Celebrating Diversity: cultural holiday traditions in the classroom (Part I)

Dec 20 2016 0 Comments
By Dr. Rebecca Wiehe – Academic Curriculum Director, Department of Teaching and Learning

Each year, the holiday season provides an excellent opportunity for teachers to promote diversity. While many schools no longer simply host an annual Christmas party with a Hanukkah celebration thrown in for good measure, teachers should take advantage of this time to help students explore other cultural holidays and ultimately understand what makes their own cultural heritage unique.

I am an AP Spanish teacher working with mostly upper middle-class white students in Cleveland, Ohio. A big part of my job is to help students understand Latin American culture, especially in relation to their own experiences. When students are part of a dominant culture, they may presume that familiar holidays are celebrated the same way everywhere. For example, North American students may assume familiar Christmas carols translate directly into Spanish. They are often surprised to realize countries across the globe each have their own songs and entirely different ways of thinking about the same holiday.

Here are some starting points that have helped my class explore cultural holidays in a more authentic manner.

Use cultural artifacts for discussion points
I open each school year by showing my students a series of Norman Rockwell paintings—the quintessential Midwestern American family in its most idealized form. Then, we look at family paintings from Spanish-speaking countries. What is different about the way families are represented across the world? What does this say about our familial and societal roles? What cultural factors influence music, poetry, dance, and visual art at each holiday? Storytelling through the arts is often one of the best ways to initiate cross-cultural dialogue.

Search for original sources
As one of my main goals is to promote cross-cultural understanding, I have to be cautious about spreading cultural stereotypes or misinformation. For example, many of my students are surprised to discover Día de los Muertos is one of the most popular holidays in Mexico, but Cinco de Mayo draws much more attention in the United States. I have to help students think beyond presumptions they may make from popular culture. For the youngest students, this often means inviting a real person, such as a family member or a community leader, to share his or her experiences directly. My high school students research primary sources or plan virtual field trips versus merely reading a description about a holiday or a cultural group.

Explore regional and familial variations on the same holiday
When I grew up in a Midwestern Catholic community, I learned so much from Jewish students who shared about the many ways each of their families celebrated Hanukkah. I realized then that individual Catholic families also have distinctive traditions during Christmas. When students see how much variance there is even within their own families and religious communities, they can appreciate how many different ways a less familiar festival such as Diwali is celebrated.

In part II, we'll explore some more specific strategies to incorporate study of diverse cultural holidays and festivals across grade levels and throughout the school year.