If teaching the holidays has you at a loss, read on.
By Tim Walker
November marks the beginning of annual holiday hoopla, and as students are singing, eating special meals, decorating their homes, gift-giving (and receiving!), and visiting family and friends, their excitement is sure to spill over into the classroom. And that's OK! Isn't it?
Yes it is, because looking at holidays is a great way to engage elementary-age students in examining religious diversity.
The United States has always been a religiously diverse nation, but the patchwork of faiths—Sikh, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, to name just a few—is found in more communities than ever before. In trying to avoid controversy, schools sometimes decide to keep religous holiday celebrations out of school entirely.
In December 2009, the principal of a elementary school in Waterbury, Connecticut banned all religious festivities and many decorations from the classroom, a move supported by the district superintendant. A year earlier, the Oak Lawn school district in Illinois, responding to a Muslim parent's request to hang crescent moon lights in classrooms for Ramadan, considered a ban holiday observances on school grounds. After a community outcry, the district decided merely to add Ramadan to its list of recognized holidays.
The teachers we talked to say there's no need to shut out the holidays altogether. There is obviously reason to proceed with caution, but it is possible to acknowledge and teach about each holiday as it approaches, provided there is a balance and equality in the approach, with no one religion receiving any special consideration.
First, survey your school
Always tailor your classroom activities to fit the demographics of your classroom. Check on the preferences and beliefs of the sudents. Even in a school that may appear to be homogenous, you might discover that your classroom is more diverse than you originally thought. If you're not certain about how one of your students celebrates a holiday or tradition, don't hesitate to ask his or her family.
Teach, don't celebrate
Kids love the holidays, and hey, you're no Scrooge either. But there's a difference between celebrating and teaching about celebration. According to the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations, it's not appropriate to celebrate any one religious holiday in the classroom, in essence favoring one religion over others. And obviously encouraging or compelling students to participate in any religious activities, such as prayer, during any type of holiday festivity or classroom activity is forbidden.
"We don't celebrate, so to speak, but we teach about celebrations, and this is just as much fun for the students," says Rosita Force, a teacher at Franklin Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "Young children have a natural curiosity, especially about how other people observe different holidays. It's still enjoyable, but it's about respect."
This does not mean, however, that classrooms cannot display or use holiday-related art, religious symbols, drama, music, and literature if they are being used for learning purposes. Students should be free to incorporate religious symbols in a classroom art activity, for example, but you should generally stay neutral, neither encouraging nor discouraging these creations.
A gateway to global learning
"Teaching about religious holidays," says Force, "is a great way to widen students' global view at a young age—to help them become global thinkers."
Force teaches technology and regularly has students create PowerPoint presentations on different religious observances.
"They are always fascinated to learn that Christmas is not the only widespread religious observance in the world," she says. "They find the information but also feed their natural curiosity about how people around the world observe religious traditions."
The idea is to help students develop respect for the differences in religious holidays and festivals while also drawing connections on how they are similar. Many teachers use a thematic framework—peace, thankfulness, forgiveness, compassion—to connect different religions and their traditions throughout the year.
Students and parents can play a role
No, they can't draft your lesson plan, but letting students take the initiative on the learning process works well with holidays, says Jessica Saliba, who teaches at Kane Elementary in Marlborough, Massachusetts.
"The holiday season is a time when children are able to take ownership of what they learn as well as what they are able to contribute," Saliba says. "It is also one of the many times during the year when I'm learning just as much as I am teaching!" Remember, Saliba says, that students' families are happy to be invited to tell how they observe religious holidays.
"Parents and their kids have shared stories and games about how they celebrate holidays. We also ask them to contribute to a holiday recipe book. I compile it every year and each student gets a copy. Holidays are family affairs so the more you can involve parents in what you are doing in the classroom, the better. I've learned a lot from the parents."
Look beyond December 25th
Don't limit your activities about religious diversity to the winter holiday season. Even if you are confident about the inclusiveness of your approach, it's misguided to explore holiday observances only in late December.
There are observances taking place throughout the year: Ramadan began on September 1 this year and lasted 30 days, during which time many Muslim students are fasting during the day. Diwali, a festival observed by many Indian families, began in October, and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah sometimes begins a few weeks before Christmas.
Of course, holidays shouldn't be the only way you explore diverse religions and cultures, but you can use them to help young learners draw important connections.
Looking for more guidance to help you create inclusive and appropriate activities around religious holidays? Check these out:
The Anti-Defamation League lays out the basic dos and don'ts in this publication—from conducting school assemblies to observing religious holidays to religious symbols in the classroom. You may also want to check out ADL's The December Dilemma for a more detailed set of guidelines and an extensive reading list.
Chapter 10 of the First Amendment Center's "Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools" provides brief answers to commonly asked questions about appropriate policies for religious holidays.
Julie Bisson, an early childhood education consultant, explains how early childhood educators can infuse cultural relevancy and inclusiveness with a developmentally appropriate holiday program.
In this fun and innovative book, Carol Peterson has written 12 plays for the classroom, each one about a specific holiday and applicable across the curriculum.
NAME has a wide varity of resources on promoting religious diversity in your classroom.
Illustration: David Clark
Holiday Lessons & Resources
Make the best of the holidays — in the classroom and at home.
Ten Holiday Web Sites You Won't Want to Miss!
These resources will help you get in the spirit of the season and teach your students more about Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Chanukah
Video: The Right Kind of Religion in Public Schools