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To Celebrate Or Not To Celebrate?

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Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays--simple and straightforward, an uncomplicated day where the main goal is to get together with family and friends and eat a good meal. In my personal life, Thanksgiving remains the same relaxing holiday. But in my professional life as a teacher, consultant, and school administrator, Thanksgiving and most other holidays present a neverending dilemma: What--if anything should be celebrated in school?

In my visits to schools at any time of year, I am confronted with evidence of attempts to integrate holidays into the curriculum. Taken to the extreme at times, holidays are the curriculum in some schools, where the classrooms look like Hallmark card stores, and teachers and children are putting up the St. Patrick's Day shamrocks as soon as the Valentine's Day hearts come down. Around Thanksgiving, schools often have children dress up as Pilgrims, Native Americans, or turkeys, while the making of handprint turkeys or construction-paper feather headdresses becomes the focus of an uninspired art program.

There are also a few schools that take the opposite extreme and make well-meaning but overwhelming attempts to present children with the Native American side of Thanksgiving. Having just finished a World Series of Baseball at which caricatures of native peoples seemed to offend very few, there would seem clearly to be a need for a serious curriculum about the first Americans. But often these conversations spring up the day before the holiday, leaving children feeling like unknowing co-conspirators in looking forward to a good time with their families.

These things were not far from my mind as I sat around with my family this past Thanksgiving, wincing as my children watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade on television with Santa parading down Broadway with bowing Pilgrims and dancing Native Americans. If we turned the channel, we saw football players banging hatchet-covered helmets. Once again, I was the curmudgeon who hit the off button on the remote control, saying, "Enough of this nonsense, let's go outside and play."

In those relaxed and special moments away from the onslaught of contemporary culture and the pressures of everyday life, we found something simple and real to celebrate--our life together.

At the Bank Street School for Children, we have a long-misunderstood policy of not celebrating holidays in school. Knowing about and understanding their own and other people's holidays certainly helps children build an appreciation for and tolerance of our similarities and differences. So we talk about holidays and study them as part of the curriculum when that is appropriate. But it is another matter altogether to ask children in our diverse New York City population to celebrate holidays of a religious nature.

Bank Street's noncelebration policy has been questioned more frequently in the past few years: from some parents who, in their well-meaning desire to have the diversity of their children's backgrounds acknowledged, want the school to celebrate all secular and nonsecular holidays; from other parents who, in struggling to communicate to their children the difference in their faiths, wish the school would take a leading role in helping their children understand who they are; and even from teachers who, despite their understanding of the values and philosophy of the school, wish to share the excitement of the holidays with their students.

We have not always been celebration-free, however. More than a dozen years ago, the Bank Street School started a tradition called the Winter Revels, a celebration of the solstice, the shortest day of the year. This performance involves music, dance, drama, and artwork, and it includes the entire school community. Its precarious location in the middle of the most festive holiday season, however, makes it hard for the adults, let alone children, to be clear about just what we are celebrating, especially when the event often falls in the middle of Hannukah and a day before the winter break (also known as Christmas vacation).

Martin Luther King Jr. Day seemed for a long time like the perfect day for a celebration. Our school assemblies celebrate the life, work, and values of a man of peace who helped bring enormous changes to this country. But with the resurgence of interest in Malcolm X and the rise of Louis Farrakhan as a public force, even this celebration has come under attack. Some parents and teachers see the Martin Luther King celebration as mere tokenism and feel that other African-American leaders are more significant, and that more yearlong curriculum needs to be developed. Other parents and teachers question why Dr. King is celebrated but no assemblies are called to honor Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.

As we look toward the so-called "Big Three" holidays this month--Christmas, Hannukah, and Kwanzaa--the controversy over how to handle holidays in schools intensifies. In fact, in a city like New York, where some schools include students from more than 60 countries, the issues surrounding the celebration of holidays becomes more and more complicated.

Compared with navigating the stormy seas of sex education, AIDS education, or evaluating and implementing new standards in every curriculum area under the sun, whether we should celebrate holidays or not is like paddling a rowboat on a pond. Still, it's an issue that won't go away anytime soon.

Is the situation hopeless? I think not. One of the most exhilarating aspects of teaching is the constant need to re-examine what we do. Fine teachers thrive when they continue to rethink what happens in their classrooms. We cannot continue to do the same things over and over again in our schools and expect different results. It takes a dynamic teacher and a dynamic institution to foster change--to continue to address new needs and new problems and generate new ideas.

I must confess, these things are not far from my mind as another Thanksgiving recedes into the past and Hannukah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa approach us. With holiday decorations sprouting from every corner, department-store sales advertisements in every medium, and new and old holiday specials on television and in the theaters, the inundation is well under way. Already I find myself working hard to focus on what is important and meaningful in the midst of so much that is trivial and superficial. And I expect that once again I will play the curmudgeon who clicks off the television after the 10th commercial for the most desirable toy and announces to my kids, "Enough of this nonsense, let's go out and play." But I am sure that in those relaxed and special moments away from the onslaught of contemporary culture and the press of everyday life, we will find something simple and real to celebrate--our life together.

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