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Honoring holidays, with care

Schools work to be inclusive during season of celebrations

By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / December 18, 2011
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There is no Christmas tree or menorah at the entrance to the Jaworek Elementary School in Marlborough.

That’s because instead of trying to recognize what most students celebrate, the school is trying to understand what each child celebrates.

So, outside Joanne Tostoes’ first-grade classroom are small student-made posters on the wall that represent their “Favorite Holiday Celebrations.’’ Here you can find images of wrapped presents and baked ham. But you can also learn about Children’s Day, a Japanese holiday that takes place in May. That’s when, according to one first-grader, his family raises koi-shaped flags or kites, and eats kashiwa mochi, a traditional sweet.

Tostoes said she didn’t know anything about Children’s Day until her student taught her about it.

“It was fascinating,’’ said Tostoes, who has had students from all over the world, including Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Russia, and India. “Every year it differs.’’

December can be a tricky time of year for schools. Should teachers use the approach of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa to teach about cultural differences, or should they ignore those holidays (as well as Diwali and Eid al-Adha, which vary on the fall calendar) because it’s so difficult to demonstrate parity in an increasingly multicultural country?

Not so long ago, schools celebrated Christmas. Now they are trying to figure out how to celebrate differences - and report experiencing a mix of frustration and success.

“It’s a place where educators are very uncomfortable, and we don’t want to offend anyone,’’ said Bradford Jackson, superintendent of Holliston’s school system. “I’m somewhat embarrassed about it at one level, but it’s just the nature of the business.’’

To prepare students for a multicultural world, Jackson said, it would be healthy to use the holidays as a teachable moment. But part of the challenge is the state’s curriculum frameworks, and the feeling that time is always at a premium.

“The curriculum standards are kind of the Scrooge of the holidays,’’ said Jackson. “The flexibility and the freedom we once had to do holiday units have long since disappeared since the state has dictated what we’re supposed to be teaching.’’

There is more flexibility in the lower elementary grades, he added.

In order to understand cultures you have to understand their religions, said Jackson. But religion is a sensitive topic, and these days most educators don’t relish the idea of being lambasted for trying to teach from a global perspective.

“You could make the argument that a globally aware student understands these issues and is exposed to them,’’ he said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get to a point where we’ll be able to talk about these issues without being publicly blogged.’’ (Yes, the pun was intended, he said, happy that public floggings are a thing of the past.)

Schools can teach about religion as long as they are not celebrating or promoting a religion, said Sarah Wunsch, staff lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

“We’re very diverse and there are many kids who are not Christian or not religious at all, and they should not be made to feel excluded or as outsiders,’’ she said.

Holiday music can spark some thorny debates as schools prepare plays or other productions this time of year, she said. Schools can use some Christmas music as long as there is a balance.

“There’s solstice music, ice skating, and jingle bells, all kinds of music that is not promoting a particular religion,’’ said Wunsch. “These are supposed to be educational programs.’’

Littleton has grappled with similar issues. In 2009, the town’s school district adopted a policy that allowed absences to observe “religious holydays,’’ after an uproar over the cancellation of days off for Yom Kippur and Good Friday.

Earlier that year, the School Committee had voted to hold classes on both days after concluding there were so many religions represented in town that it would be impossible to accommodate all of the observances. But because of complaints, the change only lasted one year.

The new policy reinstated the two days off, and established procedures for students, with a parent’s or guardian’s permission, to take an excused absence to observe a holy day. They can’t be held accountable for tests, quizzes, and homework, according to the policy.

State and federal law require that schools provide reasonable accommodation for employees or students in observing holy days, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Littleton’s revised policy has been implemented without difficulty, said Paul Avella, the School Committee’s chairman.

This time of year, it’s up to the individual principals to make decisions about holiday decorations and the like, he said.

At Russell Street Elementary School in Littleton, the December holidays are not part of the curriculum, said principal Jane Hall.

“Classes have the option of having a holiday party, but we don’t call it a Christmas party,’’ she said. “It’s been that way for a few years.’’

A new policy adopted this year dictates that teachers at each grade level pick only four holidays to observe, she said. Some held Halloween parties, for example, and others didn’t.

“Part of it is the whole accountability piece,’’ said Hall. “We have so much we need to do within the school day that we’ve really moved away from the classroom parties.’’

At Jaworek Elementary in Marlborough, the holidays are part of the curriculum, but that means a lot more than Christmas and Hanukkah parties.

“We don’t actually celebrate holidays, but we teach about them,’’ said Cheryl Piccirelli, the school’s principal.

Her students are taking part in a fund-raiser that is meant to mark this time of year as the “season to give back,’’ Piccirelli said, by collecting change for the mayor’s “Heat and Eat’’ program. The fund provides money for residents who need help with groceries or heating bills.

The school doesn’t cover every holiday, but does try to represent the cultures of all of its students, she said.

“I think the ultimate goal is to create an environment where we go beyond tolerance and respect for differences, and we move on to celebration of differences,’’ said Piccirelli.

“We want to cultivate a real interest in each other.’’

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com.

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