S.F. 3rd-graders will mark 7 new years celebrations

"What year is this: 1997, 5758, 4695, 2657 or 1418?"

When the 21 students in Debbie Molof's third-grade class dipped apples in honey in celebration of Rosh Hashanah on Wednesday, they began learning that the correct answer is, "It depends."

Molof's class at Rooftop K-8 Alternative, a San Francisco public school, will observe seven new years — Jewish, Armenian, Japanese, Chinese, Persian, Vietnamese and American — by the time June rolls around.

But unlike many cultural celebrations hosted at school, these will incorporate science, math and literature thanks to the combined efforts of Molof and Leslie Zimmerman, a student teacher from San Francisco State University's Clinical Schools Project, and classroom parents.

Zimmerman opened the first lesson on new years' celebrations with a math problem.

"We have measured how long things are, how much they weigh, and how much volume they hold," she said. "Now we are going to measure time."

Students recently spent a week observing the moon and recording its growth to full harvest-size, at which time they ate "moon cakes" and read a Chinese tale about the lady who lives in the moon. They then talked about the length of days as the hours of light and darkness became equal on the Sept. 22 autumnal equinox. This was followed by a lesson about the orbits of the earth, moon and sun.

In addition, the children are reading African, Native American and Greek folk tales about the sun and the moon. They are drawing charts that show the lunar and solar years, coloring in night and day, and marking the times when different cultures observe the new year.

"Our goal is to give children a multicultural view of the world, to learn that other people see things differently than we do," said Zimmerman, who holds an undergraduate degree in biological anthropology and is completing her elementary education credential.

Once students have a basic understanding of the movements of sun and moon, along with night, day and the seasons of the year, teachers and parents introduce the new years' practices of several cultures.

In the coming months, as each new year occurs, the families that celebrate them will bring in calendars, artifacts and foods representing their traditions.

For Rosh Hashanah, "I'm bringing pomegranates as well as apples and honey," said Byron Sigal, a San Francisco Realtor and parent of one of Molof's students, before Wednesday's visit. "I'm going to read a folk tale about doing good deeds and then open the pomegranates and talk about how the seeds represent mitzvot."

Sigal said he enjoys the opportunity to teach the students about Jewish traditions that don't revolve around the winter holidays. "The only time my sons have heard Jewish culture mentioned in the classroom is at Chanukah. My wife and I are delighted to branch out and do something that is about how we view the world rather than how the world views us."

He also plans to point out some of the major differences between the Jewish and Gregorian measurements of time. "I'm going to talk about why we think this is the year 5758, and see if I can get a debate going about when a day really begins — at midnight, at sundown, or in the morning when we wake up."

Molof encourages parents to share their customs but reminds them to avoid any religious doctrine. "We include everyone in the class, along with people who are not there, like the Ohlone Indians. The third-grade social studies curriculum is the history of the Bay Area, and all of us have helped shape it."

A social studies mentor teacher for the San Francisco Unified School District, Molof traces her interest in representing all cultures in the classroom to her own childhood.

"I was the only Jew growing up in Elko, Nev., and there was nothing about my culture, anywhere."

Many of the parents share Molof's enthusiasm for teaching children about different religious practices.

Dena Aslanian-Williams, an Armenian Christian born in Persia, (now Iran), plans to come in both for the Armenian new year in January and the Islamic one in March. "This summer my son was asking about the millennium and I was trying to explain to him that not everyone in the world will celebrate it."