Considerations for cultural and holiday celebrations in schools
Wednesday, November 15, 2017
In every culture around the world, humans engage in cultural and holiday traditions and celebrations. Just like language, it is difficult to imagine a society without them.
Cultural and holiday celebrations have been a part of the fabric in U.S. schools for decades. Teachers and schools regularly engage in activities during and after school to celebrate the various cultures that are represented in the school, as well as national holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Many, if not most, educators hold these celebrations as a welcomed break from academics, and as a way to introduce students from other countries and cultures to the cherished traditions and celebrations of the United States, and introduce students from the U.S. to other cultures, their traditions and celebrations.
However, others believe these celebrations potentially cause more harm than good, taking precious academic learning time from students or "tokenizing" other cultures, creating division and supremacist attitudes, and representing world cultures in simplistic or stereotypical ways.
Given these mixed feelings toward cultural and holiday celebrations and presentations, educators should take the following considerations into mind as they plan and celebrate the cultural and holiday traditions of the country and the populations they serve.
Which celebrations — and why?
Perhaps one of the first considerations should be which holidays and traditions are celebrated in school — and why. Typically, major national holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother's Day and Father's Day are discussed and celebrated, with affiliated presentations, parties, and at times art or writing projects affiliated with them.
While these celebrations and traditions are a part of the fabric of American society, they have the potential to exclude students for a variety of reasons. Certain cultures and religious traditions, for example, do not celebrate holidays such as Halloween and Christmas, and some students may need to excuse themselves from the classroom during holiday parties and activities.
We should question, then, the purpose of these celebrations in schools. Are they meant to bring awareness of the history of the holiday, to bring fun and excitement to the classroom, or to bring unity and assimilation to U.S. culture? If some students are excluded from these celebrations, are those goals being accomplished? Or can the same goals be accomplished in other ways?
For some families, the winter holiday times can bring anxiety, sadness and fear, as family dysfunction or loved ones who have passed are remembered. Similarly, holidays such as Mother's Day and Father's Day can bring painful reminders of parents who are no longer living, are absent or who have been abusive — not all students have a loving relationship with their parents.
Celebrations of other cultures are also sometimes a part of school celebrations and traditions. Specific holidays and traditions such as Dia de los Muertos or Kwanza are sometimes celebrated or discussed in schools as well. Depending on the school, the particular holidays or celebrations chosen may represent the cultures of the student population represented in the school.
At other times a "culture night" may be celebrated, with teachers, parents or students sharing cultural artifacts or traditions in a variety of ways. These celebrations may also be a part of a larger goal of developing awareness of other cultures, their traditions and ways of thinking.
Which cultures and traditions, then, are celebrated and discussed, and which aren't? Is there a particular threshold for a number of students or community members when choosing which traditions or holidays to celebrate?
How much time?
Another consideration is the amount of time being spent on holiday traditions and celebrations. While the main purpose of schools might be considered as academic in nature, some celebrations take time away from this purpose.
Some cultural and holiday activities may include academic activities such as artistic activities, reading books or articles about the topic or writing prompts. Others include nonacademic activities such as food or movies. At times, these celebrations and parties are conducted just before holiday breaks, as students are excited and potentially more focused on vacation than doing academic work.
The time taken for these celebrations may well be worthwhile to build community, celebrate and have fun with students. On the other hand, if you have struggling students in your classroom, this could also have the effect of taking away key learning opportunities.
Depending on how the cultural tradition or holiday is being celebrated, students may be having fun and practicing academic skills, through writing, reading or discussing the topic, for example. In fact, the Common Core State Standards emphasize the ability to understand other's perspectives and cultures as a key college and career readiness skill for the 21st century. The CCSS state:
"Students appreciate that the 21st-century classroom and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together. Students actively seek to understand other perspectives and cultures through reading and listening, and they are able to communicate effectively with people of varied backgrounds. They evaluate other points of view critically and constructively. Through reading great classic and contemporary works of literature representative of a variety of periods, cultures, and worldviews, students can vicariously inhabit worlds and have experiences much different than their own."
Given this emphasis on learning about and appreciating other cultures and perspectives, educators should carefully weigh the amount of time they are using for cultural celebrations and holiday traditions into their instruction.
Who is involved in planning?
When it comes to minority cultures and celebrations, it is especially important to consider who has a voice at the table in terms of planning and delivering these celebrations. Are the people planning a culture night, for example, representatives from the cultures being celebrated? The voices of the people who represent specific cultural traditions should be included in these discussions and planning, so we do not inadvertently misrepresent a cultural tradition or holiday.
The same can be said of holidays and traditions that are commonly celebrated in the U.S. Are people who do not celebrate Christmas or Halloween, or another holiday or tradition, present and able to give their input, thoughts and opinions about the subject in a way that is recognized and heard? Or are the people doing the planning only from the majority culture or only people in power?
These questions are critical to take into account.
Awareness, sensitivity and inclusion, or tokenism and division?
Ultimately, we need to carefully consider the consequences of any actions taken in schools. In terms of celebrations and holiday traditions, what purpose are they serving? Every educator wants classroom and school celebrations to be just that — celebratory.
These events can and should be a way to build awareness of others, sensitivity and responsiveness to other ways of thinking and doing things, and not a way to create divisiveness among students by creating a "my cultural celebrations are better than yours" environment. Additionally, we must be keenly aware that celebrating other cultures, when we are not members of that culture, can potentially be construed as tokenism or cultural appropriation.
Holidays and cultural celebrations are an important part of every society and culture. There is nothing wrong with wanting to highlight them in schools. However, we should consider which holidays and celebrations are a part of the school and why, the amount of time dedicated to these celebrations and how we might make them relevant to each of our students, increasing inclusivity and cultural responsiveness in schools and ultimately in our society.
It is important that we also remember that a student's ethnic heritage is not necessarily directly tied to their cultural practices. Students may have family and ancestors from various parts of the world, and may have grown up in the United States, but are not necessarily ambassadors or representatives of the culture that their ancestors come from.
Every student wants to have fun in school, and cultural events, holidays and celebrations are one way we can celebrate the diversity in our schools and in our world. However, we should be thoughtful about how we approach the subject, and create inclusive dialogue about how, when and why we celebrate each other.
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