Holidays & Traditions in the Classroom

This month, I am doing a “Holidays and Traditions” unit with my students. I initially had mixed feelings about talking about holidays in the classroom because I didn’t want to just fixate on a single day as a means for understanding a culture or a religion with which my students are not familiar. But, I decided after overhearing various conversations my students were having that many of them do not really understand why they celebrate Christmas or, more generally, why we have holidays at all.

So, over Thanksgiving break, I spent time creating a wide variety of decorations for the holidays that we are spending time exploring this month: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Diwali, Chinese New Year, and New Year’s Day. I also did some general festooning of my classroom — I figure that if I can’t beat my students’ energy and enthusiasm, I might as well as join them!

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So far in the unit, we’ve talked about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Both have been very interesting. I read my students a book that detailed the backstory of Hanukkah (The Story of Hanukkah by David Adler) and another story about a family celebrating their first Hanukkah after the mother in the family passes away (Papa’s Latkes by Michelle Edwards.) My students were very incensed by the religious persecution that the Jewish people experienced at the hands of the Greeks. We have been discussing issues of social justice in my classroom this year, and my students latched onto the unfairness of having views imposed upon you. 

Our conversation about Kwanzaa was even more interesting. I don’t know why I was surprised by the fact that my second-graders did not know about slavery, but I found myself awed by their lack of awareness. My students were very confused by the concept as I explained it: “But, did they get paid?” “Can we still sell people?” “Are my parents going to donate me?” Eventually, I think that they reached the conclusion that slavery was a very bad thing and I tried to emphasize how it erased much knowledge of many traditions and customs that individuals celebrate(d) in Africa. They also made the connections that I hoped they would between our earlier work on John Coltrane, Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, and Rosa Parks. We still need to continue our conversation about Kwanzaa, but I have been pleased with how much effort they are contributing to our discussions about the root of these holidays and traditions. Yesterday, I showed my students a video biography about Nelson Mandela and they seemed to comprehend the race issues that he went to prison to fight against and the significance of his rise to the presidency. I am still wishing there was greater diversity in my own school, so that our many conversations about race and ethnicity would seem more relevant and applicable to their daily lives.

In completely unrelated news, I had one of the most exciting moments in the classroom yesterday. I brought in a guest yesterday who talked to my class about worm compost bins (which we now have in our classroom!) and my students spent a lot of time doing hands-on explorations of worms and the contents of a bin. Anyway, the exciting moment was that one of my students said, “Girls don’t like worms!” Immediately, the girl sitting next to him said so confidently and matter-of-factly, “That’s a stereotype. I play with worms all the time at home.”

Clearly, they are listening and absorbing more from our conversations than I ever imagined!

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