Culturally Inclusive Celebrations: 3 Fun Alternatives To Holiday Parties

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!

Resources
http://bit.ly/CharacterDayIdeas
http://bit.ly/CharacterDayEvent
http://bit.ly/CharacterDayLessonPlan
http://bit.ly/CulturallyResponsiveInstruction

References
– 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.

Top Websites for Inclusive Classrooms

The demands upon teachers continue to grow, especially as they seek to accommodate all of their students’ learning needs.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act provides that students with disabilities are educated in the least restrictive environment, or that of their same-grade peers. According to the The U.S. Department of Education, 95 percent of 6- to 21-year-old students with disabilities were served in regular schools.

It is incumbent upon teachers, in an era of accountability and mandates set by the Every Student Succeeds Act, to prepare themselves to face the challenges in meeting the needs of students with exceptional learning needs. At the same time, student engagement is at an all-time low and decreases every year starting in the fifth grade; reaching its lowest point by eleventh grade.

Continuing to build classroom supports is essential to keep students encouraged to learn and hopeful for their future. The following websites offer teachers the opportunity, at no cost, to reinforce classroom knowledge and skills while giving students the opportunity to use technology to reinforce their learning.

Flocabulary

Flocabulary offers an engaging approach to K-12 vocabulary instruction aligned to the Common Core State Standards. It offers a free trial and discounts for school-wide subscriptions. Through the use of rap music, Flocabulary helps activate auditory processing and memory and reinforces concepts in all academic subjects including Life Skills and Current Events, necessary for students with exceptional learning needs. All videos have captions, include transcripts, and have variable speed controls to accommodate all learners.

Reading Educator

Students with disabilities must be explicitly taught how to use reading strategies because they do not automatically know how to use these strategies. Reading Educator assumes that every teacher is a reading teacher, and support in the general education classroom comes through the teaching of research-based strategies, which help students become more active in their learning. The website provides sample lesson plans and models of effective strategies such as active reading, vocabulary development, classroom discussion, and higher-order questioning. Additional resources include fun supplemental activities for parents to encourage reading at home.

Funbrain

Designed primarily for grades Pre–K through grade 8, funbrain includes a variety of educational games and videos including all traditional academic areas as well as memory challenges, strategy skills, patterns, logic, and sign language. These animated and interactive games disguise learning through video gaming modules.

Free Rice

Students with exceptional learning needs require review and practice of basic concepts and reinforcement of material previously learned. Based at the United Nations World Food Programme to end world hunger, Free Rice is a win-win website. Teachers are able to register their students to play as a group. As the students answer the questions correctly, a visual representation is shown of the grains of rice that will be donated. This website is appropriate for students at all grade levels. Subjects include: basic math operations, grammar, science, and geography, anatomy, chemistry, pre-algebra, and SAT preparation.

Bookshare

Accommodating the diverse learning needs in the classroom can be challenging and costly. Bookshare.org is an accessible online library for persons with a documented print disability. This website has over a half a million titles and many different options to read books. Students are able to listen to books using text-to-speech voices. Books are available in enlarged font, digital braille, and image description.

Quizlet

Quizlet is an interactive website which allows students the opportunity to practice material learned through digital flashcards that are created by both teachers and students. Study sets can be transformed into games and practice tests to promote application of the vocabulary terms. Students can search for previously created study sets that align with specific course content. Quizlet Live is another version of quizlet. In this feature, teachers can create teams throughout their classroom to play collaborative games to further reinforce vocabulary.

Guysread

Students with learning disabilities are reluctant readers and have motivational problems due to repeated reading failure and negative reading experiences (Melekoglu & Wilkerson, 2013). It’s based on the premise that when children and youth are given interesting material to read, they become more proficient and life-long readers. Guysread is a web-based literacy program for boys, who are more likely than girls to receive special education services and have markedly lower achievement in language arts from elementary through high school (2009). The website includes book recommendations by genre and age range. Interesting reading material on superheroes and supervillains, graphic novels, cars, mystery, fantasy, and sports can also be found.

With these resources, you will provide opportunities for students with disabilities to review and practice educational concepts with technology, all the while facilitating your engagement and motivation to learn.

 

Rachel is a senior undergraduate student at Flagler College and plans to attend graduate school in the fall. Her current interests include students with exceptional needs with focus on best practices in working with children with autism, and behavioral issues.

Cheryl has a Ph.D. in Special Education with expertise in Learning and Behavioral Disorders. She currently teaches in the Education Department at Flagler College.