En la Clase: Around the world in 180 days, Part IV

Holidays and the Multicultural Classroom

This is the last post in our series of  “Around the world in 180 days.” Throughout all of these discussions we’ve focused on how to authentically engage in multicultural teaching in order to provide our students with the necessary knowledge to become global citizens.  There was one more area I wanted to discuss before moving on to different En la Clase topics–Holidays and Heroes.

Maybe I should warn you now, this is not going to be a post on why not to celebrate holidays in your classroom.  I was an elementary school teacher for 4 years until I resigned to finish my PhD.  I love parties and I love glitter–which meant, I LOVED holiday celebrations. When one of my students asked me why I was a teacher, I jokingly responded that it was the only job I knew of where I could use glitter every day (there was a running joke among my students about how many projects and activities I managed to work glitter into).  My very thoughtful student responded that I was probably right, she couldn’t think of any other job that used that much glitter.

With that said, just because we celebrate various multicultural holidays or heroes doesn’t mean we’re practicing authentic multicultural teaching.  We’re not providing our students the opportunity to think deeply if our teaching never moves beyond “The Contributions Approach” or what others have called multicultural tourism. Education scholar Sonia Nieto explains the significance of this below.  It’s an excerpt from a longer interview on multicultural teaching that is well worth reading.

“When I think about multicultural education, I think of it in the socio-political context. What I mean by that is that we can’t just focus on the pleasant aspects of diversity such as food, music, cultural traditions. Those are nice and certainly should be part of the multicultural perspective, but it’s far easier to look at those things than to really confront … institutional polices and practices that are unfair to some people. We need to avoid this “holidays and heroes” approach to diversity or a “tourist” approach to diversity. 

I also believe that multicultural education needs to be understood as basic education. It’s not a frill, it’s not a fad, it’s not an add-on, and it’s not something that is separate from the curriculum and the climate in the school. I see it as basic as reading, writing, arithmetic, and computer literacy. It’s basic for living in today’s world. And if we don’t teach all our children with a multicultural perspective, we’re not preparing them to live in the world.”

So, how do we use holidays and heroes in a way that moves beyond mere tourism? Lots has been written about this.  I offer a few ideas below, feel free to offer other suggestions in the comments section.

  • Connect multicultural content to other parts of the curriculum throughout the year, using it to expand and not divert from the curriculum. We want to make sure our content is not trivializing, marginalizing or decontextualizing the people, event or culture we’re teaching about.  We don’t want to make it appear that we stop teaching our ‘regular’ curriculum to do a separate lesson on a holiday or hero.  Our students recognize this and may end up believing the multicultural lesson isn’t as valid or important, but more like a ‘vacation’ from the ‘hard’ learning.
  • Present our heroes as part of the larger organizations, movements and communities they were involved in. When we teach about a specific hero like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. we don’t want to separate them from the larger social movement they were a part of, making it appear that they acted alone.
  • Address the controversial issues or topics that are often connected to these conversations.  I’ve always found that students appreciate honesty–let them see the ambiguities or the messiness of history, and then decide for themselves what they want to think about it.

In my very first post on “Around the world in 180 days” I discussed the idea of mapping out a calendar of multicultural literature for the entire school year.  This kind of curriculum mapping could also be helpful for  those of us who would like to be able to teach about holidays and heroes, but go beyond the multicultural tourism approach.  Perhaps you map your literature and social studies units according to various holidays you would like your students to learn about.  Then, when the holiday falls within your month-long integrated unit plan your not taking time out from your ‘real’ curriculum to teach about it, the holiday is  instead a small part of your entire unit.  When your entire year is filled with integrated lessons and units that engage in multicultural content, we minimize the risk of decontextualizing, minimizing or trivializing our content.  The hope is that we move beyond these one day celebrations like  Cinco de Mayo or Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday where quite often we never mention the ethnic group or special person before or after that specific event or occasion.

For more ideas on how to go beyond holidays and heroes, I’ve provided links to the resources that have helped me the most in my classroom teaching.  I hope they’re helpful to you.

  • Beyond Holidays and Heroes by Enid Lee–A great book for k-12 teachers with essays, articles, analysis, interviews, primary documents and interactive & interdisciplinary teaching aids on civil rights, movement building, and what it means for all of the inhabitants of the planet. With sections on Critical Literacy, The Arts, Mathematics, Technology, Science, Geography, Language, School-Wide Activities, Holidays and Heritage, Talking Back, Early Childhood, Readings and Teaching Aids.
  • Rethinking Schools–Founded in 1986 by activist teachers, Rethinking Schools is a nonprofit, independent publisher of educational materials. We advocate the reform of elementary and secondary education, with a strong emphasis on issues of equity and social justice. There are a number of different books and other resources, including a blog available here. I’ve used many of their resources with great success.
  • The Zinn Education Project–Promotes and supports the use of Howard Zinn’s best-selling book A People’s History of the United States and other materials for teaching a people’s history in middle and high school classrooms across the country. The website offers more than 100 free, downloadable lessons and articles organized by theme, time period, and reading level. The Zinn Education Project is coordinated by two non-profit organizations, Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change.

6 thoughts on “En la Clase: Around the world in 180 days, Part IV

    • You’ll have to let us know how any of the strategies you use in your classroom work! I’d love to get some feedback. Good luck with the beginning of the school year!

  1. Pingback: En la Clase: Another Look at Around the World in 180 Days | Vamos a Leer

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  4. Pingback: En la Clase: Building a Multicultural Classroom: Ideas for the Start of the Year | Vamos a Leer

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