and wisdom gained through aging; sir (garlic), for medicine and maintaining good health; sib (apples) for health and beauty; and sumac (a crushed spice made from reddish berries) for recalling the sunrise.
Additional items on the table include a mirror to reflect on the past year, a live goldfish in a bowl to represent new life; an orange in a bowl of water to symbolize the Earth; decorated eggs for fertility; coins for prosperity; and books of classical poetry and the Koran, for spirituality.
At home, Koa and Kailani helped their mother, Sangita Diaz-Houston (’99), set up a Haft Seen table, that included many of the traditional items, along with some lollipops to enjoy on Nowruz.
“We included a small picture of Nikta’s mother, the children’s great-grandmother,” shared Diaz-Houston. “Her name was Telat. She was very special to Jai Raj and a very devout Muslim who prayed every day. I didn’t get the chance to meet her, but I know she was deeply loved by her family, a very strong independent woman and an excellent cook.”
“Nowruz is the Persian New Year and I like it and this year we get to eat lollipops,” said Kailani Houston. “Nowruz is from my dad’s family. You have to put things on the table because it’s symbolic, but I don’t know what symbolic means.”
“Koa is too little to really understand what Nowruz is about,” shared Diaz-Houston. “He is just excited about the lollipops and he loves the goldfish.”
“We are so grateful to belong to a school community where we can share our family heritage and traditions,” commented Jai Raj and Sangita Houston. “In our family we have ancestors who came from all over the globe to the United States, including from Italy, Iran, Mexico and Sweden. It’s beautiful to acknowledge the value and beauty of all cultures and to have a community that celebrates that diversity.”
The preschool classroom includes a rich and culturally diverse library. Students study the globe and Barr shares pictures of children their age from all over the world doing usual and not so usual things.
“I speak to the children in a little Spanish and a little French to keep them aware of different languages, hoping that because they are in their ‘Absorbent Mind’ years, it will be stored for later threads of curiosity to be followed,” said Barr. “I tell stories from different native traditions, including Hopi, Lakota, African, Indian, and Mexican.
“We are a caring community in our classroom and just like all communities, we each have differences that may look very different, that we carry into our shared environment,” she continued. “Culture is an intrinsic part of who people are; I want each child to understand that we can be different and still be a strong community. Children are born with innocent hearts; children do not know prejudices. In offering them a rich, diverse cultural awareness within the classroom and exposing them to as many cultures as possible, the children become curious of others and stay open to learn more, without prejudices. This, to me, feels like the most important activism to create change for a future of inclusion and equanimity.”
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Nestled among the redwoods on 375 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.