It’s easy to find the “culture hallway” at McVey Elementary School. Just enter the building and turn right at Integrity Boulevard. Culture hallway begins at the framed picture of a heart, made of pieces of flags from different countries, because, McVey Principal Kerry Dunne says, “We all have the same heart inside, and we all have feelings and heart.”
Flags from 65 nations line the hallway at the East Meadow school. All are authentic, donations from families of McVey students. There is also a large bulletin board filled with “culture characters,” simple outlines of figures colored in by students, which represent what is important to them and their heritage.
Dunne said that it’s vital that children understand one another. She created the culture hallway last fall to teach students about one another, and especially their cultures and religions.
“We don’t say ‘Happy holidays,’ here,” she said. “We say ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy Diwali,’ ‘Happy Kwanzaa.’ My commitment is to character and ‘kindeology,’ so children will know what it is to be kind verses what it is to be civilized.”
A mother from Bangladesh thanked her, Dunne added. The woman said her family now feels more a part of the community as a result of Dunne’s efforts.
Sana Fayyaz, a mother of three children, two of whom go to McVey, is from Pakistan. Her children were born in Saudi Arabia. When she moved to the U.S. five years ago, she enrolled them in an Islamic school because, she said, she was frightened that her culture and religion would not be accepted in a public school. When she moved to East Meadow a year ago, however, she decided to enroll them in the East Meadow School District.
“Ms. Dunne has made us feel so welcomed, and she appreciates our culture,” Fayyaz said. “My second-grader said for the first time that she wanted to fast during Ramadan because she felt safe at McVey.”
Students at the school have learned about a different continent each month, and every day they explore a new country within it. The lesson begins first thing in the morning with the announcements, which involve more than the Pledge of Allegiance. Children listen to “Good Day McVey,” either in their classrooms or on YouTube if they’re learning from home. The students share culture characters, and Dunne reads what they have written about themselves, which include the country where their family is originally from, sometimes what they like to eat and their hobbies. Her goal, Dunne said, is to teach children about geography and different cultures.
“Our kids speak 26 different languages, and we have 80 to 100 different nationalities in our school,” she said. “Social studies is a long lost subject, and so is geography. So I’m teaching them about their world.”
And she is teaching them about the importance of diversity, McVey fourth-grade teacher Vincent Trionfo said.
“When Ms. Dunne goes in-depth explaining cultures and traditions, that makes the children feel special,” Trionfo said. “Students in my class jump up and down when their country is highlighted.”
Victoria Choi moved from South Korea to East Meadow with her family four years ago. It wasn’t easy for her son, Geonheui, who’s now 8 and didn’t speak any English at the time. Choi supports Dunne’s efforts to teach children about other countries and cultures.
“I’m especially happy that she spoke about South Korea,” Choi said. “It made my son’s day, and he felt pride. South Korea is a small country and people don’t think of the culture. They only know about K-pop stars BTS. Even McDonald’s has a BTS meal.”
Good Day McVey always concludes with a “Mighty kind moment of the day.” Last Friday it was: Everyone is different. “No matter what, everyone is beautiful,” Dunne said. “What we want to always remember is no one of us should look like anybody else or act like anyone else, because if we do, we are becoming them and not being ourselves.”
She said she believes children are getting the message. “One boy said to me, ‘I’m wearing my white turban today,’ which he would have never done or talked about before,” Dunne said during a recent visit by the Herald. “This has been truly liberating for some of our kids and their parents.”
Trionfo said he continues the lesson at the conclusion of Good Day McVey by discussing the country that was highlighted. Sharing information about holidays is particularly popular, he said. “I ask students who share these holidays to share what they do,” he said. “The spotlight is on them, which some like. But even if they don’t talk about their holiday, there’s a sense of pride that the holiday they celebrate is being discussed.”
Once a month, children take part in Culture Day. They can either dress as people do in the countries they have “visited” that month, or as their own ancestors.
Sofia Bonilla, 9, wore clothing from El Salvador in May. “I like showing people I’m from El Salvador,” she said. “People think I’m from Mexico.”
Emily Reyes, whose parents are from Portugal, said she also liked to share where her family once lived by wearing clothing they wore there.
Geonheui Choi, who is a remote learner, wanted to wear a traditional South Korean costume called a hanbok. But the 8-year-old said the last time he wore it, he was much younger, and it no longer fit. Undeterred, Geonheui shared a photo of himself wearing the colorful silk clothing years ago.
His mother said she asked her mother to bring a new hanbok for her son when she visits from South Korea. “That’s how much he wants to participate,” she said. “He wants to share his culture with others. We learn through books and YouTube. This is a way to learn about different cultures directly. I think it will be more memorable for the children.”
Trionfo, said that exploring different cultures has been “incredible” for him and his students. “You don’t know when the students came here,” he said. “Being here might be a culture shock for them. To see a flag from their own country and hear the announcements makes them feel so welcome and makes them think that they matter.”
Sana Fayyaz’s daughter, Rihab, has made a best friend at McVey who is a Christian. “The girls talk about God, her friend talking about what she believes and my daughter tells her what she believes,” Fayyaz said. “I’m so happy we moved to East Meadow.”