From Cheese to Chili Peppers, Tour of Pittsburgh’s Strip District Highlights Fourth Grade Cultural Studies

What’s your favorite part of visiting Pittsburgh’s Strip District? For Ellis fourth graders, who visited the Strip District as part of a recent field trip, it’s quite a lot—everything from visiting new places to tasting new foods, like Mancini’s breadsticks and Mexican candy. Even better, the February trip experience was tied to some of the students’ favorite reading from this year. It’s all part of the class’s exploration of immigration and migration, an important section of study in the fourth grade curriculum.
"We always say we want our students to see themselves in what they’re learning and reading about,” says Fourth Grade Teacher Jessica Nolan. "Our hope is that they could see themselves in something that day, and also that they learned a ton about the cultures represented in the stores and restaurants they visited.”

That rang true for many students, some of whom had previously visited the Strip District with their families, while others were experiencing it for the first time.

"My favorite part was Reyna’s because it’s part of my culture, and it was just really fun seeing the chili bins,” says fourth grader Ruth G. A classmate, Scarlett R., said she enjoyed being able to learn about where the food came from and what culture it was part of. She particularly liked tasting cheese at Pennsylvania Macaroni Company and learning about the region of Italy the ingredients came from.

Immigration has long been a topic of study in Ellis’ Lower School, but following a workshop at the University of Pittsburgh's Global Studies Center last year, the Lower School teachers began reworking this unit with a broader focus on migration and new experiences that engage students and enhance their learning. Visual Arts Teacher Sarah Ceurvorst incorporates a study of art and artists from various cultures, Spanish Teacher Brenda Martinez includes Spanish culture in her language lessons, and STEM Teacher Kim Mechling incorporates lessons about where food comes from and how it’s grown or made. Students also complete a research component with Librarian Sara Brooke.

Ms. Nolan says classes had great conversations about the parts of culture that people want to hold onto when they move to a new place, and about how we all benefit by sharing and learning about those things. But one thing was missing: a vibrant off-campus experience that would bring classroom learning to life in a new way. The Strip District offered a perfect, nearby opportunity.

The trip included stops at Reyna Mexican Food Store, La Prima Espresso Company, Stamoolis Brothers Greek and Mediterranean Foods, Pennsylvania Macaroni Company Italian Food Store, Penzeys Spices, Prestogeorge Coffee and Tea, Mancini's Italian Bread Market, and Lotus Asian Foods. In each location, the proprietors graciously welcomed the group, talked about the foods they sell and how they represent their family's culture, and even shared delicious tastes of their food/ingredients. The group also ate lunch at Salem's Grille, enjoying food from North Africa, the Middle East, and India. Ms. Nolan says each proprietor was so passionate about their work that it made a positive and lasting impact on the students.

The Strip District visit brought a real-life experience to the fourth grade’s lessons about immigration, which pull in a lot of historical context. Classes read stories spanning from the 1800s to the present day and talk about the reasons why people leave their home countries and why people were moving to the United States in the 1800s and 1900s. They also discuss challenges of the journey and of settling in a new place, as well as the importance of retaining culture even after moving to a new country.

During their Strip District field trip, students noticed how things they experienced harkened back to their favorite class readings. Smelling black cherry peppercorns at Penzeys Spices reminded one fourth grader of Rajani LaRocca’s Midsummer’s Mayhem, about a girl whose family has roots in India and uses regional ingredients in her creations. Classmate Kate S., who had read Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, was reminded of a character’s description of a market in Vietnam while visiting Lotus Asian Foods.

Ms. Nolan says the visit to the Strip District made the learning experience feel complete.

"It just touched a little bit of everything,” she shares. "The big takeaway that we want the students to have is that we can experience richness in our lives through what other people have shared. Because of that, we can have an appreciation for what makes each culture unique while being part of the same country.”

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