They say you should do something that scares you every now and then. Something outside of your comfort zone.
I was so there this past week.
I was invited to be on a discussion panel for Rae Pica’s BAM! Radio show, Studentcentricity. I was surprised and flattered to be invited, but radio is a new medium for me.
It scared me a little.
Then I found out the topic: Cultural Sensitivity During the Holidays. A topic that is so important, but also a potential minefield of controversy. Since I tend to prefer the sweet spot between extreme opinions on most issues, that essentially means I have plenty of opportunities to offend everyone equally. Throw in the fact that I could very easily misspeak in my effort to be concise for this fast-moving format, and I was sweating bullets.
Of course Rae is as seasoned professional, and she kept the show running smoothly. The group discussion was important and informative.
And I survived.
My position on the topic stemmed in large part from Do Holiday’s Have a Place in the Classroom?, which I wrote a few years back. I would also recommend reading this post, which I came across recently. It makes some really great points about having sensitivity not only for different cultural celebrations, but also for children whose families have religious or cultural objections to holiday celebrations.
Rae’s show asks for brief take-away points before airing, which was great for getting my talking points organized. But since writing is my first medium, I thought I’d go more in depth on each of those points here.
1. Really embrace and respect diversity, rather than trade it for a homogenization where only one culture is acknowledged or where culture isn’t allowed at all.
If I had to boil it all into one, this is it. Respecting diversity means accepting and celebrating differences. It doesn’t mean stripping differences away so that we can all pretend to be exactly the same. Create a safe environment where differences can be explored and shared with an attitude of respect and a desire to learn.
As I mentioned in the post I linked above, censoring a child’s expression of his/her own culture is just as cringe-worthy as mandating everyone celebrate the same way. Create an environment where children can make authentic connections to their own experiences while also exploring the experiences and perspectives of others.
2. Know your children and be aware of the sensitivity that will be required regarding holidays. Don’t ignore a child’s cultural differences, but don’t single any child out or put him/her in an uncomfortable position of defending or explaining those differences alone.
I’ll admit, the first time I read “What holidays does your family celebrate?” on a family information sheet, my first thought was a jovial, “Any and all of them! Especially if food is involved!” But teachers who include this type of a question are doing some serious prep work here. Giving each family the opportunity to communicate their cultural preferences will guide a teacher’s planning during the holidays.
If your class consists of students who abstain from holiday celebrations for religious reasons you will need to plan your approach during the holidays very differently than if you teach in a private parochial school, for example. You have to know your students.
Making family connections during the holidays not only helps you navigate the appropriate sensitivity, but it also opens up a great teaching resource for you.
No child should be put on the spot, highlighted as being different, and expected to be a pint-sized poster child for an entire cultural group. However, allowing families the opportunity to share their own customs and traditions can go a long way in making a home-school connection and opening a diverse perspective in your classroom.
As one example, two of my sons had the same fantastic teacher who would invite every family to do a short presentation during the month of December, focusing on a special family tradition. The door was wide open. And even though this class was quite homogeneous on the surface, each family brought in a different flavor and a unique experience through this unit.
Some shared traditions that had been passed down for generations. Others demonstrated traditions their family had adopted from other countries while living overseas. Others shared service projects, or foods, or stories, or games that were special and unique to their family.
For us, it meant sharing the “Christmas Pie” tradition, celebrated for generations by my husband’s family. Small gifts are tied to strings and tucked in an open box topped with wrapping paper, to be opened as the last gift on Christmas night. All the children gather around, holding their string, and chant the traditional rhyme in unison. At the end of the rhyme, each child pulls the string and the last gifts come bursting through the wrapping paper lid.
It’s a small gift, but it’s a big deal in our family. It’s unique to our own family culture, and it was exciting for our boys to share that uniqueness with their friends. It also created a safe classroom culture, where differences were respected and celebrated.
So give families the opportunity to share their traditions, but please go beyond singling out one family to be the example of “otherness”. Encourage a wide sampling of traditions that show the diversity of family traditions across all groups, not just the token representation of a few broadly categorized groups.
3. Plan units of study that connect to holidays without being consumed by them. (Food Unit during November, Friendship Unit during February, etc.) Then allow children to make their own authentic connections to holidays and cultural aspects that are meaningful to them.
As I mentioned before, I am always on board for celebrating. Whether it’s “my” holidays or “your” holidays– I’m in! But holiday seasons shouldn’t devolve into a month-long party at school. We still need to know our purpose and teach with intention. Organize units around shared themes and concepts during the holiday seasons so that children can make the holiday connections that are most authentic to them, while also building valuable concepts.
For example, as I mentioned in the interview, December is a great time for preschoolers and early grades to explore the concept of the winter home. There are concepts of seasonal change, hot and cold, light and dark, the senses, and preparation that can all be explored. A study of animals and how they prepare for winter can be a great start.
Then as you talk with the students about their own homes and how they change during winter time, some children will incorporate the addition of a big pine tree *INSIDE* the house. Others might talk about a special candle-holder and nightly celebrations. Some may connect special songs or stories. Still others, may make connections to that first cup of hot chocolate, or the warmest quilts that come out of storage. There is a place for every child to connect their own experience, and holiday traditions can be that connection.
The entire study is not consumed by one holiday concept or one culture’s celebration, but each child is able to weave holiday themes into the larger context.
In February, for another example, I love to implement a study of friendship and communication. We talk about being good friends, and work in a study of how the mail system works as friends send messages to each other. And as Valentine’s day works its way in and out of the month, we make connections, but also have valuable information and experiences that can stand on their own.
I still sit squarely in the camp that believes that holidays have a place in the classroom. But I also believe teachers, as always, have to use awareness and intention as they plan and prepare. It’s also worth noting that as part of a responsive, individualized classroom, not every year or every classroom will end up looking exactly the same.
Diversity isn’t supposed to.
What’s your approach to holidays in your classroom?