Many elementary-age English learners (ELs) in the United States spend a good part of December discussing Santa, elves, and reindeer. They listen to stories about Santa and his trip around the globe. They make presents for their parents and participate in discussions about what they want for Christmas. ELs sing Christmas songs, many of them based on the religious aspects of Christmas.
Parents of ELs may not realize that most of their children’s classmates would receive gifts from Santa, and they may not be aware of how left out their child feels. Unfortunately, many of us give little thought to the children who are looking in from the outside during our celebration of December holidays.
What Is the December Dilemma?
In December 2014, I wrote a blog about the December Dilemma and ELs. I noted that “Every December a war is waged over what should be taught, what symbols can be displayed in the school hallways, and what music is sung at the December concert.” Emotions in U.S. elementary schools run high in December. Parents from religious backgrounds other than Christian don’t want their children to be inundated with Christmas festivities.
Decisions from the the courts have clearly stated that teachers can teach about religious holidays, practices, and beliefs, but they may not celebrate, endorse, or denigrate any specific religious holidays, practices, or beliefs. All lessons about religion must be neutral, objective, and nondevotional.
What can educators do? First, to promote inclusiveness in their classrooms, teachers should ask themselves the following questions, adapted from some suggested by the First Amendment Center:
- Does this activity have a distinct educational purpose in mind?
- Is your activity designed in any way to either promote or inhibit religion?
- Will any student be made to feel like an outsider, not a full member of the community, by this activity?
Developing Activities That Promote Inclusiveness in the Classroom
Here are some ideas for promoting an inclusive classroom environment:
- Move beyond the most commonly studied holidays and cultural celebrations. Teach holidays from various cultures throughout the school year and find balance by looking at how much time you spend on each holiday.
- Teach students to respect each other. This can be a great tool in creating a classroom culture where all children have feelings of trust, safety, and inclusion. Practice inclusiveness in your classroom all year long.
- Find themes in books that are common to all cultures. Also include books that represent the cultures of your classrooms so that your students can see themselves in the books that they read.
- Provide opportunities so that your ELs feel comfortable sharing their traditions, including holidays, culture, food, games, and music with the class.
- When discussing religious and cultural traditions in the classroom, establish ground rules for respectful communication so that all students feel included and accepted.
- School special events, assemblies, concerts, and programs should be primarily secular and educational, and should not focus on any one religious observance. Religious music or drama can be included in school events that are part of a secular program of education.
If you have any comments or experiences to share about the “December dilemma” or about promoting inclusiveness in our classrooms, please share in the comments, below.