The rows of little red, white and blue T-shirts and sundresses were interrupted here and there by a straw sombrero, a pink sari, a black hijab, a green hanbok.
But from the bleachers into the echoing gymnasium, the words belted out in unison and with the nervous deliberation of 6-year-olds were "God bless America." "This land is your land." "We're glad we live in the U.S.A."
At Greenbriar East Elementary School in Fairfax County, first-graders are taught to read and write and to love their country. And some students -- especially those who sing, but can't really claim the United States as the "land where my fathers died" -- learn another, subtler lesson: It's all right to love their parents' country, too.
Yesterday, the school staged its annual Patriotic Salute as part of efforts to teach a rapidly diversifying student population what it means to be American. Not coincidentally, the assembly was instituted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when first-grade teacher Deborah A. DeMarco decided to duplicate a program she had organized at another school during the Persian Gulf War.
"At that point, we had lost all patriotism," DeMarco said of 1991. When children were asked about the Fourth of July, she went on, "they said fireworks. We needed to have something. It's a shame that war brought on the opportunity."
Education and political analysts say such teachings have become more common nationwide, although they are divided on how -- and whether -- anyone should be taught to be patriotic. Like Greenbriar, many schools beefed up the civics curriculum after the 2001 attacks and continued the effort during the war in Afghanistan and, now, the one in Iraq. Schools have historically played a role in assimilating immigrants and fostering civic pride, but some observers contend that the intensity of the renewed effort is jingoistic.
"Loving your country is not something you indoctrinate," said Jane Junn, a Rutgers University political scientist who has done research on civic education and immigrants. "It's something a person has to come to themselves."
Patriotic programs in the region have ranged from an essay contest at McNair Elementary School in Germantown, asking students to define a hero and an American, to a veterans' assembly for students at Old Mill Middle School South in Millersville on the Friday before Memorial Day. But some schools, including Anthony Hyde Elementary School in Georgetown, say they have tried to steer clear of injecting patriotism into civics lessons.
"At Hyde, civics instruction is more about personal responsibility," Principal Anne Jenkins said. "Informed, thoughtful choices are the essence of democracy."
But first-graders aren't much given to debating the topic. As they were taught in countless rehearsals, the 100 students marched into Greenbriar's gymnasium and sang "America the Beautiful" and "Yankee Doodle." They danced to "God Bless the U.S.A." in memory of former president Ronald Reagan. Most students stepped forward to recite facts about the nation's founding, its flag and freedoms.
"Our country is known for its strength and compassion," first-grader Shabnam Said, who wore an ornate pink tunic over pink pants from Afghanistan, said to applause.
In encouraging children to spice the assembly with clothes from their parents' cultures, DeMarco said, the school was sending a message that appreciating the country where they live doesn't mean losing their heritage. "It shows we are accepting them as they are."
In the early 20th century, another period of mass migration to the United States, schools offered classes for immigrant children in everything from hygiene to English -- hoping to make them "fit" for America, Junn said. "There was a tremendous amount of worry that the Irish and Jews were just not good enough," she said.
Now, according to Terry Pickeral, executive director of the Denver-based National Center for Learning and Citizenship, the emphasis is less on molding children to their new home and more on helping them appreciate it.
"The challenge is to provide opportunities for them to think about America as far as equities and freedoms," Pickeral said. "They've often come from nations that don't have those. We have an obligation to help people from diverse backgrounds embrace American democracy."
So, while all the children wore red, white and blue hats, two girls squeezed theirs over hijabs, a hair covering for Muslim women. The school's largest minority, more than 26 percent, is Korean, and many wore hanboks, a flowing traditional outfit. Most students donned sunglasses in the shape of stars. And they waved flags over and over.
Parents clamored and crowded aisles with video and still cameras. Some immigrant mothers and fathers found themselves turning to the printed program to pledge their allegiance to the flag and sing the national anthem.
Theresa Ogden, mother of two, also came emotionally prepared. Her older daughter, Cierra, now 9, was in the first patriotic assembly. Now, Ogden returned to watch Michael, 6.
"I brought tissues. It seems every time they do this, something is going on in the world," Ogden said, citing Reagan's death and the war in Iraq. "All the parents were bawling last time."
When Principal Rebecca Pearson asked those who had served in the armed forces to rise, Ogden stood. Now a logistics analyst for a defense contractor, she spent six years in the Army, working in military intelligence.
Asked what made him patriotic, Thatcher Furgerson, 7, thought for several minutes. "I wear Army pants all the time," he finally offered. "I have an American flag in my room. I watch the news. I want to fight for America."
Then Thatcher quickly turned the questioning around to seek an opinion about "Shrek 2" and the new Harry Potter movie.