Bringing Community to Holiday Celebrations

In high school, it can feel like the holiday season is kicked off with homecoming. The football game, dance, and spirit week festivities happen right before Halloween, and then it’s November. I remember attending homecoming games and parades with my older siblings well before I was in high school, but it wasn’t until I became a teacher and found myself explaining some of our homecoming traditions to newcomers that I realized just how strange some of these traditions can seem. The quizzical looks I get when I tell students that they should wear their pajamas to school on Monday, have a twin on Tuesday, dress like a nerd on Wednesday, and so on, are priceless.

pexels-photo-225025I really like to encourage participation in homecoming activities with my ELLs. It’s a great way to feel integrated into the larger school culture. It’s easy for ELLs to become marginalized within a school because of programming and language constraints, so I never miss the chance to promote participation in schoolwide events. I even offer extra credit for dressing for the spirit days and attending the football game and dance. Because we the teachers are role models, I always attend events and take part in all of the spirit days too. (Let’s be honest, Pajama Day is one of the best days of the year!)

At this point in December, we are smack in the middle of a holiday season that seems to be getting longer every year. A lot of newcomers are interested in learning about holiday customs and traditions in the USA. It helps make sense of some of what they’re hearing and seeing around them, but, as educators, we have two cautions to bear in mind. The first one is obvious if you work in a public school–that we must be careful of the religious aspect of holidays, but the second can be more pernicious. We need to pay extra attention that we’re not using any language of assimilation in these conversations. There should be no suggestion that students need to take on such traditions because that’s “the way things are done.” The last thing we want is for students to feel ostracized because we’ve fed their natural curiosity.

There are several things that I do in the classroom to ensure the proper balance is struck when it comes to holidays. One of the first projects we do is simply “My Favorite Holiday.” During the first quarter, we are reviewing uses of the simple present tense and adverbs of frequency; and this is the perfect grammar tie-in to describing the traditions associated with holidays. It can be religious, cultural, regional, or otherwise, and because we have a very diverse student body at my school, we all learn a lot. Students write a short essay in which they describe their favorite holiday, create a visual aid such as a poster or slideshow, and then present their work and holiday to the class. By starting with this project, it shows that all cultures and heritages are welcome and celebrated equally in our class.

My second suggestion is a direct offshoot of this project. “My Favorite Holiday” gives me the opportunity to learn what holidays my students are celebrating which I don’t celebrate. I make a point of recognizing these holidays, asking students questions about how and where they’ll be celebrating each year, and if there are any phrases or expressions I can learn that are associated with the holiday, I make sure to say them to my students. When your students know that you and their classmates have taken a genuine interest in their culture, they are more likely to enjoy the pursuit of knowledge (and not to feel excluded) when learning about traditions that might be dominant in the USA but are unfamiliar to them.

Thanksgiving presents a third approach for talking about customs and traditions in the USA, and I love this holiday in particular because it has no religious origin or faith-based overtones. It’s simply a day to be thankful, to spend time with family and friends, and to eat. Who can’t get on board with that? It doesn’t matter where you’re from, how long lived here, or even what foods you share; everyone can participate. Admittedly, we don’t spend a lot of time on the “origin” story because it is so fraught with misinformation. We primarily emphasize the spirit of being thankful and of course, the food. Thanksgiving provides a great opportunity for students to share about the cuisine of their native countries. I have found that nearly 100% of my students are keenly interested in this, so we have our own Thanksgiving at school the day before break. No one is required to bring anything, but we’ve never had a shortage of food. Students are proud to bring in and share a dish from home, and if cooking is a burden, many students will bring chips or store-bought sweets because they still want to contribute. Students who’ve brought in home-cooked food explain what they’ve brought, and unless they have dietary restrictions, just about everybody wants to try everything. Near the end of the period, I ask who has tasted something they’ve never eaten before, and 95% of the hands go up.

My last tip comes as we near winter break. Everyone is getting excited for a two-week vacation regardless of whatever plans they might have for that time. Depending on the group, we’ll sometimes talk about the religious holidays that are happening, but mostly just to help clarify some of the symbols that become increasingly visible throughout December. Then we shift our focus to weather-centric activities and vocabulary to use in exercises and games that are fitting for the week for before break. Winter sports like skiing, snowmobiling, sledding, and ice skating are always of high interest to students. Even some of the more mundane activities like snow shoveling, ice scraping, and salt spreading provide incredibly useful and relevant vocabulary for this time of year. Snowmen, snowball fights, and snow forts are still fun diversions even for teenagers, especially if they’ve recently arrived from warmer climates. Every year I have students who are genuinely excited to see their first snow, so all of this new vocabulary gets put to use immediately. (They’re over it by January, though, when they realize like the rest of us that neither the snow nor the cold are going anywhere for a while…)

I hope that you can use some of these suggestions with your ELLs and diverse student bodies during the holiday season. With a bit of thoughtful planning, it can be easy to bring in the spirit of community and celebration without resorting to the dominant culture norms. In fact, if we can access our students’ funds of knowledge in some of the aforementioned ways and use them in our classrooms, we are truly getting to the heart of learning through community celebration itself.

Bryan Peters received his BA from New York University and then taught ELLs in Southeast Asia for the next four years. After returning to New York, Bryan realized how much he missed teaching. He moved back to the Midwest, went to the University of Illinois at Chicago, and earned his MA in English Education. He began working for CPS in 2013 and now teaches at Mather High School on the northwest side of Chicago.

Category: Education, Tips and Tricks