Westwood Elementary students gained exposure to a plethora of international cultures Thursday through music, food and artifacts.

The Friends Around the World festival featured Dalton Middle School's mariachi band, bluegrass musician Earl Brackin and a music group from Apostolic Assembly church. Artifacts included clothing from countries like China, India and the Philippines, as well as dolls, puppets, musical instruments, purses and handmade cloths, while food items encompassed Indian carrot pudding, lumpia (a type of spring roll) from the Philippines, Chinese lo mein and Egyptian sweet cake.

The event had its genesis in a modest effort four years ago with one classroom; eventually, that extended to all of third grade in 2018, and that "worked out beautifully," so the school elected to expand the cultural celebration to all students this year, said Michelle Huch, Westwood's ELL (English Language Learners) teacher at Westwood. "The feedback from students, families and teachers was wonderful."

In her position, Huch interacts constantly with bilingual students, and some of their families speak little or no English, but "we want them to know we want them here," she said. "Families are so excited" to offer foods and artifacts from their cultures, while students are "proud to say, 'Ooh, that's mine.'"

Westwood strives to make "all families feel welcome, and we want students to understand the value of their cultures," said Idalia Paniagua, a teacher at Westwood. Students "might see these (items) every day in their homes, but they are valuable."

Westwood had plenty of assistance from parents, including Laura Koger, who noted that the event has brought families closer.

"I've heard from so many other moms and kids that this was a time for them to get together" to cook, bake or select artifacts to contribute, Koger said. "There's a lot of family time."

That's appropriate for Westwood, too.

"Westwood is a family," Koger said. "The slogan 'Many cultures, one family' is true."

In fact, that's part of the reason Westwood elected to hold the festival so close to Thanksgiving, Paniagua said. "Thanksgiving is a time for families to be together."

In addition to the food, music and artifacts, a Henna artist demonstrated that technique with students, and there were dance tutorials, Huch said. Students could also place stickers for their places of origin on a large map, and flags representing all 18 countries present in Westwood's student body were displayed in the media center.

Friends Around the World is "a day (students) feel completely special," Huch said. "It's a day to express who they are."

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