Stevens Elementary students come through on Cultural Day

click to enlarge An African dance group kicks in rhythm to the music. - JACKSON ELLIOTT PHOTO
Jackson Elliott photo
An African dance group kicks in rhythm to the music.

With a colorful African scarf wrapped around her waist, Peninah dances to a pulsing drumbeat along with a group of Stevens Elementary School. The group synchronizes perfectly, matching and responding to the rise and fall of the music. The hardest part of the dance is “keeping up with others, making sure you’re going at the same time,” she says. “That was the hard part but it was fun.” Wild cheering from the audience almost drowns out the music.

The students are onstage at Spokane Community College, performing for their friends and families at Stevens Elementary’s Cultural Night.

“I like all of the dances,” she says. They’re performing at the Stevens Elementary Cultural Night on Thursday, May 2, a celebration that draws from the diversity of the school’s student body.

“We have about 24 percent English language learner population,” music teacher Shawn Tolley says. “We have Congolese, Ukraine, Marshall Islands, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Sudan. We have a lot of cool kids.”

Displays and acts during Cultural Night showcases the broad range of cultures that make up Stevens. Every student in the school participates in the event both in performance and by helping with a class project on a culture.

English Language Development teacher Sara Shaw organized the event to support families and celebrate all the school’s cultures.

“Other schools I’d been at had this event, and I said, ‘We need an event like this,’” Shaw says. After three years, the event has grown larger than ever.

“Last year's event turned out to be so successful that our school was not big enough to support all the activities,” teacher Kacie Fincher says.

With so many cultures celebrated at the event, there’s something for everyone.

“I’m an Irish person, so I like bagpipes, but I liked the marimbas too,” parent Horace Myers says. His three children all performed in the show.

“They’ve been practicing hard on that,” his wife Donna Myers says. “They all did really good.”

For the performing elementary students to put on Cultural Night, they must prepare diligently. A week ago, students and teachers were practicing songs on ukuleles and marimbas for the main event.

One student, Nami, held her ukulele like a baby as she played “You Are My Sunshine,” her eyes half-closed in concentration.

“I’ve been playing the ukulele since third or second grade,” Nami says. “It sounds soothing.”

The sweet, plunking sounds of students playing the marimbas smoothly meld together into a melody. Some of the marimbas are small enough to be played sitting down, while others require students to stand on a stool to hit the keys with their mallets.

“The marimbas are easily the loudest thing in the school without trying to be,” Tolley says. “The kids tend to have a very good sense of beat and rhythm.”

In practice, Tolley played the same marimba passage over and over again, first slowly, then building in speed until the notes came so rapidly that they sound like multiple marimba players, not just one person playing the instrument. When he finished the passage, he hummed a few notes and started again.

“The marimbas are easily the loudest thing in the school without trying to be,” Tolley says. “The kids tend to have a very good sense of beat and rhythm.”

Each classroom plans and creates a project focusing on a country, and musicians, singers and dancers perform on stage. The community at Stevens also takes part in Cultural Night’s events. Some Marshallese elders, for instance, participate by telling traditional stories.

“People get to see their cultures represented in a very positive way,” Tolley says. “It’s a community that relies on relationships."

Student ukulele players, bagpipers, marimba players and drummers are only some of the cultural talents that were displayed onstage Thursday. Around the building, tables and decorated walls each show a little slice of the world. The Mexico table sports the country’s name written in the colors of the Mexican flag along with white balloons decorated as skulls. The China table’s backdrop is decked out in colorful Chinese fans. At other tables, cultural foods like seasoned rice are offered to visitors.
click to enlarge A girl strums her ukulele and sings onstage. - JACKSON ELLIOTT PHOTO
Jackson Elliott photo
A girl strums her ukulele and sings onstage.
In the last act, one girl sings and plays a ukulele rendition of Elvis’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Her voice and the ukulele flow through the song with a graceful, almost sad cadence. The audience grows quiet, absorbed in the song. At the end, the audience bursts into cheers and one small kid shouts “600 more!”

As the audience and performers trickle out of the building, Shaw, the English language learner teacher, says it’s the collective effort that makes the show work.

“I think everybody had a great time.”

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