Ah! It’s one of the most wonderful times of the year – Winter Break!
Now that I have made it to Winter Break, I wanted to take time to acknowledge that December is a busy time of year. My students had a week off of school for Thanksgiving break and returned to three jam packed weeks of academics with athletic playoff games, holiday concerts, and club meetings mixed in. During this time period of hustle and bustle, I noticed an email in my inbox one morning from Teaching Tolerance highlighting different holiday and December resources on their website. One of the highlights was their lesson “Analyzing the School Holiday Calendar”. The summary sentence of the lesson made me think, and I thought it would make my students think. The sentence reads, “These activities ask students to engage with the question of what an equitable school calendar looks like and how to make their own school calendar more inclusive.”
As a teacher, we focus on equity and inclusion all of the time. We know our schools are diverse. We know that our students come from many cultures, religions, and customs. I know that my students acknowledge this diversity, but how do we celebrate the diversity while promoting equity and inclusion? That is something I think that we, as schools, can always strive to continue working toward.
I had to share this lesson with our school’s librarian as she is always on board to support educational efforts that focus our minds on real world ideas that can have students thinking deeply and critically. We used the template of the lesson from Teaching Tolerance and planned how we could best implement this lesson for our school community based on the diversity of our building and our school’s calendar.
We really focused on one of the essential questions from Teaching Tolerance: “What factors should school and government leaders consider when deciding whether or not to honor religious holidays?”
We started by telling the class that we as teachers, do not have the answers, or the solutions to this complex question and line of thought; but rather, we are here to facilitate a discussion to explore the diversity of our school, to learn about the customs and cultures of all students in the class, and to examine complexity of the logistics of planning a holiday calendar for any large organization like a school district.
We progressed forward in the lesson, we defined four key vocabulary terms.
As a class, we then read aloud about the six major holidays within the three large religious traditions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We used the handout from Teaching Tolerance, finding it concise, yet easy to understand.
We read the handout as a class and at first it was the same kids that always participate in class when you ask the class to read something aloud participating. But then, by the time we were about halfway through reading the document, more and more kids were volunteering. Some of my most shy and reserved students were volunteering to read aloud. There could be any number of reasons for this, however, I believe that the obvious reason is that a large population of students, about 25%, directly saw that they as individuals and their faith tradition was being represented in the classroom curriculum. I could hear the sense of pride that these students had as they read the descriptions of Eid Ul-Fitr and Eid Ul-Adha aloud to the room of their peers and teachers. Over the last ten to fifteen years, the town I work in has shifted demographically, becoming increasingly diverse. Our school district has ESL teachers, and in some cases, bilingual teachers in Arabic, Spanish, and Polish.
After reading about the different faith traditions holidays, we offered an anonymous Google Form where students could record what faith tradition they identified with, if any. As more students participated over the course of the day to see the different faith traditions practiced by students in our school. We also continued to learn from our students about their faith tradition’s holidays’ and their own family’s customs around each holiday. We also were informed by a student who identifies as Greek Orthodox that our poll should have included that faith tradition under the larger Christian faith tradition.
With the knowledge of the faith traditions celebrated by the students in our school, we analyzed the school district’s official calendar. Students determined that all but one of the legal school holidays are secular holidays, with Christmas day being the exception. Students also determined that our district has numerous nonattendance days; however, only one nonattendance day is related to a religious holiday which is Good Friday. The other nonattendance days include time around the secular Thanksgiving holiday, Winter Break around the religious Christmas holiday and secular New Years Day holiday, and the third week in March for Spring Break which is not attached to the religious holidays of Easter or Good Friday. Students did point out that Eid, which like many religious holidays is based on the lunar calendar, is not an official school calendar holiday. This prompted a healthy discussion of missing school attendance days for religious holidays and purposes.
This lesson provided us as teachers a chance to further get to know our students. And to me, that is what we sometimes need to intentionally include opportunities for in our schools. Often we feel the pressure of academic and curricular deadlines. We know the importance and pressure of meeting the social emotional and behavioral needs of students. We need to make sure that if we want to have more equitable and inclusive schools, that we build in time to cultivate learning from the lives of our students and allow all students the opportunity to share and feel welcomed. As one of the classes left, I overheard a student say, “that’s one of the only times I’ve heard a teacher talk about Islam and our faith be discussed at school”.
Putting this lesson into practice and hearing this student’s comment reminds me that we, as teachers, must do our part to create a culture of understanding and acceptance for all students in our schools. Our students love to see their cultural background represented in their school and in its curriculum. So, while we did not make adjustments or changes to our school’s holiday calendar; we did promote an honest and open conversation with our students about everyone having their own belief system and faith tradition that makes our community a wonderfully diverse place to live and work.