ORONO, Maine — Asa C. Adams School second-graders Molly McCluskey and Maddie Culina took a break from working on their woven baskets Wednesday morning to give a tour of La Tienda de la Escuela, showing off the plastic fruits and vegetables and sealed cans of food that might be used in Mexican dishes.
“Wow, they really like spicy food,” Molly said as she held cans of jalapeno and chipotle peppers.
It’s just another morning in Mexico, so to speak, for Asa Adams librarian Diana Smart.
Each school year, Smart turns the school’s library into a country to give children experience with cultures they might never experience themselves. The 268-student school rotates among Ireland, China, Egypt, Greece and Mexico to highlight different continents, ethnicities and nationalities.
This year, Mexico is the highlighted country.
“We’re trying to get a variety of cultures represented from around the world,” Smart said. “It’s absolutely an immersion in cultures that are not necessarily familiar to these kids, which is really cool.”
The Asa Adams students do projects in their own classes focusing on the country of the year — a few months ago a Mexican mask-maker did a demonstration and art teacher Nancy Fitch has worked on other projects with students — but the real highlight is the library, which Smart closes for a week before reopening with new decorations. Students are not allowed to see the library while the transformation is in progress and anticipation builds among students, staff and parents.
“The students can’t wait to see what the library looks like,” said second-grade teacher Kim Oldenburgh, whose students were in the library Wednesday morning. “It’s like a big unveiling. When they come in, they’re wide-eyed and excited to see what it looks like.”
During the two weeks the library is turned into a country, each classroom has two hour-long sessions working on some 20 different stations. The stations have different levels of difficulty so students from kindergarten to fifth grade can participate.
This year in Mexico, students can learn about everything from Mayan math to animals of the rain forest to famous people of Mexico. Smart has set up books, puzzles, computer programs, a video presentation and other hands-on activities.
The craft stations seem to be most popular for Oldenburgh’s students. Several chose Wednesday to make the woven baskets, while others worked on Ojo de Dios, or God’s eyes, which are made by weaving yarn around popsicle sticks.
“They seem to want to do the hands-on, crafty things they can take with them,” Oldenburgh said. “They like to have something they can bring home with them.”
Other projects include making Mexican flags, learning about the Aztec calendar, coloring in outlines of monarch butterflies, which are frequently found on butterfly sanctuaries in Mexico, and looking at different types of cacti. Smart said she tries to cover subjects such as science, math, art and history.
Smart does much of the preparation work herself and starts gathering information and display pieces in September. She even transforms the library’s reading house, which during most of the year is a quiet place for children to read. During the international weeks, however, Smart and other helpers transform the house into something different. This year, the house is La Tienda de la Escuela, which means the store of the school. For China last year, the house was transformed into a teahouse.
“We try to jazz it up a little, make it look like something,” Smart said.
Each year the school holds on open house in the library to give students and parents opportunity to work on projects together.
“Parents were even talking about how much they were looking forward to this,” said Principal Paula McHugh, who is new to the school this year. “If nothing else it’s a great way to get parents involved and connect them with the kids.”
Although there is prepackaged and plastic food in the display, Smart said, she has eliminated any real food because of all the allergy problems in schools.
Second-grader Nick Fox has taken particular interest in Asa Adams’ version of Mexico, because he and his family are traveling to the real place in a few weeks.
“I might make a God’s eye there,” he said. “I know that they have those there. I learned that here.”