Posted on November 15, 2004

Teachers Walk Thin Tightrope During Holidays

Catherine Cranston, Pioneer Press (Minneapolis), Nov. 14

The holidays are almost upon us. As a second-grade teacher in a public school, that means I start my tightrope walk in about one week. My dilemma is how to teach the concepts of Thanksgiving and the holidays without offending someone. I don’t dare actually write the word “Christmas.” I might offend someone. What books should I read? What worksheets should I use? What discussions should I foster? What art projects can I send home?

Some argue that I shouldn’t be teaching about “Christmas” or holidays at all. I can argue that holidays are a part of our culture and to pretend they don’t exist is to pretend the outside world doesn’t affect children. Any child walking into a retail store next week will see holiday decorations hanging from the rooftops. Should I not talk to my Hmong students about the American holidays of Christmas and Thanksgiving? I think it is my duty to expose all the children in my room to many cultures and traditions, including long-standing American ones.

The first-grade teachers in my school solve the “Christmas” problem by teaching a unit titled “Holidays Around the World.” That seems to say it’s all right to teach about Christmas if you include other holidays as well. I wonder if I teach about Kwanzaa and Hanukkah, I can teach the Christmas story, too? It is certainly a question I have never had the courage to pursue.

The whole question of political correctness and multiculturalism is present every day in public schools, even in a little second-grade classroom. The fact is that we live in a world primarily shaped by what the politically correct crowd calls “Euro-American” ideas (I think that means the old white guys from Europe). Admitting that we live in such a world doesn’t mean that the non-Euro-American cultures are without value or that the Euro-American culture is perfect. I would like to think we could agree that America has been enriched by many cultures. Can we also agree that we have a predominant culture in our nation? Must we lose one culture to embrace new ones? I certainly hope not.

In my classroom I try to honor all cultures, but I do not try to teach them all. I play music, read books from many cultures and try honoring all my students’ heritages. However, I don’t feel it is my place to rewrite history. I agree with the an article in the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, “Education for Democracy,” whose author urges educators to tell students the truth about the democratic struggle — warts and all. As our society becomes increasingly diverse, public schools reflect this diversity both in the inner cities and suburban schools. As a teacher, I strive to understand my students’ varied backgrounds and experiences and am always looking for new ways to foster a safe and open learning environment. Studying our American holidays is an important way for students to gain knowledge of the contributions various people and cultures played in helping to build our nation, including “the old white guys” from Europe.

So this year I am going out on that tightrope with a large umbrella I hope will support my efforts. I plan to expose my students to the Euro-American culture when we read, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” the “Nutcracker” and “The Polar Express.” I just hope there is a net somewhere down below.