Monday, December 13, 2010

The December Dilemma and English Language Learners

Hyungsoo, a 2nd grade student from Korea, sat across from me at the table in my ESL class with a pained look on his face. “Santa didn’t come to my house!” he complained. “I didn’t get any presents.” I knew the source of his disappointment. Many young public school students in the United States spend a good part of December discussing Santa, elves, and presents. They listen to stories about Santa, make presents for their parents, and exchange grab bag gifts with their classmates. Hyungsoo’s family is Christian, and for them [Christmas is strictly a religious holiday. Hyungsoo’s parents did not realize that most of his classmates would be receiving gifts from Santa, and they were not aware of how left out he would feel. Unfortunately, most elementary schools give little thought to the children who are looking in from the outside during December.Another of my students, Priya, told the class, “I am Hindu and I don’t celebrate Christmas. Santa doesn’t come to my house.” Priya’s family celebrated Diwali in September.

Herein lies a dilemma that public schools in the United States face. Every December the elementary school becomes a battleground. A war is waged over what should be taught, what symbols can be displayed in the school hallways, and what music is sung at the December concert. Emotions run high. Christian parents do not want the mention of Christmas to be banned in schools, and parents from other religious backgrounds don’t want their children to be inundated with Christmas festivities. Teachers and administrators walk a tightrope in between. We are so worried about offending someone that public elementary schools are not teaching about any religion at all.
In the United States the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution calls for the separation of Church and State. Government agencies and employees, including public school teachers, are not allowed to promote one religion over another. Schools must approach religious holidays from an academic viewpoint, not a spiritual one, which means that we can teach about diverse religions in school, but we may not celebrate religious holidays. That seems clear enough, but the interpretation of the First Amendment is complicated by the fact the courts have deemed, and many religious leaders agree, that some of the Christmas holiday symbols have become part of the secular celebration of Christmas. As you walk along the hallways of many public elementary schools in December, you will see a plethora of Santas and Christmas trees on bulletin boards. Are Christmas trees and Santa truly secular symbols? It depends on whom you ask.

As I looked at my group of 2nd grade ELLs, I realized that all of these students were on the fringes of school life during December. Although it can be argued that no religious symbols are displayed, our bulletin boards abound with fir trees, reindeer, and especially Santa. In our front lobby there is a menorah and a “holiday tree” decorated with student-made ornaments. There is also a Kinara, a candleholder with seven candles that is a symbol of Kwanzaa. This is an effort to give equal time to other celebrations. Many students, however, observe holidays that are never represented in the front lobby.
Let’s go back and look at the rest of my ESL class. One of my students, Marina, is Russian and her family is Jewish. They celebrate Hanukkah in December, but Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah are much more important religious holidays for them. Karim is Muslim and his family celebrates Ramadan in September. Rei is Japanese and his family is Shinto. Rei celebrates Oshogatsu on January 1st. Hui is Taiwanese and his family is Buddhist. They celebrate Buddha’s birthday in May. Except for the recognition of Hanukkah, none of these holidays is part of our school curriculum. The majority of the students in my school are Christian, but this ESL class of six students represents all of the major religions in the school population.
At the center of the December wars is the traditional school concert that is at the heart of the celebration of Christmas. The dilemma comes when deciding what music to sing. The question is whether a school concert can include religious Christmas music without promoting a particular belief. The courts have decreed that some religious music may be included if the purpose is to teach about a particular religion and the program is balanced. In reality, however, if the program includes a variety of music from various religions and cultures and secular Christmas music (involving Santa and reindeers), Christian parents complain. If religious Christmas music is the bulk of the program, parents representing other religious groups complain. One of my Jewish colleagues told me that she spent all her years in school singing Christmas songs and how marginalized that made her feel. She dreaded December and the feeling she got of being an “outsider.” I wonder if my students Hyungsoo, Priya, Karim, Marina, Rei, and Hui feel the same?

We all have to work to make our schools more inclusive. Our job is to protect the religious rights of all our students. I think the onus should be taken off of December. Let’s solve the December dilemma by learning about Diwali and Ramadan in September, Rosh Hashanah in October, and Christmas in December. Let’s explore the secular holidays such as Chu suk, the Chinese Moon Festival, and Holi. We should not overemphasis one particular holiday, and the students in my 2nd grade ESL class should not feel they are on the outside looking in.

Imber, M. (December, 2003), The Santa Dilemma, American School Board Journal, Vol. 190, No. 12.

Anti-Defamation League, (2004) The December Dilemma,

Lombardi, K. (2006) Decorate Schools for Holidays – but with What? New York Times, December 17, 2006.