It’s that time of year when calendars from around the world are full of celebrations observing cultural traditions. As a teacher, I always felt this was such an amazing time of year to be in the classroom because the possibilities for engaging and interesting lessons were endless. I’ve worked with a number of teachers who would always shy away from teaching about many of these winter celebrations because so many of them are connected to religious beliefs and traditions. I understand where they’re coming from, and I know many teachers share this same hesitancy. So, I thought why not devote our next few weeks of En la Clase posts to discussing how we can bring this kind of content into the classroom and why we should.
For the last three years that I taught third grade, at the beginning of each December I began a unit on three winter celebrations: Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Las Posadas. As a child, I remember talking about Hanukkah in school, but the extent of what we learned seemed to be limited to eating latkes and learning a song and game about dreidels. As a teacher, I’ve continued to see lessons much like what I had in school presented in classrooms. I wanted to go beyond that. I wanted my students to have a deeper understanding of cultural traditions that may be different from the ones they or their families personally observe. So, I approached our unit on winter celebrations much the way one might approach a class on world religions.
Since we had about four weeks of school after we returned from Thanksgiving Break until we left for Winter Break, we focused on one celebration for each of the first three weeks, then the fourth week was our culminating activity. I checked out children’s fiction and non-fiction literature on each celebration. From these books and other resources we learned the history of each celebration: when, where and why it began; the traditional language of that celebration; and the traditions that continued to be celebrated each year. While I didn’t initially expect it, this unit became a ‘gold-mine’ for addressing multiple standards. I was able to meet a number of social studies, geography, literacy and cultural competency standards in just a few weeks. A timeline and world map were major components of the unit. Before the unit began, I created the framework for a timeline where we could add information on each celebration as we learned about it through our readings. I also created a large world map where we labeled the individual continents and oceans before we began. Then, again, as we learned about each celebration we marked any important geographical information on our map.
While we were discussing religion, I never had any issues or complaints from students, parents or administration. I think this was largely due to the fact that it was clear we were approaching it from the perspective of gaining cultural knowledge. While obviously, these celebrations are much more than cultural knowledge to those who observe them, my purpose was to create a sense of cultural knowledge or competence among my students. It was a chance to share some of the diversity of the world with them, so that they would be able to acknowledge and respect difference when they experienced it in the world outside our classroom.
I hope you also take advantage of the multiple opportunities this season of year can provide for culturally relevant, engaging, and interesting lessons that bring these kinds of cultural traditions and celebrations into our classrooms in authentic ways.
Ailesha and I have lots of great posts planned to provide you with resources, lesson plans and other activities to help you in teaching about these things in your classrooms. Be on the look out for more information on Las Posadas, La Pastorela, bilingual resources on winter celebrations, and an adapted GLAD unit on cultural traditions that could span December and January!!
Wishing you weeks of joy, learning and laughter as you finish out 2012 with your students!!