Illustration by Edpuzzle Staff
Once you’ve swapped out your pumpkin spice latte for a gingerbread latte and Thanksgiving has come and gone, the holiday season ramps up into full swing. But in a multicultural country like the United States, just who is it the holiday season for?
When it comes to your students, remember that what may be the most wonderful time of the year for you may be just another month of the year for them.
According to stats from the Pew Research Center, while 70.6% of Americans identify as Christian, almost 6% belong to faiths such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism, not to mention those who don’t identify with any religion, or Jehovah’s Witnesses who reject the celebration of holidays like Christmas.
Although not everyone who celebrates Christmas associates the holiday with its religious origins, it’s important to keep in mind that by choosing to celebrate certain holidays in your classroom, you could be excluding some of your students.
So how do you navigate the month of December to make sure all of your students feel included? We’ll give you the strategies you need to be respectful of everyone’s beliefs.
1. Celebrate the Holidays All Year Round
When talking about whether or not to celebrate holidays in the classroom, you may have heard about something called “the December dilemma.”
According to Diversity Best Practices, the December dilemma refers to “that time of year where multiple holidays collide and people with good intentions can find themselves in the middle of potentially toxic misunderstandings.”
Celebrating the holidays solely during December is like only teaching about black history during February or women’s history during March. If your school celebrates Christmas, make sure it doesn’t neglect holidays of equal importance that take place year-round.
Author Linda K. Wertheimer, who wrote the book Faith Ed: Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, puts it best:
“Teach [students] that Hanukkah, while celebrated around Christmas time, is not equal in importance to the major Christian holiday. Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, which happen in the fall, are the holiest days for Jews. Ramadan, too, does not fall in December, but it is the holiest month for Muslims. Don’t try to make December a catch-all for religious holidays when the month simply does not carry the same weight for different religions.”
In other words, if you’ll be celebrating Christmas, make sure to carve out equal time during the year to devote to all holidays of major importance.
Examples include Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights that usually takes place in October or November; Bodhi Day in December, which marks the day Buddhists celebrate the enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama; Kwanzaa, which celebrates African heritage in late December through early January; and Yule, a pagan holiday in honor of the winter solstice.
Keeping an eye on the calendar year-round will make sure that you’re creating an inclusive classroom where all of your students will feel supported as they learn.
2. Start by Asking These Questions
While you might have the best of intentions, it’s easy to feel a little lost when trying to plan cultural activities around the holidays.
Before you get started with any activity, the First Amendment Center proposes you ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this activity designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?
- How does this activity serve the academic goals of the course or the educational mission of the school?
- Will any student or parent be made to feel like an outsider, not a full member of the community, by this activity?
- If in December: Do we plan activities to teach about religious holidays at various times of the year or only in December?
- Are we prepared to teach about the religious meaning of this holiday in a way that enriches students’ understanding of history and cultures?
Once you’ve gone through this checklist, you should have a better grasp on if your holiday-inspired lesson is culturally sensitive and appropriate.
3. Look for Balance
Whenever you decide to bring holidays into the classroom, balance is key. What do we mean by that?
Well, if you think you’ve covered your bases by mentioning holidays in addition to Christmas, take a look at how much time you’re dedicating to each one. Doing Christmas crafts 90% of the time with a sprinkling of activities on Bodhi Day or Kwanzaa won’t cut it.
Take a serious look at your holiday lesson plans and evaluate the amount of time you’re spending on each holiday. If you’re not sure you’re being objective about your plans, you can always ask a fellow teacher or department head for a friendly opinion!
4. Stay Away From Stereotypes
When you’re exposing your students to cultural traditions they may not be familiar with (and which you may not be either), it’s important to avoid cliches and harmful stereotypes.
Just like no two families who celebrate Christmas are exactly alike, the same goes for those who celebrate non-Christian holidays.
So how can you keep from wading into dangerous stereotype territory? Research. Make sure you know your stuff before doing a lesson with your students. You can find some great resources on Teaching Tolerance and BBC Religions, and check out the video lessons on Edpuzzle from sources like Crash Course or National Geographic.
Again, if you’re at all worried about your content, ask for a second opinion!
5. Don’t Single Out Students
Finally, you might be thrilled to have the only Muslim student in the school in your class, and while you’re right to celebrate diversity, don’t single that student out as the sole ambassador for their culture.
If your student expresses an interest to you in sharing some of their traditions, you can by all means let them share, but make sure you have this conversation privately and ask for the family’s permission first.
An inclusive classroom is one where everyone feels comfortable and no one’s put on the spot because of their personal beliefs or culture.
So, how do you handle the holidays in your classroom and school? Let us know on Twitter so we can get a culturally-sensitive dialogue going :)