Every teacher wants their classroom to be a place of joy, harmony and inclusion, particularly during the winter holiday season. But with students of many faiths and cultures represented in today’s classrooms, it can sometimes be tricky to stay sensitive to everyone’s needs and step around the pitfalls of stereotyping and tokenism.
Teachers are on the vanguard of diversity education, so it’s our job to balance awareness, representation and sensitivity when it comes to winter holiday celebrations in the classroom. These four key principles will help you develop your own strategy for holiday celebrations that engage students from a wide variety of cultures.
Don’t Assume, Stereotype, or Tokenize
First and foremost, remember that holiday activities will often require care and thought toward equitability because of how they bring real-world traditions into the classroom. That can make a great opportunity for fun and interesting learning, but its benefits must be equitable.
How to pull off this balancing act? The first step is to check your assumptions and privilege. Don’t assume that a student celebrates any particular holiday based on their ethnicity or heritage. Likewise, don’t assume that everyone celebrates a winter holiday. Some students’ religious traditions may not have winter holidays or any holidays at all, and many will likely celebrate the same holiday in different ways.
One good way to get started is to open up a discussion to any student who wants to talk about their celebrations or traditions, keeping in mind that not all children will be comfortable talking about theirs. Remember that students shouldn’t be expected to be experts on the holidays they or their families celebrate. Student-led discussions of different celebrations can be great, but avoid putting any student on the hot seat to talk about or explain a particular tradition.
Build Diversity into Your Lesson Plans
Good holiday lesson plans should celebrate differences. A unit on different holiday celebrations, for example, can provide some fun and interesting lesson opportunities. The holiday season is the perfect time to bring in guest speakers to talk to the class about how they celebrate holidays, since many students will be eager for a change of pace, and speakers can often provide interesting and in-depth insights to add to discussions. Parents or community leaders make great guest speakers, and some will probably be eager to share their traditions.
If you want to examine certain traditions but can’t fit in guest speakers, try reading books or watching films or YouTube videos as part of your investigations into how different cultures celebrate. For older students, breaking the class into groups to learn about and report on various holiday traditions can be a good way to create student interest and sharpen research skills. If interesting and diverse activities are available, field trips to community holiday events can be another excellent option.
Think Outside the Usual Holiday Cliches
There’s nothing wrong with reindeer, Santa hats and sugar cookies, but try to diversify your decorations and not focus them on a single holiday. At the same time, be careful about using symbols from cultures you’re not familiar with—do your research first and make sure you’re not using them in an offensive or inappropriate way. When in doubt, it’s best to politely ask someone with knowledge of the specific cultural tradition.
Soliciting student input on decorations or letting students hang their own crafts can offer a lot of great possibilities to let kids express themselves and feel represented in the classroom. Holiday STEM projects offer more great ideas since they often focus on things like winter weather that can be examined outside of a cultural or religious context. (Plus, they often use interesting and fun tools like student microscopes.)
In classes with a strong multicultural focus, one idea is to make the winter holidays a single piece of a rolling year-round investigation into holidays from many different traditions. This can be a good way to include students whose traditions don’t have any winter holidays, or for whom winter holidays aren’t a focal point of the year.
Consider Forms of Inclusion Outside of Religion and Culture
There are many ways to create a diverse and harmonious classroom besides acknowledging religious differences. The holidays are a great time to focus on what brings us together, and that means paying special attention to students with a full range of physical, cultural, social and emotional needs. Consider factors such as:
- Dietary restrictions. Some traditional western Christmas food, for example, contains peanuts and other foods that may not be acceptable to students whose traditions include dietary rules.
- Emotional and social needs. Holidays can be an emotionally stressful time for many students, so it’s important to be able to point students toward the necessary resources.
- Needs of neurodivergent students and students with disabilities. The hustle and bustle of holiday activities can be difficult and overstimulating for students with some conditions, so make sure that diverse learners are getting the support they need.
Socioeconomic differences are another area that you may need to be particularly careful about addressing during the holidays. Questions about giving and receiving gifts can create uncomfortable moments for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so be prepared to steer class discussions away from these topics if they come up, or to offer support to students who need it.
Cheryl Stevens is the Community Relations Specialist for AmScope. She oversees all company-wide outreach programs and initiatives. Her passion in life is helping others see the value in and implement STEM programs for children at an early age.
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