Holidays, Halloween, and Head Scarves: 3 Strategies for Cultural & Religious Celebrations in the Classroom

Holidays, Halloween, and Head Scarves: 3 Strategies for Cultural & Religious Celebrations in the Classroom

One of my college students who is doing her internship asked me, “I’m Muslim and I wear “hijab” (a scarf I use to cover my hair), which is one of the pillars of Islam. As I was standing by this student, she asked me, ” Mrs. M why do you wear a scarf to cover your hair?”  I was surprised by the question and didn’t know how to reply. I told her to get back to her work and that we can talk about it another time. What’s your advice? How should I’ve handled the encounter?”

This time of year, with Halloween on the horizon and other holidays approaching, we have an opportunity to help children develop a deeper understanding of culture, religion, and social identity. I encouraged Mrs. M to explain why she wears a head scarf and why it is important to her. This can be developed into a lesson on how families celebrate religion and religious holidays.

I had another college student do a wonderful lesson on Diwali, India’s festival of lights that begins this weekend. She brought in many colorful items that her family uses to celebrate and allowed the children to explore them, along with an informational children’s book on the holiday.

Little lamp “diyas’ to celebrate Diwali

Sometimes we avoid bringing religion into the classroom – for good reasons. We want to be sensitive and not offend families. For example, many families do not celebrate Halloween and it can be difficult for children in our classrooms if we are not sensitive to this. On the other hand, religion and holidays are a big part of many of our children’s social identity and we want to affirm this. Here are some guidelines I recommend for handling religion and holidays in our teaching:

1. Focus on what we have in common. Many cultures, for example, wear head coverings: Many Muslims, Jews and Christians integrate this into their cultural and religious customs. Here’s a slide show of various types of Muslim veils. Another thing many cultures share in common is a celebration of light (which occurs in the darkening of winter) such as Diwali, Christmas, Hannukah, and Loi Krathon Festival in Thailand. Here’s a terrific video of a teacher who has developed a K-1 unit on Celebrations of Light. Many cultures also celebrate harvest festivals such as Thanksgiving, Jewish Sukkot, or Chinese Moon Festival. In teaching about holidays we should focus on cultural connections and commonalities.

2. Get information. Reach out to families in your center or school and invite them to come in and share. Encourage them to bring cultural items, food, songs, or pictures. Learn as much as you can about the values, beliefs and practices of other cultures. Here’s a calendar of world holidays for November. Here’s a book on World Holidays that is geared for upper elementary school, but is a great resource for ourselves to learn more about holidays:

3. Emphasize values to avoid a tourist approach. Instead of providing superficial information about cultures – such as food or dress – go deeper into the values of the people. For example, if you are learning about St. Patrick’s Day, it is more appropriate to focus on the Irish people’s love of storytelling and community rather than just wearing green and making shamrocks. Celebrate Holidays is an excellent resource book for approaching holiday celebrations in your school:

Present the religious customs and values as part of your social studies curriculum. Don’t endorse one set of values or practices over another. Don’t emphasize some holidays or cultural practices to the degree that they seem more important than others. Be sensitive to children whose families are not religious or to Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not participate in most celebrations. Offer choices and communicate with parents about their preferences for their children’s participation.

Holidays and cultural diversity can bring joy and community into our classrooms. Please share in the comments the ways that you’ve used holidays as a way of helping children learn about diversity and our common bonds.

Need some new ideas for managing your early childhood classroom? Having trouble with children’s behaviors? Get your copy of The Positive Classroom today.  Both novice teachers and those with years of experience will gain new insights and classroom tools. The Positive Classroom presents the best hope for preventing burnout and finding joy in your teaching. Now available in a Kindle edition, too!