The children in my classroom come from many different traditions and cultures. I know the winter holidays could be a great opportunity for children to learn about each other’s cultures but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any suggestions?
A: In early December we do an overview of the many different holidays that are celebrated during this month. Children then work in small groups on an academic choice project. Each group picks a holiday that they are curious about, does library and Internet research about the holiday, and then presents the information to the class at the end of December. Presentations include a skit that shows a typical scene during the holiday; a five-minute informational segment, during which they talk about the meaning of the holiday; and a question and answer period. Often children wear special clothes that are associated with the holiday. The children really enjoy this project and they learn a lot.
We then have a Kwanzaa festival in our classroom. Celebrating Kwanzaa is affirming for the students, many of whom are African- American, and allows them to gain insight into their background. And because it’s a celebration of culture, it is acceptable to all religions. We have a great time! We invite school staff and children’s families. With my help the children write short pieces about the seven principles of Kwanzaa and then read them at the celebration. They also do a dance and light the Kinara candles. Families bring food and we have a feast at the end of the celebration. This is a wonderful event that all of the children look forward to.
Crystal Cooper has taught in the Paterson, New Jersey, public schools for six years. She is a Northeast Foundation for Children certified consulting teacher, providing training for her district and helping other K–4 teachers in her building implement the Responsive Classroom approach.
A: I begin by finding out who celebrates what holiday. To do this, in early December I send home a one-page form. The form elicits information about the holiday that each family celebrates. Intercultural families might fill out two or more forms. Family members work together to fill out the form and the children illustrate the page. I then laminate each page and have them bound together in a spiral plastic binder that the children can sign out and take home. There are children from many different cultures in my class each year, so there are lots of different ideas represented in the book.
Celebrations are great!
My family likes to celebrate:____________________________________________________
I like this celebration because: ____________________________________
Illustrate your celebration in this space:
Sometimes I ask family members to come in and talk about the non-religious customs surrounding particular holiday celebrations. For example, one year there were twins whose family observed Ramadan and then Eid, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan’s fasting. The family visited the classroom to describe what happens during Eid. They wore their best clothes and brought in glass bangles for all the children to wear as well as special sweets for the children to eat.
A spirit of giving runs through all the winter holidays. To reinforce this idea, I often do a “heal the world” project in November and December. In class, we talk about all the people around the world who are poor and need food and clothing. We then do a clothing drive and donate the clothing to different helping agencies. One year a local nursery donated a live evergreen. We planted the tree, decorated it with blue and green paper chains, and then draped the tree with donated mittens, scarves, and hats, which were later sent to people who could use them.
Rick Ellis teaches kindergarten at Dutch Neck School in Bordentown, New Jersey. In his twenty-eight years of teaching, Rick has taught infants through nine-year-olds. He has also been a teaching coach, mentor, principal, adjunct faculty member at Bank Street College, and head teacher/project director for the East Coast Migrant Head Start Project.
A: Since about ninty-five percent of our students are African-American we make a point of acknowledging Kwanzaa. One way we do this is through an adapted version of the Nutcracker Suite, performed by first and fifth graders. We have a strong dance program at Duval and the children love performing the Nutcracker Suite, but the story doesn’t have a lot of relevance to their lives. In the adapted version a few of the dancers explain to the audience that they celebrate Kwanzaa rather than Christmas, describing some of the customs of Kwanzaa. Other performers say that they celebrate Hanukah and talk about Hanukah customs. The second half of the ballet features dances from around the world, which gives us the perfect opportunity to bring in dances and traditions from other cultures. Last year, the fifth graders learned an African dance from a visiting professional dancer. They also performed Japanese and Middle Eastern dances. The whole school helped with scenery and costumes.
Finally, each year we do a project called Around the World at Duval. When we do this project in the winter months, it offers great opportunities for learning about the winter holidays and celebrations of other cultures. Each grade level chooses a continent to study. Individual classes then make their classrooms into countries from that continent. On the final day of the project, students rotate through the classrooms, learning about the countries of each continent, and aspects of their culture such as food, traditional celebrations, regional dress, etc. Classes use a variety of ways to represent what they’ve learned about the country they studied. For example, one fifth-grade class might do African dances and drumming while another fifth-grade class will do a computer and video production. The sense of community and the active learning that emerge from this project are beyond measure.
Linda Zidonik teaches art at Duval Elementary School in Gainesville, Florida. Duval Elementary recently received a grant to implement a fine arts based curriculum. Linda is a Northeast Foundation for Children certified consulting teacher and offers training in the Responsive Classroom approach for her district and for NEFC through its summer institutes.
Web resources for information about winter holidays from different cultures:
Education World has an archived “Great Sites” article that provides links to information about several holidays, including Kwanzaa, Hanukah, and Ramadan.
FamilyCulture.com lists holidays by month. Many of the holidays have links to further information.
KIDPROJ, part of the KIDLINK Society, has a comprehensive listing of holidays sorted by holiday, month, and country. Links take you to information written by children about each holiday.