May we wish the best for every one that we encounter. 
May we swallow pride and may we do away with fear. 

For it’s only what we do not know that we have grown afraid of, 
And only what we do not choose to hear. 

Our children are growing up into an ever richer and more complex world. The monoculture is gone, and, despite the best efforts of some, is never coming back. The lives they will grow into will be ones in which most of the people they know, work with, care about, and love will have different cultures, traditions, and beliefs than the ones they grew up with. How do we prepare them?

December offers a unique opportunity, as the time surrounding the Winter Solstice is of great and special importance to every culture on earth, one of the threads of commonality in disparate cultures that binds us together as people, no matter our backgrounds, and reminds us of our common humanity. Our task as teachers and parents is to help our children learn from, honor, and navigate the rich complexity of diversity, and to find those threads of meaning that are, because we are one race, the same across the world.

Even in Nueva’s little corner of the world, we have Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, and many families that have blended multiple traditions. Nueva’s particular approach to everything begins in flexibility and “yes, and ...”: what we do is ever-changing, deriving from the needs and interests of our current students, parents, and teachers and, of course, the age and developmental stage each child is passing through.

As teachers, we always understand the holidays can be fraught. We are aware that some people will be offended if their traditions are neglected, misunderstood, misrepresented, or dominated by others. Others will be concerned if they feel that their children are being taught to believe things that are different from what they learn at home. And we know that these traditions are primarily home-, not school-based; that there is a lot of energy and excitement around them; and that, while it would be all too easy to let holidays completely take over a third of the school year, we do have a curriculum that must continue, and some may feel that valuable academic time is being lost.

Part of what teachers do is to try to balance all of these concerns to provide the children with small but meaningful experiences that will expand their horizons in ways that honor and respect the traditions of all. So what we do in any given class in any given year is just a snapshot of a detail in a larger tapestry that spreads over fifty years (and counting) of Nueva history.

Some traditions, such as Diwali, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Day of the Dead, Bodhi Day, Guadalupe, St. Lucia, solstice, and the Western New Year are always in October, November, or December. Others, such as Ramadan, Ashura, and Eid, travel around the Gregorian calendar, and fall in this time of year from time to time. Here are just a few of the approaches taking place in Lower School classes this year. Next year it will be different, and part of what will make it different is you. What will you offer to your child’s class next year?

In kindergarten, students focus on traditions rather then specific holidays, and have a Tradition Exposition day, when parents can volunteer to come in to share family traditions and activities with the class. They also look at the concept of giving within their curriculum. In an attempt to undo gender stereotyping and focus on the needs and wants of others, rather than their own likes and dislikes, the children use their Design Thinking skills to create gifts that any children would like. They interview classmates, brainstorm ideas, and prototype solutions, then create gifts that are exchanged in the week before break. This leads directly to their “Secret Service” project that begins in January, when they look for needs around the school and attempt to meet those needs secretly.

In first grade, the children focus especially on gratitude, writing appreciations in their Gratitude Journals daily — what they appreciate in art, music, SWI (Scientific Word Inquiry), etc. They also read the book The Gift of Nothing, noticing that friendship and time are some of the best gifts one can give. They do a “top secret gift project” where they talk about the gift of an experience. Through Design Thinking the children do need-finding and create a gift experience for their families. They also often do a holiday-themed Choice time, with activities such as making latkes, decorating gingerbread houses, and other seasonal crafts offered by both teachers and parents.

In second grade they only celebrate those holidays that a parent wants to volunteer to show how their family celebrates, and what the holiday means to that family. This way, the choice of holidays comes from the current group of parents and children, and the teachers are neither choosing nor trying to characterize holidays with which they may or may not be deeply familiar.

Third grade also welcomes a variety of Choice activities featuring different holidays that parents and students bring in. They also create holiday cards, which the students can make with whatever holiday (or non-holiday) message they want.

Fourth grade does a variety of activities, changing yearly, that are related to the season. For example, in Morning Meeting, where they sing and recite poems every day all year, the songs and poems at this time of year are related to winter, solstice, and various holidays. Intensives Week offers parents the opportunity to lead students in a deep dive into one or several cultures. On the last Friday before break, they have a choice of various crafts for making gifts for their families. They also write poems about winter or their choice of holiday, turn them into cards, then use those cards to write thank-you notes. As part of their study of Greek history and mythology, the students have researched the Heracles story in some detail, broken it up into thirty-four parts, and made stained-glass window designs out of tissue paper to represent each part, which they can then take home to decorate their own houses. And in SEL, students in both third and fourth grades write appreciations as gifts to each other, with fourth graders creating a Gratitude Tree.

There are many other activities that cross grades and are more outward-looking, such as the African Library Project, and a variety of other service-learning projects. But the themes in all of these activities are the same: gratitude, appreciation, open minds and hearts, and thought and care for others.

 December 13, 2017

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