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5 Ways to Ensure an Inclusive Classroom this Holiday Season

Best Practices

12/8/2021 | Erin Weisman

The terms including and decentering are symbiotic. For example, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes many dishes: green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, etc. A traditional Thanksgiving dinner also centers around the turkey. If our goal is to decenter the turkey, we are not removing it from the table, we are decreasing the level of importance it holds and increasing the importance of other dishes available. Now ask yourself, what other holidays are celebrated? Are the foods from those holidays welcome at your table too? In the classroom, we decenter something by increasing the opportunities for learning about the varied information available.

People from different cultures around the world adjust to the changes winter brings. As the sun sets earlier, people create their own light. As the weather turns colder, people gather together and create their own warmth. As the beauty of summer flowers and autumn leaves die, people work to create their own beauty. Many classrooms in the United States focus on these customs through the lens of Christmas, but many of our students either co-celebrate Christmas with another holiday or don’t celebrate it at all. When we center one set of traditions in our classrooms, we tell students who don’t practice those traditions that they are less-than or other, and we ultimately teach that there is only one valid form of celebration. 

The following suggestions are not how to “remove the turkey from the table”, but rather how to create meaningful, authentic learning opportunities about as many “dishes” as possible.

1. Find Commonality as a Starting Place

Children learn most effectively when they find a personal connection with the content. Break down wintertime traditions to their most basic form: seeking and creating light, warmth, and togetherness. How do your students make their homes brighter? What makes your students feel cozy and warm? How do your students celebrate when they are with loved ones?

  • Make a visual mind map by writing down or collecting family photos of traditions practiced within your class community. Even within the same culture, there can be diverse practices. This can also serve as a formative assessment of your students’ understanding of tradition as a concept.
  • Focus on what your students have in common to encourage connection-building with their peers and with the line of inquiry.
  • Do your own research. If your students are most interested in fire as a way to acquire light and warmth, look into different holidays and traditions around the world that center fire. Here we are not centering on a specific holiday, but rather a specific secular theme.

2. Give Equal Opportunities for Deeper Exploration

Design multi-sensory learning units for each holiday or culture you found in your own research. Every holiday includes experiences that activate all five senses. Offer opportunities for your students to holistically immerse themselves in each holiday you explore.

  • Share music both in English and in the language spoken by the authentic participants. Practice corresponding dance moves and learn why certain techniques are passed down from generation to generation.
  • Try relevant recipes and research with your young friends the agricultural reasons why some cultures use certain foods in many recipes.
  • Explore creating art by interviewing a primary source. What colors are commonly used? What materials? Which methods?

The more facets of a culture or holiday you explore, the more connections your students will discover with their own practice.

3. Identify and Celebrate Differences

Once your students have a firm collection of connections with the new material, start to point out differences. For example, Chanukah and Kwanzaa both light candles as a method of celebration and remembrance. However, the candle holders have different numbers of candles. Share with your young friends that both practices are valid and beautiful, and then ask essential questions to provoke deeper learning.

  • Why does a Hanukkiah have nine candles? Why does the Kinara have seven candles?
  • Why do people who celebrate Chanukah light candles? Why do people who celebrate Kwanzaa light candles?
  • Remembering your people’s past is important. What are people who celebrate Chanukah remembering? What are people who celebrate Kwanzaa remembering? Can a person who celebrates Chanukah, also celebrate Kwanzaa?

When we validate both similarities and differences, we teach children critical thinking and perspective-taking skills. It is important to avoid a “color-blind” or “culture-blind” mentality when guiding these conversations. People are very much influenced by the experiences they’ve had because of their intersectional identities: the color of their skin, the cultural traditions practiced at home, or the external reactions of other people in the world all help us construct who we are. Honor these different identities and teach children that we not only hold more than one at the same time but also must respect those held by other people.

4. Offer authentic resources

You are only an expert in your own culture. Look to your larger community to find people who celebrate the holidays you’re exploring that you don’t personally celebrate. Invite them to your class as an expert. Encourage your young friends to brainstorm questions to ask. Promoting authentic voices in front of your students teaches them that no one person has all of the answers, and answers can be found via respectful and thoughtful discussion.

5. Highlight the specific perspectives found in your class community

Often, you don’t have to look outside of your classroom for an expert. Most classrooms are a beautiful collection of children from many cultures, ethnicities, religions, and nationalities. During your formative assessment when children are pointing out connections, note down their individual practices. Encourage friends to share their traditions with the class.

  • Invite family members to come in and teach a mini-lesson about a specific practice.
  • Suggest children wear treasured traditional clothing for an in-class, multi-cultural celebration.
  • Create a cookbook by welcoming winter-time recipe submissions from each family. Throughout the exploration, your young cooks can try making each dish.

This learning strategy gives children agency over their acquisition, fosters a high level of self-esteem, and encourages more effective perspective-taking skills as the content is coming directly from a peer.

A truly inclusive classroom doesn’t ignore or avoid talking about Christmas or any holiday. It offers meaningful opportunities to explore as many global examples of celebration as possible. Decentering one culture and making an effort to include many teaches all of your children that they are important, they are not alone, and they are lucky to live in a world filled with diversity. The turkey can stay on the table, it doesn’t have to detract from the joy people get from pumpkin pie. This year, try also adding latkes, and chai-samosa, and chapatis, and any other dish the children in your class bring to the gathering.

Supplementary Resources

The Thank You Letter, Cabrera

Let’s Celebrate!: Special Days Around the World, Depalma

Flash and Gleam: Light in Our World, Fliess

Painted Skies, Mallory

The Greatest Table, Rosen

Moon Cakes, Seto

Round is a Tortilla: a Book of Shapes, Thong

An Inuksuk Means Welcome, Wallace

Weisman, Erin. “Five Ways to Design Multi-Sensory Units of Learning”.

References

https://www.unitedplanet.org/blog/2013/01/03/from-christmas-to-diwali-winter-holidays-around-the-world

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/life-style/food-news/20-best-traditional-diwali-recipes/articleshow/66473975.cms

https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/collection/eid-recipes

Erin Weisman has taught in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Copenhagen, and is currently in Washington, D.C. She is always working to honor and prioritize her young friends’ perspectives when learning in the classroom. Her favorite student compliment was from a child who said, “Good for you, Ms. Erin!” when she finished a big salad at the lunch table.

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