Friday, August 23, 2019
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Finding culture and history in the suburbs
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Folk singer Larry Long and Armin Parhami help students rehearse the song telling the story of elder Mashin Hashemi, Armin's mother. (MPR photo/Dan Olson)
The slam against suburbs is they lack culture or history. Wrong and wrong. Eden Prairie school children are discovering their suburb is loaded with culture and history, but it takes some digging to find it. Students at Eden Prairie's Oak Point Intermediate School interviewed elders in their community including people from other countries. They've put the stories to song.

St. Paul, Minn. — Long before houses and shopping centers took over the landscape, Eden Prairie was dotted with commercial strawberry and raspberry patches. When students asked Irene Schwartz, 80, about those days, she gave them an earful about how she and her family earned money.

"Work all summer long was to work in the fields, hoe, pull weeds, pick berries, raspberries and strawberries, early in the morning 'til late at night. We had to save that money that we made from picking berries to buy our school clothes," she says.

The 6th graders in teacher Ron Case's class took notes about Irene's recollections, wrote a report and boiled the story down into lyrics for a song. It works in the part about picking berries and also how they milked cows and walked to school rather than riding buses.

When educators in Eden Prairie put out the word, they found all sorts of elders with interesting stories. Some, like Irene Schwartz, were born and raised in the suburb. Others have come from elsewhere. One of the elders, Mahin Hashemi, was driven out of Iran by religious persecution.

Mahin speaks only Farsi. So the students enlisted the help of her daughter, Armin Parhami, whose children attend Eden Prairie schools. Armin says her mother is thrilled to share the story of her culture with the children. She says the program helps Eden Prairie's white students appreciate -- not just tolerate -- diversity.

Armin says her children sometimes tell her they wish they were blonde and light-skinned, but she tells them to think of life as a garden where just one kind of flower would be pretty dull. "If you see flowers of different aroma, different shapes, that's what makes it exciting. So I tell them, 'You've come to Minnesota to make it exciting. They needed you here,'" she says.

Preparing the Oak Point Intermediate School program about elders means pulling kids out of class. School principal Arnette Bell doesn't see it as study time lost so much as learning time gained.

"We know that children don't all learn in the same way, and how can they really get hooked in to be motivated to be successful in the learning," she says.

The Elders Wisdom, Children's Songs idea is folk singer Larry Long's creation. It's made him a sort of pied piper of history.

He travels the country helping children find elders, learn their stories and then make songs from them.

Long says his mission to help people get along goes back to a world expanding experience he had as a kid.

He says his blue-collar, conservative Christian family relocated to St. Louis Park where there were lots of Jewish neighbors. He says his family learned to appreciate others, a value he wants to pass along to young people.

"If they're not given the opportunity to hear the stories that come from each others cultures, how are they expected to live together in a peaceful, civil way and to build a classroom where children can learn?" Long says.

The Elders Wisdom, Children's Songs process is not sugar coated. One Eden Prairie native says she misses the meadows and trees the new houses have replaced. Other elders talk about close calls with death as they escaped the rule of tyrants or about discrimination encountered in this country because of their skin color.

In April, children at Eden Prairie's Cedar Ridge school tell the stories of another set of elders. When the program winds up, students in the district will have learned about the history and culture of 20 of the suburb's residents.

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