Teaching Multiculturalism Through Holidays

Like many people, I adore a good holiday. The traditions engender excitement within me, and most often at the heart of the celebration is a meaning I can connect with. Within the classroom, and as a teacher, I enjoy using them to teach about different cultures. Most children in the United States are familiar with the same set of holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Veteran’s Day¬†and, to a lesser extent, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Because I like to use the holidays to expand the students’ worldview, I prefer giving them new information about familiar holidays or introducing them to entirely new ones.

Here are a couple of ways this might work:

  1. We might acknowledge Easter by discussing the many ways the holiday is celebrated around the
    world. For example, exploring the Ukrainian tradition of Pysanky Easter eggs and then attempting them on our own.
  2. Inviting students to share their Thanksgiving traditions. Do they eat turkey, ham, tofurkey or something else? I always like to tell the story of the college friend that invited me to her house for the holiday. We were served all the usual Thanksgiving Day foods plus pasta. Needless to day, her family was Italian. (Side note: I prefer to use Thanksgiving as an opportunity for the students to practice Gratitude, rather than an opportunity to focus on turkeys, pilgrims and Native Americans. We write thank you cards, have a Gratitude council and make lists of things we are thankful for.)
  3. Passover is often around the same time of year as Easter, and it is not as well-known a Jewish holiday as Hanukkah. It has its own story and traditions and is a lively celebration all its own, which are both historically and philosophically fun to learn about. You might assemble a Sedar plate to share with the class and have the children take turns hiding the afikomen for the class to find. On the other hand, the experience might be as simple as bringing matzo to share with the class. I am always amazed at how few students have tried it!
  4. Although the Western world celebrates the New Year every January first, many cultures celebrate at different times. We can learn a lot about a culture by comparing and contrasting our western New Year with any of the following: Lunar New Year, Nowruz (Iranian/Persian New Year), Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), or Diwali (the Indian New Year). And there are more where those came from!

I’ve come to think of holidays as a chance to teach mini multicultural units, and to that end, I’ve developed a kind of formula to make it easier to include them in my curriculum without too much disruption to any¬†other units we’re working on. My formula tries to hit as many¬†subject areas as possible while still maintaining the spirit of the celebration. Let me break it down for you:

  1. Books to read: Every holiday should come with a little light reading. Unfortunately, some holidays are better represented in the literary world than others. I defer to the internet whenever I’m on the hunt for titles. Someone, somewhere on Pinterest has probably done a roundup of books from even the rarest holidays. It’s inevitable. I’m still building my personal multicultural holiday library, so I generally turn to the¬†public library when I need titles for the classroom. I’ve also been known to read ebooks from the Epic app on my iPad, though it’s not my favorite method. If neither of those sources pan out, try looking on one of the following educational websites online, each of which has printable books that you can easily assemble for your students:
  2. Handwriting Page: Depending on the make-up of my class, this may be in print or cursive or involve transferring some holiday-related vocabulary from print to cursive. Earlier this year, I purchased Fonts for Teachers to make it easy for me to make handwriting pages. I highly recommend this product for teachers making their own handwriting/cursive work. This is also a great way to introduce or reinforce new vocabulary.
  3. Math:¬†I try to make the math as fun as possible. As an example, take¬†Holi, the Indian Festival of Colors. There are a couple of options I could use for math, but I lean¬†towards¬†the Indian Kolam, which offers both a lesson in¬†geometry/symmetry and culture. Other options would have been working with the rupees and paise, India’s national currency, Ayrabhata’s Method¬†(a method of solving an equation backwards), or¬†reading Demi’s¬†One Grain of Rice and discussing how exponential growth works.
  4. Writing:¬†Earlier this year, when the class celebrated Lunar New Year, we actually completed a Venn Diagram comparing the holiday to the American/Western New Year. Students then took that information and turned it into paragraph form. This is one way to incorporate writing. You can also write poetry. Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day? Teach your students how to write a limerick! Have them make little informative books about the holiday. My students love making books. They can make lists, write songs, poems, stories, cartoons, plays or obituaries for the dead (see D√≠a de los Muertos). The sky’s the limit!
  5. Word Search:¬†My students happen to adore word searches, and I think they’re a pretty good way to reinforce vocabulary associated with whatever holiday we’re investigating at the moment. They’re great for early finishers, too. I encourage you to have something like this in your back pocket, whatever works for your class, whether it’s coloring pages, dot-to-dot pictures or word scrambles. Each cultural unit needs a little something extra (sometimes two somethings) to keep those students in need of¬†constant stimulation busy.
  6. Geography:¬†I love including map work with my cultural units because it gives the students a chance to become aware of¬†things they haven’t before. When we mapped the countries that celebrate Lunar New Year, students noticed that Macau and Hong Kong were singled out on our map of China. This opened up discussion of English and Portuguese colonization–not the focus of our unit, but an important piece of history all the same.
  7. A Craft:¬†The craft, of course, is the highlight of the day, and the thing that the students are the most eager to do. While I have been tempted to make the entire day crafts, two things hold me back. For one, an entire day of crafts can be exhausting. And two, good crafts take a lot of time to prepare. I want my multicultural holiday days to be sustainable (as in an experience¬†I’m willing to repeat), so one craft it is. Here are two examples of crafts I’ve done. Chinese Lanterns for Lunar New Year: and a Mardi Gras Parade complete with miniature floats and “It’s a Grand Ole’ Flag” playing in the background. That was certainly a highlight of this year.

If this post hasn’t inspired you enough and you’re still interested, please do check out Kid World Citizen for some wonderful ideas about learning about different cultures all over the planet. Then come back and share how you’re expanding your students’ worldview one holiday at a time!


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