When I was a student, I planned my months around the holidays. The abbreviated weeks were much needed breaks from the classroom routine and milestones towards summer vacations. I’d like to say I used that extra time to do some homework, but honestly the only thing I caught up on was sleep.
As a teacher, I still plan my months around holidays. Now, though, I use these to think about how to design lessons to make the classroom routine less boring. Many ELLs are either unfamiliar with American holidays or accustomed to seeing them practiced in different ways, which makes each one a potential teachable occasion.
Understanding holidays can make someone feel more accultured in a new place (Lvovich 2000), but at the secondary level we have to tie our activities to output-based standards. That actually isn’t a problem, because focusing how we want students to demonstrate language progress can guide our instruction. There’s enough context with each holiday for us to create a wide range of activities for all language levels, including:
Compare and Contrast
Practically every country has some sort of harvest festival, although no two countries seem to celebrate it the same. That means Thanksgiving gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast the American traditions to Chuseok, Mid-Autumn Festival, Pokrov, or any other feasting holiday. You can start from the traditional American table setting, then slowly replace each item with something from the students’ cultures to show the difference. It may also be interesting to ask students who have been in the USA for a while about their Thanksgiving experiences.
What is a Jack-o-Lantern? Why do we have little boys with wings for Valentine’s Day? What is with the shamrocks in March? After you answer these questions, your students may be interested in talking about some common symbols from their cultures and what they mean. You can follow up by having students design a holiday that commemorates their target culture, complete with how people would dress and act for those occasions.
Most American teachers won’t see students on the 4th of July, but they will see students during Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Election Day. These can give you the opportunity to do civics/social studies/history activities and make connections to news stories or even advertisements.
The Stories Behind Holidays
Now that you’ve seen how holidays are practiced, you may want to teach students the reasons for Christmas and why it involves trees and what eggs have to do with Easter. Many of your students may not be familiar with the pre-Christian ancient world, and that’s the kind of background information most teachers will not think about reviewing after the student exits your program. A few questions about ancient times will let you assess how much you’ll need to address.
Lvovich, N. (2000). Becoming a cultural insider: How holidays can help ESL students’ acculturation and language learning. The Internet TESL Journal, VI(12). Retrieved from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Lvovich-Cultural_Insider.html.