Published Online: December 17, 2008

First Person

'Tis the Season for Teaching Globally

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A few years ago, my 1st-grade son was asked at a school lunch table whether Santa Claus existed. He answered no. The question was innocent enough. My son’s reply came from his own family experience. We do not celebrate Christmas—I am Jewish and my wife is Buddhist.

Word quickly spread of my son’s holiday transgression to the other students in his grade, eventually reaching us at home. We received a phone call from his teacher, who asked to speak with him about spreading the word that Santa Claus was made up. Other parents were upset that our son was allegedly spreading heresy. We did not know how to respond. Our son finally explained his innocent attempt to answer the simple question, "Does anybody at this lunch table not believe in Santa Claus?" But, that was after we lived through several days of angst that our son was ruining the winter holiday for his peers.

This story is far from unique in schools. From candy canes to Christmas trees, December brings great amounts of stress to school administrators as they try to navigate the treacherous waters of religious pluralism, multiculturalism, and political correctness. There are no easy answers for how to handle the winter holidays, from Christmas to Chanukah to Kwanzaa. Some schools choose to sweep the holidays under the rug and avoid any conversation having to do with religious tradition. Others mask the holiday season with the winter solstice, while still other schools go full tilt in adorning the front hallways and classrooms with Christmas trees and Menorahs.

Since President-elect Obama has weighed in on college football’s Bowl Championship Series by calling for a playoff system with a clear winner, I wonder if he might do the same to help resolve the conflict schools face in deciding which holiday tradition they should acknowledge and which to teach about. I am guessing the president-elect would take the opportunity to educate us by breaking down the proverbial walls in our schools and teach them all.

Thomas Friedman in his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, cautions against this post-9/11 American fortress mentality. Instead, he advocates openness and demands that America break free from its "defensive crouch" to "tap the vast rivers of idealism, innovation, volunteerism, and philanthropy that still flow through our nation." Schools need to do the same. Instead of avoiding the holidays and hunkering down into a bunker mentality, in an effort to be sensitive to all, schools need to be bold and embrace the opportunity to deepen understanding of our families and communities.

The holiday or winter concert often calls up strong feelings in a school community. School music conductors labor over song choice and dread the day they release the song list to the community. Not surprisingly, consensus is impossible. Some parents fire off incendiary emails, lambasting the school for “teaching” about the birth of Jesus in songs like "Away in a Manger," a religious Christmas carol first published in a Lutheran Sunday school book in 1885. Yet this is the perfect chance to teach students about Lutheranism and the Protestant Reformation, the dramatic 16th-century revolution spearheaded by Martin Luther, who called into question Catholic dogma. Parents often hear the words to the song and cringe at the religiosity and point of view being "proselytized" to the young students who sing them. The solution? Ban the song and all like it. Buttress the wall and keep understanding and appreciation of culture, history, and tradition away from impressionable children. That approach sorely misses the point of education, especially in the 21st century, when now more than ever, it is critical to cultivate global understanding.

Holiday concerts create the chance for children to learn songs about Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa and to gain an appreciation for the different perspectives each of these holidays brings to music. Students could walk away with a greater understanding of cultural and religious diversity. In addition, the spontaneous conversation in the classroom can often spin into a discussion about religious holidays and celebrations in which children learn about and appreciate different families, histories, and backgrounds. Schools should encourage these conversations and create an atmosphere where all children feel comfortable having them.

Three years later, my son understands the holiday season. We have had many conversations to teach him about the range of beliefs that exist in communities at this time of year. He has a better sense of his own identity as a blend of Jewish and Buddhist and, in turn, can appreciate cultures other than his own. We are grateful that we had the teachable moment with him when he was in 1st grade. Thomas Friedman is dead-on in his assessment for the need to remain open to diverse belief systems in the post-9/11 world. Schools need to grab this same mantle, teach pluralism, sing songs from a wide range of traditions, and embrace a vision of global understanding.

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