Sunday, 16 March 2014

why do we celebrate what we do?

Our Diwali art displayed in the hall outside the classroom where I taught for eight years.

 One of the very first things I learned as a teacher was the importance of marking celebrations. Big boxes awaited me as I moved into my classroom, boxes full of toys and materials for daily use, but also boxes full of holiday gear: banners, bulletin board kits, holiday-specific games and manipulatives, window clings and other decorations. I was grateful to be blessed with my lovely, large room and my stocked cupboards. It didn't occur to me to question the meaning of these materials; I was joining a large team with a wonderful leader who generously gave me advice, materials, and her time. That first year was a wonderful blur, filled with much learning (mostly for me!) I learned many things that stick with me to this day: how to keep September light and fun-filled with lots of group games, songs, and get-to-know-you play, how to share the learning in the class with families at home (in early days newsletters, later through class website), how to invite older classes in for shared learning (reading buddies, experiment helpers).

Marking the 100th day of school was a big event in my classroom for many years. By the end of my time using the 100th day as curriculum, it was quite different from the beginning. No more zero-shaped treats on every 10th day, no crafts or sheets or other "must complete" task surrounding the number. Instead, it looked more like inquiry: some joined in counting each day, some started their own counting projects (like the two number lines created below by different groups in AM and PM classes), some inspiring classmates to join in their games for a day. The bulletin board above (outside our classroom door at R.J. Lee PS) had some of my first document panels as I captured the lead-up and celebration of big numbers, especially 100, in my classes for my second Kindergarten AQ. I was practicing following my students' lead, and this "theme" of counting days at school became one way I was able to let go of thematic teaching.

Now, in way of explanation about why I started to change the way I looked at holidays at school: I come from a family in which many celebrations were shared, because my father was raised Jewish and my mother, Christian. My parents didn't make us choose, instead we had twice the traditions: a Christmas tree and carols sung at Christmas eve parties, Hanukkah-gilt (chocolate coins) at friends in the city (we were the only Jewish family in our small town so Jewish celebrations meant trips to Toronto). We had easter egg hunts and Passover matzo. My parents were jazz musicians (my mother before she had kids, while my father continues to play gigs regularly) and this meant we had a more varied roster of visitors at our house than at our neighbours' homes. Our family friends were from around the world or at the very least had traveled extensively. As a child I had treasures from my aunt's time traveling around Asia working as a nurse, my father's boxes of slides and artifacts from Korea (as an American soldier, he was there at the end of the war in '53 and there he fell in love with the people), and stories from the road from many musicians who came to stay. We lived in the countryside near Cookstown and Gilford, but went to school south of us in Bradford. Now Bradford changed while I was in High School, much to my delight, but before then it was an unremarkable place in terms of the cultural make-up. We had churches, that was it. So my family stood out, and my parents' friends showed me other ways to be: so called "mixed-marriages" across religion and race, alternative life-styles to ours (my favourite was my aunt's friend who lived on his sailboat and sailed the world). Perhaps this is why I always knew that there are many ways to understand holiday traditions, and that what is meaningful for some is at best, exotic, at worst, frightening or exclusionary to others (like those students whose religion forbade celebrating birthdays or other holidays).

An experiment with mini-pumpkins a few years ago: from old, new life emerges.
Scenes from our pumpkin explorations this year.
Halloween is a good example of a holiday widely celebrated at most public schools, a holiday widely embraced by the new Canadian families at my first school (where over 70% of the neighbourhood were Punjabi Sikh) and thus celebrated in a big way in our Kindergarten classes. As a child I had loved trick-or-treating with my family, but I also remember being greatly stressed by the lead-up to the day. Would I be able to find or make a good costume? Would I be laughed at? (This was a common thread through my childhood: I simply couldn't help standing out, even when I desperately tried to fit in. When I got older I realized this wasn't a fatal flaw, but tell that to an elementary school child.) I recall seeing this in my students, this worry about how they would be received, how they "should" dress. I tried to make it fun for all, but felt for those children whose parents kept them home on the day rather than have them participate in costume parades or scary assemblies. While we still have Halloween in the community at my new school (which is quite different than my previous, with over half of our families being Muslim from a variety of countries and cultures), it is not an unspoken expectation that we will use the holiday in our programming and our team has talked how to make it appropriate for teaching. We did have pumpkins, carve jack-o-lanterns and explore seeds including grinding, cooking and planting. We read great books, stories and non-fiction, about customs and people around the world living regular lives or celebrating great traditions. I enjoy talking with students about how they take part in Halloween, but also make room for other ideas and traditions to enter our class along with the students. I also relate my story to students who don't participate: how I got to explore different faiths by visiting my grandparents' houses of worship (Synagogue, church) and those of friends (Chinese New Year, Diwali) as I grew up, but that it didn't change who I was. I want the classroom to reflect the learners in it, every one of them, and while there will always be things we must participate in that might frighten very young learners (fire drills, walking to the library while other classes are in the hall, assemblies with lights-out moments), I don't see the value in straying from our ongoing inquiries or daily activities (in service of the Ministry Kindergarten Program) to have a full-class celebration with little meaning for students or their families, such as St. Patrick's Day.

In my previous class: students smiling at the dragon dancers during a week-long celebration of Chinese New Year. Several families helped us learn about the holiday in other places, such as Hong Kong, bringing cd's to share and lucky red envelopes for all.

This all came back to me yesterday when I read a fantastic blog post by "a critical friend" Aviva Dunsinger. I love Aviva's voice in our PLN because she has a rather broad perspective as a teacher who's taught Kindergarten, primary and junior students, and who embraces inquiry and technology in her daily practice. As a teacher in a junior grade, for her the holiday celebrations can represent time straying from the more important content of the curriculum. I've included her questions in the quote below; these would be a wonderful place for any grade level teacher to ask themselves, in a "Repeat, Rethink, Remove" format. For the full post, please see here.
 While reading the tweets today about holiday celebrations at school, I couldn’t help but think about these questions.
  • Why and how are we recognizing these holidays?
  • Are we building knowledge about these holidays — based on student interests — or are we using these celebrations as reasons to watch a movie and have treats? What are the benefits and drawbacks to our approaches?
  • How are we using these celebrations to increase student achievement and meet curriculum expectations?
  • How does “stopping” for these holidays impact on our other classroom inquiries? What, if any, long-term impact does “halting” our regular program have?
  • What impact do these changes in routine have on our students? How are we preparing our students to be successful during these unstructured times?
  • What holidays are we choosing to celebrate? Are we recognizing the holidays celebrated by our diverse student populations?
  • Linking to our new Social Studies Curriculum Document, are we ensuring that students hear the first person perspectives of the many people that celebrate these various holidays? How are we giving everyone a “voice?”
How would you answer these questions? What are your thoughts on “holiday parties?” Which ones do you choose to celebrate and which ones do you choose not to? Why? Sometimes I wonder if we simply celebrate because “we always have,” and should we be re-looking at what we’re doing and why we’re doing it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
I was thrilled that Aviva framed the argument so well, in terms of what impact, what purpose, and what accountability we have to all our diverse students. I immediately jumped back to twitter to tell her how much I appreciated her post. Several others joined in and reaffirmed my belief that the best PD available is a great twitter PLN. The conversation on twitter: Click here for Storify version

In our conversation I sent Aviva a link to a post by another critical friend, Louise Jupp. It was her post that first led to me look closely at using traditions and holidays as curriculum, therefore not merely questioning the time away from more meaningful subjects, but also the practice of using the holidays as curriculum which is common in early years classrooms.

Your first consideration is usually to incorporate holidays so because it is March, you focus on St. Patrick’s Day (at its roots a religious celebration of the patron saint of Ireland, who in fact was British not Irish and a day whose origins were a mission to teach Catholicism to Pagans), clovers (which are actually shamrocks and were used to symbolize the holy trinity), green (although the original colour honouring St. Patrick’s day was blue) and leprechauns (an Irish fairy hybrid who was originally dressed in red and from my understanding really has no connection to St. Patrick’s day). Religious symbolism, saints, fairies, oh my! I hope we all agree that St. Patrick’s Day as a curriculum choice for young children might be pedagogically questionable. Please forgive me if I have offended any who have a particularly strong tie to St. Patrick’s Day (My grandfather was Irish), shamrocks (I look for four leaf clovers and the good luck they bring each Spring), leprechauns (I honour them all year round with my garden gnome) and the colour green (it is one of my favourite colours).

This post came as music to my ears. I had forgotten about my initial response (quoted below) but it all came together re-reading my thoughts. I want my classroom to move at the speed of children.
So many thoughts… I love this!
I used to feel like a Grinch because I never liked celebrating holidays with little meaning to me or to my students. Diwali and Chinese New Year I loved and would delve into happily, finding so many ties to my students’ individual stories, family traditions, and ads in local flyers. But St. Patrick’s day? Glad you said it, wasn’t even sure why it bugged me except that I’m uncomfortable with any celebration that results in piles of waste (throw-away plastic decorations, tinsel, thematic gift wrap or door decor, green crepe paper, balloons, plastic confetti, single-use plates and cups, and so on). Dollar stores, where I find wonderful gems and loose parts for the classroom? Difficult to reconcile my feelings of guilt because I also see so much that disposable. On the other hand, loose parts arts frees me from the creation of bulletin boards full of thematic crafts, once a part of my teaching repertoire when I began.
As for your reflection about following the children’s interests, this is something that also needed the time to develop in my practice. Not worrying about “Halloween” or “Christmas” except when brought up by my students, for example, has allowed my classroom to be one that moves more at the speed of children. Projects wax and wane and groups fall apart or new sparks arise, but taking time to reflect on our learning (by looking at our class twitter or other documentation of daily events) we find out what is really important to each of us. My students have surely figured out my blind spots (I have to remind myself to visit the shared house or drama centre as it doesn’t pull my interest) and also know what I value (they never fail to share their natural treasures with me, whether leaves, insects, seeds or other found items). Likewise, I call certain students over when someone has made an observation or discovery that I know would intrigue them. I aim to have a “messing about” room, daily.

As a final thought, I looked back on the last month in our class. Many ongoing inquiries, but this one has a few dedicated followers who visit their pumpkin seed, water the plants, draw the changes they observe, and generally love the plants. All this from a few seeds saved (from cooking) from our carved pumpkins all the way back in October.

So I leave these thoughts with you, readers. Do you also have such questions about the culture of your classroom? I'd love to know. 


  1. Wow Laurel! I honestly don't know what else to say. I think that this is a post that all educators need to read as we think critically about our practices and why we do what we do. As I said in our tweets yesterday, I'm not sure that there's one right answer here, but it's important to ask these questions and start the discussion. I'm glad that you extended this discussion here.


    1. I'm glad you are there in my PLN provoking us to think deeply about our practices, not worried about right or wrong or should... that's exactly what keeps us learning along with our students! Thank you again for such a great post and conversation.

  2. These questions that you, Aviva, and others ask are the tip of the cultural hegemony iceberg. They are important questions, and very contextual. I certainly don't have any answers, but one question I usually ask myself is, "Is the [fill in the bank] celebration externally driven, or is it something the students in my room deeply want to celebrate for intrinsic reasons?" For instance, a classroom celebration I remember most fondly of late is one where we had a farewell party for a beloved classmate.

    1. Thank you for this... I like the way you put the question. I think it applies to so many things we consider sound practices, whether it be math drills and spelling tests, or the way we plan our teaching around field trips (the old "trip before as provocation/minds on, or trip after as reward for learning?). It means one really must take the students into account every day: what worked last year may not apply this year, and what motivated the morning class may not b meaningful to the afternoon class.
      I love the idea of the farewell party... that's a celebration of learning and learner.
      Last note: I like your question (how is this focus driven) because it allows me to deepen my query (in the post above) even further. The day after I posted this, I saw a brilliant take on a St. Patrick's Day craft. It left my jaw dropped, and I realized that while I don't introduce holidays as curriculum if they aren't reflected in my classroom population, I would happily bring a provocation, book, or short video to share if a student showed an interest. This would be no different than when students ask to research "Beyblades", crocodiles/alligators, or paper airplanes (all topics I've helped students to explore online). In fact, that provocation spurred my next post which I'm writing now.