“Mom, why doesn’t Santa come to our house?”
I was in the middle of teaching my own remote class when my kindergartner interrupted my instruction with this question. While I understand that these questions are inevitable for our Muslim family, I was surprised to hear it so early in the month. I peered over her classwork and noticed that her December packets were filled with Christmas themes like Santa, Christmas trees, reindeer, stockings and elves. Our family does not celebrate Christmas. At 5 years old, my child was already learning that she is not a part of the culture of her classroom.
Teachers are always looking for fun ways to engage students in the everyday curriculum. Especially at this time of the year, when students’ motivation is beginning to dwindle, it is easy to turn to cute holiday projects and holiday-themed worksheets in hopes of motivating students through one more letter match or one more math problem. There is no shortage of these types of activities on the internet.
But while holidays can be an entry point to engagement, we must be careful as educators that we don’t produce the opposite effect of what we intend. For students from non-dominant cultures and religions, a month-long packet filled with references to a holiday they do not celebrate can send the message that they are not included in their classroom. These messages are especially common in the younger grades, where students are beginning to learn where they fit in with others and their relationship to the dominant culture.
Culturally sustaining educator Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop categorizes curriculum into “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.” When teachers include resources in the curriculum that reflect or mirror students’ identities, those students’ cultures and experiences are validated. But when students are always are looking through a window at another culture, they receive the message that they are different and can feel excluded from the class. Culturally responsive teachers not only look to balance window and mirror opportunities; they also transform curricular windows into sliding glass doors. They allow students to step through, to actively engage with cultures or identities that are different from their own. Unfortunately, while some students often get to experience curriculum that mirrors their identities, others can feel like they are on the outside looking in.
Here are some tips for helping ensure all students feel included in your classroom all year long.
Ask questions: Know your students’ cultures and religions.
How often do we talk to students about their interests? As teachers, we need to take those conversations a bit further to learn about our students’ identities. What are their cultures? What are their religions? What languages do they speak at home? What holidays do they celebrate? What holidays do they not celebrate?
While family and interest surveys can be a place to start, they aren’t useful if they stay filed away. The best way I’ve found to learn about my students’ cultures is through the informal conversations I have with them. While taking a few minutes to talk with students about their weekends, experiences and interests, I try to dig deeper with questions about their culture, religions and traditions. The more we reference and discuss the similarities among different cultures in the formal lessons we teach, the more students become willing to share their personal cultural experiences.
Often, we assume that because they are living in the United States, all of our students celebrate holidays that are particularly ubiquitous in the United States, like Valentines’ Day, Halloween and Christmas. Teachers may not realize that many of these holidays originated from Christianity. Some religions do not allow their followers to celebrate holidays that differ from their own. Other families from different cultures may not celebrate these holidays because they don’t know about them.
Knowing what holidays students don’t celebrate can help teachers prepare in ways that can make all students feel included. Knowing what holidays students do celebrate early in the year can give teachers time to find and plan a few activities.
Move beyond cookie cutter themes: Teach about the holidays.
To make all students feel included, some teachers and schools have turned to excluding all cultural and holiday celebrations. But being a culturally sustaining teacher requires acknowledging and highlighting your students’ cultural identities, not ignoring them. Instead of creating an environment devoid of students’ cultures, teachers and schools should make efforts to include, embrace and celebrate their students’ diversity.
All year long, non-Christian students can be reminded that they are not part of the dominant school culture when they receive micro-messages about Christian traditions in their everyday curriculum. These messages tend to increase in November and December, when more holiday themes show up on worksheets and projects.
The key is to teach about important religious holidays, rather than using the holidays as a classroom theme. Keeping the conversations to facts—the who, what, where, when and why of holidays—means educators can treat each important holiday as a way to celebrate the identities and cultures of their students and their families. Spending most of the time talking about how the holidays are celebrated will help focus conversations on traditions and practices. These types of conversations keep students, not religious beliefs, the focus of the conversation.
Finally, educators can spend the same amount of time on different holidays and traditions. They can decide ahead of time whether they will do one lesson or a few lessons over a week when talking about different holidays and cultures. Giving equal time to all the cultures represented in a classroom shows students that they are all valued.
Be timely: Teach about the holidays when they are celebrated.
Sometimes teachers and schools know that some students in their class feel excluded during the winter holidays. One solution educators sometimes offer is an alternate favorite holiday project.
But while these projects are well intentioned, they are not timely. Assigning an extra, often optional, project around this time where students are asked to discuss their culture or make a poster about their favorite holiday does not address the exclusion non-Christian students feel from month-long recognitions of dominant cultural holidays like Christmas and Easter.
Imagine asking students to make a holiday poster project in May. It may seem odd to you if you are Christian because there are no Christian holidays in May. Many non-Christian students do not celebrate a holiday in December, and it can feel odd to them to create a poster about a holiday that has either already passed or is still many months away.
To help all your students feel included during this season, take time to get to know your students’ cultures, traditions and holidays celebrated. Learning about your students’ traditions and teaching about them at the time when they are actually happening will help ensure all of your students know you value—and celebrate—their identities in your classroom community.
You encourage teachers to “Keep the conversations to facts—the who, what, where, when and why of holidays.” This does not happen for Christian holidays. In November and December you might see secular, “themes like Santa, Christmas trees, reindeer, stockings and elves”— I’d go on to add Elf on a Shelf, Gingerbread houses etc... but the real religious facts and significance of this Christian holiday is not taught in our schools, nor ever mentioned. There is never a correlation between Santa and the Christian faith or Jesus Christ. The religious significance of Christmas for a Christian is the birth of Jesus Christ (and its significance). This is never talked about in school or taught. In fact it is deemed incorrect to even say, “Merry Christmas”. As teachers we are encouraged to say, “Happy Holidays”. Although I will note that we are not encouraged to say a generic, “Happy Holidays” for holidays celebrated by other faiths: Eid or Diwali.
Folklore (Santa & Easter bunny) and American culture celebrations should be separated from the Christian faith in your article. If non-Christian students feel excluded by the random “holiday” themes, you can count your Christians students in that. Santa, Elves and Easter bunny are not in the Bible and no correlations to what the Christian faith actually teaches are made in the classroom. My 5 year old daughter could ask me the same thing as yours did— “Mommy, why doesn’t Santa come to our house?” We don’t celebrate Santa or Elves at Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, which is of utmost significance for a Christian. Secular “holiday” themes may appear in classrooms (through packets or posters as you noted), but the “facts—the who, what, where, when and why” of the Christian holidays and their Christian significance are not found in the classroom.
You mention Easter in your article as well. The Christian significance of Easter is never taught or celebrated. Perhaps the American secular & cultural notions of the “Easter bunny” or “Easter eggs”, or vague spring themes may appear in clip art, worksheets etc..but these have absolutely nothing to do with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is what the Christian faith celebrates. Again, no mention of the Christian “facts, who, what, where, when and why” of Easter are ever introduced in the classroom or ever celebrated. I would argue it is a huge fallacy to correlate general American culture with historic, Biblical, orthodox Christianity. Christianity is NOT specific to America, in fact it originated in the Middle East.
You end your article with a charge to, “teach about them (the holidays) at the time when they are actually happening”. I completely agree that all holidays should be valued and actually taught and I would urge teachers to teach based on facts and not American culture or folklore, which would include historical religious facts about the Christian holidays as well.