I was in my first year of teaching, and I loved decorating my classroom for the holidays. In December, with Christmas around the corner, I filled the classroom with holiday cheer. I purchased a small red and green fiberoptic tree and a Christmas tablecloth, and covered the table with wrapped gifts for the students. Christmas break approached, and I called up each student to receive his or her present. Lana’s gift sat on her desk, unopened. I asked, “Did you want to open your present?” I began to think, she must want to put it under her tree. My heart melted.
Lana came up to me after everyone had left and handed the gift back to me. I asked, “Why are you giving the gift back? Don’t you want it for your Christmas?” She replied, “Please, Ms. Evans. I am not allowed to have this present.” I was very confused. “Lana, this gift is from my heart and I could afford it, so don’t worry.” Lana shook her head and said, “Ms. Evans, I am a Jehovah’s Witness, and we don’t celebrate holidays.”
My experience was an awakening, challenging me to think about every student and the celebrations in our class. According to Berry (2010), “Because the United States has a traditionally strong Christian heritage, many communities have in the past been comfortable absorbing the holidays and traditions of that heritage” (p. 10). Our job as teachers is to ensure that everyone in our classroom feels respected as a contributor to the class environment (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2017) . Below are three ideas to consider for inclusive classrooms that have permission to celebrate holidays, specifically within the public school sector.
1. Celebrate “Character Days,” “Friendship Week,” or other school-wide festivities. Celebrating Character Week instead of Halloween avoids making students feel uncomfortable if they don’t wish to participate in Halloween celebrations.
A whole week with different themes gives students the opportunity to choose characters from favorite books, movies, or TV shows. One day can be historical characters, one day Dr. Seuss characters, one day favorite board or card game characters. The possibilities are endless. You can celebrate Friendship Week or Kindness Week instead of Valentine’s Day. Students can have secret pals, dress-up days, and a school kindness assembly. These alternatives avoid excluding students and the negative attention children may feel if they are unable to participate.
2. Celebrate seasons. Seasons are a part of science, and they involve miraculous changes that can stimulate engagement and learning throughout the year. Celebrating seasons instead of holidays is a great way to keep a positive and visually appealing classroom environment all year long.
I used a dynamic tree in my classroom that took up a massive amount of bulletin board space. In autumn, colorful leaves, acorns, pumpkins, scarecrows, and glitter were a hit. Winter had snowmen, snowflakes, and pine trees. In spring, I decorated with tissue blossoms, bunnies, flowers, and plants. Students’ projects connected directly to seasons and not the concurrent holidays.
3. Celebrate the diverse cultures of students and their families (Planning Ahead, 2016). Invite students to share what traditions and holidays they celebrate in their families. If you have a culturally diverse classroom, you should have an abundance of rich traditions to learn about. If your classroom is more homogeneous, encourage students to learn about their own ancestry or to explore the customs of a famous person’s ancestors (Lundgren & Lundy-Ponce, n.d.).
Remember that we as teachers have the power to make or break a student’s ability to succeed (“Culture in the classroom,” 2018). As I learned from my experience with Lana, discovering our students’ beliefs and customs creates the opportunity for us to celebrate with them in culturally appropriate ways. A medley of approaches can be taken to celebrate holidays; however, rendering a culturally competent and inclusive environment is imperative.
Children not only contribute to their classrooms, but also to their schools. With minority students now the majority in public schools (Hussar & Bailey, 2014), teachers must promote an understanding of various cultures and ensure that all students are represented.
Dr. Evans-Santiago is an Assistant Professor in the Teacher Education Department at California State University, Bakersfield. Her research focuses on culturally relevant pedagogy with an emphasis on LGBTQ issues in education, and on minimizing suspensions and expulsions of minority males.
This story is featured in the Winter 2018 issue of the New Teacher Advocate. If you are interested in receiving the print or digital version of this award-winning publication for preservice and new teachers, you can subscribe for less than $20 per year!
– Berry, D. R. (2010). A not so merry Christmas: Dilemma for elementary school leaders. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47(1), 10–13. Https://doi.org/10.1080/ 00228958.2010.10516553
– Culture in the classroom. (2018). [Teaching Tolerance website]. Retrieved from https://www.tolerance. org/culture-classroom
– Hussar, W. J., & Bailey, T. M. (2014). Projections of education statistics to 2022 (NCES 2014-051). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.
– Lundgren, C., & Lundy-Ponce, G. (n.d.). Culturally responsive instruction for holiday and religious celebrations. Retrieved from http://www.Colorincolorado.org/article/culturally-responsiveinstruction- holiday-and-religious-celebrations
– National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2017). Anti-bias education: Holidays. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/content/ anti-bias-guide-holidays/december-holidays
– Planning ahead: December holidays in an inclusive classroom. (2016). Curriculum Review, 56(3), 11.