Beyond Pumpkin Pie and Jingle Bells: Part II

If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.’ What does this beautiful quote from Mahatma Gandhi have to do with introducing your young students to special holidays celebrated by other children around the world? Plenty! As educators, we ultimately want each and every one of our boys and girls to feel seen and valued in their classrooms and school communities, and to recognize and respect the views of others, as well. The responsibility to introduce our youngest learners to the world beyond their own adorable little noses is ours. Kids love celebrations, so what better way to begin the process of understanding and connecting with others than through holidays? In Part I of this two-part series, we looked at the benefits of including a variety of various cultures’ holiday traditions in our classrooms and some high level ways to move forward. Part II promises to share concrete ideas from several teachers in different parts of the US that will, without a doubt, leave you inspired. Let’s get to it!

Seasoned New Jersey educator, Leigh Ann Cusack, has reimagined and shifted her approach to holidays in her classroom. When she began her teaching career nearly 30 years ago, Mrs. Cusack was very mindful about including Christmas, Kwanzaa and Hannukah themed children’s literature, finger-plays, cooking activities and craft projects throughout each day during the month of December. Her school administrators, classroom parents and her students loved that she was honoring a variety of cultures and was incorporating them in a cross-curricular manner. Over time, Mrs. Cusack began to seriously consider her ‘why’ behind teaching about the holidays. “I realized that my objective was to introduce my Kindergarten students to the idea of tolerance and acceptance, and I wanted to be proactive.  I began researching holidays and how they’re celebrated uniquely in different parts of the world. For example, how is Christmas celebrated in Haiti? In the Dominican Republic? In Eastern Europe?’ She has, in her own words, ‘moved away from the cutesy’ when it comes to incorporating holidays. For example, children’s books on the topic of holidays are grade level appropriate, but mostly non-fiction. She doesn’t avoid having a small Christmas tree in her classroom; rather, she also has a Diwali, Kinara, Menorah and Ramadan Lantern all on display. Additionally, Cusack and her colleagues don’t teach the holidays in a ‘December bubble’, but all throughout the school year. Lunar New Year, Ramadan and others don’t always fall in December or January. Want another example? During their annual ‘International Week’, students receive ‘passports’ and get to ‘travel’ to an amazingly impressive variety of booths set up throughout the school. At the Puerto Rico Booth, Canada Booth, Eastern Europe Booth, Japan Booth, China Booth, Korea Booth and more, children take part in authentic learning about each country & it’s traditions.

Similarly, elementary EL teacher district coordinator Puja Mullins says, “My students do a little ‘passport’ activity where we board our ‘chairplanes’ and go to different countries! Each student reads a grade-level-appropriate excerpt about a holiday in that country, and the children meet up in their friend’s ‘country’ to learn about it from their friend.”

Arizona teacher, Emily Cisneros, engages her 2nd Graders in a ‘Holidays Around the World’ project each year. This project-based learning allows her students to research how families from countries and cultures across the globe celebrate holidays outside of the mainstream winter holidays that tend to get the most attention. 

Michigan Kindergarten teacher, Courtney Pas, along with her colleagues, survey families about holidays that are celebrated in their students’ homes, not just during December or the winter months, but all throughout the year. Mrs. Pas added, “My school has a large Muslim population, so we talk about Eid and how some families fast during Ramadan. I’ve used children’s literature and YouTube videos that explain the holidays in kid friendly ways.”

When it comes to opening minds and hearts to holiday traditions that are special to ourselves and others, teachers from the Southwest region, to the Great Lakes area, to the mid-Atlantic, are indeed beginning with the children. And as Ghandi said, there’s no better place to start.

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