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How cultural costumes help San Francisco kindergartners learn about inclusion

Every Halloween for the last 17 years, Monica Lun has made Chinese-themed group costumes for her kindergarten classes.
Image: Monica Lun and her students in panda costumes
Monica Lun and her students in panda costumes.Courtesy of Monica and Ashley Lun

Every Halloween for the last 17 years, Monica Lun has made Chinese-themed group costumes for her classes to promote inclusion.

Lun is a kindergarten teacher at Garfield Elementary School, a public Cantonese immersion school, in San Francisco, California. At least half of her students are of Chinese or Asian descent, she said.

The idea for making costumes first came when Lun was teaching Chinese to a bilingual kindergarten class that included a lot of immigrant students. She said many of them were unfamiliar with some of the popular Halloween costumes. She added that other students would dress in nicer costumes, which made the class feel less unified.

"You would have students who would come in with their Spider-Man or princess costumes,” Lun said. “Students wouldn't really understand why, and some parents didn't have time or money to go get costumes."

She noted that about 60 percent of the school's population is low-income and that was a part of her motivation for starting the tradition of making classroom costumes. About 77 percent of students at Garfield qualify for reduced-cost or free lunch, according to Department of Education data.

Lun's annual tradition started with her students making paper plate masks and artwork.

"We started off with just wearing masks, and the masks have developed into bigger things,” Lun said.

After teaching bilingual classes for several years, Lun shifted to teaching immersion classes. Now, she teaches English-speaking students Cantonese as well as Chinese culture. The group costumes, she said, are part of that education.

Image: Monica Lun and her students in paper plate masks
Monica Lun and her students in paper plate masks.Courtesy of Monica and Ashley Lun

In the seven years that Lun's taught immersion kindergarten, the costumes have evolved from masks to full-body outfits like pandas, take-out boxes and mahjong tiles. Last year, half the class dressed up as sriracha hot sauce while the other half dressed up as a soy sauce. This year, they're dressing up as emperors and empresses, Lun said.

She added that the school, which is located by Coit Tower and near Chinatown, usually does a short Halloween parade of students by a nearby park. But since the school is currently being renovated, the students will walk a different route this year so that the residents of the area can enjoy the costumes.

Lun said her students usually get excited about the idea once she emphasizes that it is a group activity.

"Initially some of the children — they're very young, they don't understand what a classroom costumes means — they say, 'I still want to wear my Elsa, I still want to wear my Spider-Man.' I tell them about it being one whole group, one whole team, and they get really excited,” she said.

The idea of classroom costumes has since caught on with other classes at the school, with three kindergarten and first-grade classes collaborating on a rock-paper-scissors theme, Lun said.

"The idea is rubbing off on other people, which is motivating to me. Seeing them inspired by this idea is great,” she said.

Lun added that making costumes based on Chinese cultural themes was a particular challenge, but no matter how hard it's been, the end result has been worth it.

“We always try to ensure that children of all races, of all cultures, are included in our American culture,” she said. “Likewise in our American culture, being aware of the deep diversity of our country, we don’t only teach about American culture. We also need to be accepting and aware of the diversity, because that’s what makes up America.”

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