How Do You Celebrate?

  • Elementary
Jennifer Wisner

Only 7 more weeks until Christmas.  

The thought raises my blood pressure significantly.  Earlier and earlier the countdowns begin as retailers roll out merchandise months in advance.  It is not the search for the perfect gift that raises my anxiety; I struggle with how to address the onslaught of holidays with my students.

My teaching career has taken me through a variety of districts, each with their own practices around celebrating the holiday season.  In my first district, holidays were not to be acknowledged at all. Snow people and winter scenes would cover the walls during December and January, but there was not a Christmas tree in sight.  In another district, children, dressed as pilgrims, would wave goodbye as they embarked upon their Thanksgiving break. I struggle with both of these scenarios.

Kid in Tree Costume

I am looking for way I can celebrate with my students.  Not just one or two holidays--I want to really get to know all their families and cultural beliefs to connect with the community in which I teach.  This is not done when I instill my beliefs upon them through pilgrim hats and Christmas parties, prescribing what holidays should look like in schools.  I am looking for ways my students can bring their celebrations into the classroom with the hope of building a sense of understanding and acceptance for all.

While I have this grand idea in my mind, I will be honest--I have no idea how to accomplish this.  I fear the perception of being superficial or politically incorrect from my families and my peers. This leads me to reach out to readers for ideas and wisdom.  I have questions, lot of them. Please take the time to share your experiences--successes and failures, with infusing diverse holiday cultures into the classroom.

How do you get kids and parents to talk about their culture at school?

The conversations I have with parents and students are largely academic-based.  Each year, I have my students fill out a poster and present to their peers about a family tradition.  Similarities and differences are shared and celebrated throughout this process as we get to know one another from different perspectives.  While I like this project, and I love how the conversations stem from the child and their families, I feel like it only scratches the surface.  How do you provide opportunities for students to talk about what they celebrate at home? How do you make them authentic activities? How do you draw the families into these discussions?

How do you keep the conversations going?

This is the piece I struggle with most.  We go to winter break and the discussions generally end.  I give students time to discuss family celebrations in regards to their birthdays however these are brief and often overshadowed by the treats that float into the room at the same time.  So many cultures celebrate events outside of December, however little emphasis placed on them in comparison. How do you continue to invite families in to share celebrations throughout the year?

How do you balance the “teaching of celebrations” (by the teacher) with the “being taught celebrations” (by the students)?

Decorations for Cultural Celebrations

I find myself teaching in a small town with a pretty homogeneous student base.  Part of me wants to allow my students to explore other cultures around the world, so they can have a more global view of others.  The other part of me struggles with the perception of teaching “holidays around the world.” How do you go beyond the surface level?  How can I be genuine in building awareness within my students of celebrations from around the world so they can develop cultural sensitivity towards people who are different from them?  How do you help children see that different celebrations occur in house within their neighborhoods and cities nearby, not just in countries from which they originate?

How do you manage misconceptions?

Each year I talk to my students about how we celebrate international holidays differently in America than the countries of origin.  Cinco de Mayo is one example. When asked, many of my students associated Cinco de Mayo with Mexico’s Independence Day, when in fact it is a day that marks one victory in a longer battle.  The true independence day is on September 16th, a holiday that isn’t widely celebrated. Another example can be found with Dia de los Muertos. Common misconceptions around this holiday include where it is celebrated and how similar it is to Halloween.  Even our own holidays can cause confusion. What did the first Thanksgiving look like? How do you address misconceptions such as these in your classroom?

How do you create a school wide way of celebrating different cultures?

Last year, I had an experience where I implemented what I thought was a quality activity only to find that my students already completed the same task the year before.  This happens all the time, especially with the mentor texts we read around the holidays. There must be a way we can collectively build on the activities each year, rather than having constant repetition.  How does your school align what they are teaching, not just with standards, but with cultural elements too? Even being strategic with the mentor texts we choose within our classroom can create a better representation for students of the world around us.  Even better would be school wide cultural events that allow for a broader range of exposure. This would mean going beyond a school choir assembly and would require more in-depth discussions in the classroom. Bringing in a local storyteller who could teach students how to tell their own stories and then having an open mic night for them to share their pieces is one such example.  Starting a ballet folklorico club that teaches kids traditional dances is another idea. How does your school bring in outside cultural elements that allow students to experience different cultures?

Image of Holding Hands

Acknowledging these questions and opening up my classroom to the answers forces me to step outside of my comfort zone.  I now frequently place my students into the teacher role and myself into the role of learner. In doing so, I must address my own judgements and bias.  There have been times of discomfort and inner reflection where I cringe at some of my past actions. Being transparent with that growth both to the adults I work with and the students in my classroom has helped my transition.   I appreciate any time you take to answer these questions as I continue with my learning.

  • Cultural Competency
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