Exploring diversity in the classroom is crucial for all students to feel appreciated and connected, but it often feels wrought with landmines, particularly in the current political climate. Never has it been more important, though.
We in education, more than anywhere else, have the tools to model how to appreciate other cultures around us so that the world is a cooler place. And a cooler place because of — not despite — our diversity.
Diversity in the classroom without stepping on toes
Holidays are often the go-to topic for exploring diversity in the classroom. And while this path does not lead you to the full spectrum of any culture’s breadth, it is an easy and relatively unthreatening entryway to get the conversation started.
“But wait,” you may say. “Even holidays have become taboo in my district. I have students who don’t celebrate Halloween. Or birthdays. Or Christmas.” This is an excellent and noteworthy point. I’m lucky in that I have a VERY diverse bunch of kiddos each year, who celebrate every holiday under the Sun. Yet if we celebrated each of those holidays, particularly religious-based holidays, we’d be crossing a line.
But in exploring holidays, we are not celebrating them. Rather, we are gathering information; we are not practicing the customs. We are studying the diversity in our classroom, yes. But even more, we’re studying the diversity of the world.
In our fourth grade classroom, we found holiday research projects a lovely entryway to get kids enthused about the varied customs of the world.
The goal of holiday research projects
The goal was simple. To learn about other cultures of the world through holidays and, by doing so, create a safe, encouraging classroom climate. Because the more comfortable a student is and the more she feels she belongs, the easier it is for her to learn the curriculum. Just ask Maslow.
Our students could either research a holiday their family celebrated or research another holiday. (And while many did choose their own holidays, about a fourth of the class went outside of their family’s customs.)
They could present it any way they chose: posters, musical numbers, presentation and games, powerpoint, structures, comic strips. Anything that brought them joy and educated the rest of us.
There were no rules. No grades.
The setup of holiday research projects for diversity in the classroom
First we brainstormed holidays our kids celebrated or were curious about. This included many non-religious holidays as well, such as April Fools Day and Arbor Day. We typed up the list and gave each student a copy. Each student listed his top three choices to research. Then we assigned each a topic based on his top three, trying to spread out the topics so we could learn about as many as possible, but remaining flexible and sensitive to students’ needs.
We created a simple checklist of what each project should include by asking the kids what they wanted to learn. Some of the items on the list were the following:
- When is it celebrated?
- In what countries?
- How did it start?
- What kind of food do you eat?
- What are some traditions?
- Do you celebrate it? If you do, what do you like about it?
The list was purposefully basic so that all the students could feel successful.
Students had two weeks to work on their holiday project. We gave them time during Reading and Writing Workshops so that it would not become an encumbering home project that parents felt they must help with. (Though if kids wanted to work on it at home, that was fine too, and several students did so with great enthusiasm.)
To help them research, we used the following resources:
- Epic Books (free for teachers!)
- Kid Rex
- Brainpop (You need an account for this. See if your school already has one.)
We used other online kid-friendly search engines too through our school’s library website. (Check with your school’s librarian to see what is available in your school and see if s/he would like to become involved with this project,) Additionally, we borrowed books from local libraries, once kids had chosen their topics.
We had lots of materials on hand. Papers of all sizes, watercolor paints, index cards, markers, colored pencils, crayons, glue sticks, etc.
I gave a basic lesson on Googleslides to the class so they would know how to set up their own presentation if they wished. (And each child had a school Googledrive account that they could access from home if they wanted to insert family pictures.) Once they got the hang of it, they discovered all sorts of interesting things they could do with Googleslides that went far beyond what I taught them.
The big rule
The biggest rule, which we spent significant class time discussing and modeling, was this: if you disagree with something a presenter believes, keep that thought to yourself. There were a few students we pulled over before each batch of presentations to remind them of this rule, since we had a few blurters last year who often forgot instructions.
Santa Claus was case-in-point. One child chose the holiday of Christmas and was very excited to share all the things that Saint Nicholas did on the Eve of that holiday and how much she looked forward to his visit. Even with the the aforementioned blurter previews, one of the blurters got his hand ready to share his recent discoveries about Santa, so we quickly announced, “We don’t have time for questions or comments now since it’s almost lunchtime.” We then pulled him over and reminded him again that we were not there to share our opinions on others’ holidays or beliefs, but to learn about them. He didn’t have to agree with the traditions or beliefs of that holiday. But he could not be disrespectful of them.
Related to this, we told the kids that if they knew things about the holiday that the presenter hadn’t shared, this was not the time to bring them up. It was, after all, the presenter’s turn. Each child would get her own turn to share a holiday in her own way.
This is an area you need to vigilantly revisit so that the diversity in the classroom is protected.
Boy we learned loads.
Diwali was an Indian holiday I had never heard of, but one of our students presented on this and shared pictures of her family celebrating. Because of this, her peers got curious and shared what they learned from her with their families. I too was fascinated and told my husband, who then got us tickets to a concert with music by A.R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) at the Boston Symphony Hall during Diwali. It was the best and most beautiful concert I’d ever been to.
When this student who presented came to school the Monday following Diwali, many students went up to her and asked her how her celebrations went. She was glowing with pride when they asked.
We had several Muslim students who did research together and who were excited to share their holidays during a time when there was so much negative attention on the Muslim faith. When the other students learned about their holidays and saw pictures from their homes, they had many questions and become very enthusiastic for their friends.
Families too were delighted. They saw their children opening up to others and taking pride in their backgrounds.
It was fun for the kids to be experts on something special to them and to share photos and videos of their families during some of the happiest days of their year.
And because there were no grades, the pressure was off. Which, for many of our kids, created greater enthusiasm for the project and greater output.
The first step in diversity in the classroom
This is only a first step. But as we all know, that first step is often the hardest one to take. And once taken, it gives us the insight and courage to realize, “Hey — that wasn’t so bad. Let’s delve deeper into this.”
The truth is that you will be awestruck by how much you learn. It’s a very humbling project, and one that will allow you to look at your students and their families with new appreciation. Your kids’ relationships with each other will deepen.
Now it’s time to hear your thoughts! What’s been your experience with sharing holidays? What other ways have you explored diversity in the classroom?
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Have a great week!
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