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Teaching the Holidays: Don’t be Trapped by the Calendar

Students in Classroom

This time of year, it’s natural for elementary school teachers to have questions about how to give lessons about holidays, while honoring the diversity of beliefs and backgrounds of their students.

The advice that veteran educator Dr. Andrea S. Libresco offers is, take control of the calendar. “One of the things I try to get people to think about is, what topics are worthy of discussion?” she said. “They don’t have to be the things we put on the calendar.”

Libresco is the Graduate Co-director of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at Hofstra University, and she edited the journal Social Studies and the Young Learner for five years, giving her a broad view of how teachers across the country approach teaching holidays. Libresco also directs the Minor in Civic Engagement at Hofstra.

Here are her top three guidelines for success with young learners:.

Teachers can be selective about which days they celebrate

Teaching about holidays is only as limited as one’s imagination. For example, for a lesson about women’s rights, a teacher might build instruction around Susan B. Anthony’s birthday on Feb. 15.

Libresco recalls editing a report from a teacher who chose Labor Day to give a lesson connected to school budgets. Another example: StoryCorps, the oral history organization, has reimagined Thanksgiving as a national day of listening. Its website includes instructions and plans to encourage young people to record an interview with an elder, mentor or someone they admire.

Find out what your colleagues in other grades are doing

Teachers can build on each other’s work from grade to grade, if they’re aware of the lessons others are using. For example, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the go-to is often King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, followed by a prompt to students to write or talk about their dreams.

Much of King’s message can be lost if the curriculum repeats year to year. “It’s a missed opportunity,” Libresco said.

Instead, lessons could focus sequentially on racial integration, civil disobedience, anti-war activism, voting rights. King’s message was multi-faceted, she said.

December holidays needn’t focus on religion

Many religious holidays take place through the fall and winter, but classroom discussions don’t have to center on religion. Students might be encouraged to tell about their home or cultural traditions and then talk about what the traditions have in common.

A common theme might be light – something that’s shared by Diwali, Hannukah, Loi Krathong, Kwanzaa, Nacimiento and Christmas. Another common theme might be charity, the importance of tradition or the use of symbols.

Holidays remind people of a shared identity. Handled well, they help students grow into knowledgeable, confident world citizens.

For more resources Libresco suggests visiting these websites:

Social Studies and the Young Learner, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies.

StoryCorps, a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people.

Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit whose mission is to engage students of diverse backgrounds in an examination of racism, prejudice, and antisemitism., an organization dedicated to combating religious prejudice, with lessons on respecting each other’s traditions.

Patricia Palaco, author.