Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “belonging” as a kind of possession or a close and intimate relationship. To “belong” invokes warm connotations of welcome and familiarity.
To demonstrate that warm welcome to students, the Primrose School of Long Grove recently celebrated its first Belongingness Day. Owner Jennifer Wierzchon stressed the importance of helping children learn about themselves and others in a respectful way.
“We are proud to do this,” Wierzchon says. “We have an inclusive culture with diverse backgrounds. We want to be sure that each child and family feels special and valued.”
As part of the day, Wierzchon invited her friend, local author Mandy Namjou Yom, to share her new book with students.
Yom immigrated to the United States from South Korea on her eighth birthday, February 27. Her parents intentionally chose this date to immigrate to give the gift of education and opportunity of a new land. With the long flight and time difference, it was still February 27 when the new immigrants landed in Wisconsin.
Yom always loved children and pursued the path of early-childhood education, focusing on childhood and cultural differences. One of her first jobs was piloting an English Language Learners (ELL) class for kindergarteners in Skokie, where more than 50 different languages were spoken. “These students are me,” she thought at the time. “It was perfect.”
After teaching ELL kindergarten for more than 20 years, Yom realized during the pandemic she wanted to be an author. Her mentor had passed on a passion for literacy and children’s books. Yom knew there was an interest and a need for telling more diverse stories and having representation for her students, whose stories were similar to her own.
Yom talks about a phrase coined by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop about how important it is that children read books that reflect the “multicultural nature of the world” through mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Children can see themselves mirrored in the characters of books they read, while also glimpsing how different children live by looking through literary windows and doors.
Drawing from her own experience, Yom wrote “Nami’s New Friend” about a girl who arrives from Korea and is both excited and worried about making friends in a new school and new place.
The book examines the differences and similarities that children notice—from how they look, to the food they eat, to the sound of a sneeze. Yom knew from both her own and her students’ experiences that learning English takes time. In the book, she focuses on communication beyond spoken language, like giving a smile or patting the seat of a school bus. No spoilers here, but it is a happy coincidence that ultimately helps Nami make her first new friend.
Yom hopes this book allows students to see themselves in literature. She also wants to foster dialogue and support English language early learners. Her website includes free teacher resources and lesson plans to talk about diversity and inclusion.
In a beautiful, bright Primrose classroom, preschoolers happily skip in a circle before storytime. Yom introduces herself and passes out two-sided stick figures, one side with a yellow happy face and one side with a red sad face. She also passes around a doll that looks just like the main character in the book, Nami, so that each child can give the doll a hug. The students follow along with the story, holding up their stick figures to show how Nami is feeling during each part of the story.
Yom recalls fond memories of her own kindergarten teacher, and reconnected with that teacher in the process of writing the book.
As for Wierzchon, she feels joy in seeing the fruits of Primrose’s commitment to being inclusive and welcoming. “We have twins here, their first time away from mom and grandma, who joined us knowing no English,” she says. “Now they come running into school. They feel safe and loved here. This is their place. It is the very essence of belongingness.”