In this blog, we revisit how to talk about the holidays and religion. While these tips are especially applicable right now, they can be used to help us understand cultural celebrations any time of year.

Cue singing children:

           It’s that time of year…

Christmas is so near…

Wait! Can we say that in a public school?! The holidays are a time for tradition. For instance, it’s the annual time of year when educators grapple with questions of faith and inclusion in their classrooms and schools.

What is appropriate to celebrate? What decorations are allowed? Can the choir sing “Silent Night” in the Christmas—oops!—holiday concert?

To avoid potential controversy, some schools ban the mention of holidays or religions altogether. Yet, in this divisive atmosphere (hate crimes against Muslims were up 67% in 2015, and hate crimes of all kinds spiked after the election), it’s even more important to know how to talk about this and not just sweep it under the (prayer?) rug. With the fire (from the Yule log?) burning so hot, it is understandable to not want to add any fuel.

However, in an increasingly diverse society, schools have an obligation to help students collaborate across cultures and religions. We can’t learn about other beliefs by pretending they don’t exist. Give students the gift of understanding this holiday season, and let them help guide how we handle these questions.

Three of our favorite strategies for real learningnot just feel-good gestureswhen discussing holidays and religion in school:

  1. Give students a voice: What do you know about the traditions and celebrations that are important to your students? Provide opportunities for students to speak and write about what matters to them. Students’ projects can incorporate personal narratives, interviews, oral histories, videos and more. Use these projects to support peer-to-peer teaching, with students sharing their work through exhibits or other venues.
  2. Go ahead—talk about religion. Holidays are a great opportunity to explore the values and beliefs of faiths. Students deepen their understanding of their own faith as they learn about others. Imagine a holiday concert that included Christian, Jewish and secular songs in the spirit of celebrating and learning about a range of traditions. Why not have the students write about a song’s history or meaning? The vast array of texts provides great opportunities for students to compare and contrast writing styles, symbolism, metaphors, and multiple perspectives.
  3. Involve the community. Families and community organizations are a wonderful resource. Invite speakers to talk about particular holidays or customs in ways that educate, not proselytize. Here’s a great opportunity for students to interview speakers, create oral histories, and develop critical listening skills.

Separation of church and state allows schools to teach about religion, but not advocate for one over another. We can’t learn about culture if we ignore it, so let’s see the holiday season as an opportunity for sharing and celebrating with everyone in the community.

Want more ideas? Let’s talk! Click here to email me.

What about you? Tell us about your best ideas for this time of year in the comments below.

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