I grew up in New York. As I began traveling to faraway lands, I’d answer the question, “Where are you from?” with “The US, New York!”. The reaction from the listener almost always had something to do with the Yankees, or Broadway, or Times Square, or simply an exclamation of how exciting that must be.
The thing is, I’m not from New York City; I’m from a dairy farm in Central New York. What they thought about New York? It wasn’t me. I wasn’t that kind of a New Yorker! I was a little different.
Everyone Celebrates Differently.
The Day of the Dead has long been a favorite celebration of Spanish teachers– perhaps because it has permeated social media and marketing enough to pique student interest, or perhaps because of the mystery and joy and invitation to remember that it presents. Spanish teacher forums are FILLED with questions about how to teach students about el Día de los Muertos.
The thing is… not everyone in Mexico celebrates el Día de Muertos (although it would be fair to say that ‘most’ do, if only with a visit to el Panteón)… and not ONLY Mexico celebrates Día de Muertos… and not everyone celebrates el Día de Muertos in the same way.
As teachers, we must look for opportunities to show students that not everyone that speaks the same language is the same, and that not everyone that calls the same place ‘home’ is the same. Just as there are many students in the US, Canada, and elsewhere who opt out of learning about Día de Muertos and other holiday traditions, so there are families that do not participate in this celebration in Mexico and in other Spanish-speaking countries where Día de Muertos is celebrated. Not everyone is the same!
Should We Celebrate Holidays at school?
At my children’s school, there has historically been a Halloween Costume Parade on Halloween. The parade isn’t instruction; it’s a celebration (a really fun and cherished one!). Everyone in the school dresses up in their Halloween costumes and parades around the school, to the delight of camera-ready parents. At the end, they are greeted by the Pumpkin Man, a mysterious figure that has been visiting the school on Halloween Parade day for many years.
The thing is… my family doesn’t celebrate Halloween. In order to avoid the feeling of alienation, my kids don’t go to school on Halloween. Instead, we do something fun as a family. We opt out. When the school announced last year that it would be the last year of their Halloween Parade–a decision made in order to be inclusive of all students and in the interest of preserving the academic setting–I was surprised! I had not asked for that. I didn’t mind them having the parade, and I didn’t mind opting out. But I must admit: reading the announcement felt really good. It felt really good to be seen.
As you consider what you are doing in class, ask yourself whether your plans involve your students participating in and/or engaging with a celebration. If they do, think about who is in your classes and what the act of opting out might feel like to them, especially when they are the only one. Then, think about what it might feel like to them to not have to opt out! Teaching students that have different beliefs than us, beliefs that we don’t understand and/or don’t agree with, can be tricky! Having a teacher that respects their belief-driven decisions, no questions asked*, can go a long way in building trust.
*when their beliefs do not put another person in physical, emotional, psychological or other danger
This might not look like NOT teaching about something that you have planned to teach about; it could be as simple as being the one to start the conversation with your students that you know might be in the opt-out camp. Have a plan in place for alternate instruction, and let them know that you see them, and that it is okay for them to choose to walk out their conviction by opting out.
Last year, we published this set of materials for you to share with students that opt out of Día de Muertos learning. Students in Levels 2+ can learn about Monarch butterflies in this multi-day set of self-paced activities.
Should you teach about holidays?
I love learning about holidays and celebrations of all kinds, and I love for my children to do the same. For many parents that have strong beliefs, it’s hard to trust other adults to understand boundaries and respect the beliefs that their family has about what actions are acceptable for them and not. For that reason, it is common for teachers to have students in their classes whose families request that they not even learn about holidays and celebrations, much less participate in celebrations. Because parents are not always sure what a teacher will be teaching or how they will be teaching it, it’s easier to just opt out.
We are all different. Should you teach about holidays? This is a decision that you will need to make for yourself. I can only say that I have developed and used resources to teach about many different holidays– even ones that I don’t celebrate. One thing is for certain: if you do choose to teach about holidays and celebrations, help your students to see that everyone is different. Not everyone in a given culture celebrates even the most popular holidays, and not everyone celebrates the same holiday in the same way. And most of all, help your students to feel seen and accepted, especially when they are feeling different.
We are all different, and isn’t that a great thing to be?!
Note to the reader: this post was originally published as a newsletter to my subscribers in November 2019.