The holidays and religion: Three strategies for building learning and community

Cue singing children:

     It’s that time of year . . Christmas is so near . . .

Wait! Can we say that in a public school?!

It’s the holidays, a time of year when educators grapple with questions of culture and inclusion. With a diversifying student body, what is appropriate to celebrate? What decorations are allowed? Can the choir sing “Silent Night” in the Christmas—er, holiday concert?

It’s tricky territory. Some schools ban the mention of holidays or religions. But we can’t learn about other beliefs by pretending they don’t exist. In a diversifying society, schools have an obligation to help students communicate and collaborate across cultures and religions. The holidays can be a great time for building these skills. Here are three strategies:

  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. Student 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. Including notes in the program about each song’s history or meaning can further support this. Remember: Separation of church and state allows schools to teach about religion (but not advocate for one over another).
  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.

We can’t learn about culture if we ignore it, so let’s see the holidays as an opportunity for sharing and celebrating with everyone in the community.

What about you? Tell us about your best ideas for this time of year.