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Being a Culturally Responsive Sustaining Educator During the Holiday Season

By Yaritza Villalba, Assistant Principal

As an educator, the holiday season also means creating opportunities for students to celebrate through a variety of class activities, potlucks, and gift giving. When I began teaching, I was always reminded that the holiday season, for inner city students, is the toughest time of the year. It is a time when our students are reminded of their hardships and trauma. It is also a time when most of us forget about cultivating equitable spaces by enforcing celebrations of holidays with no real importance in other cultures and societies. For these reasons, and many more, it is important that all educators understand the importance of culturally responsive- sustaining education (CR-S education) practices, especially during the holidays.

While most of you are probably shaking your heads in disagreement after reading the introduction, you forgot about one of the most important aspects every culturally responsive teacher should know: reflection. Have you ever experienced being a student and having to celebrate a holiday because your teacher decided that this holiday should be celebrated for the whole class? But this holiday isn’t celebrated in your home/community, nor does it align with your culture or religion. How did this make you feel? You were being forced to accept the unacceptable! You were asked to engage in a celebration that was meant to unite all, but instead it made one cultural celebration more dominant than the rest. Many students in inner cities come from diverse backgrounds. The food they eat, the music they listen and dance to, the languages they speak, all ring true to who they are as individuals. It is these elements which make each student unique in their own way.

We are told that to be culturally responsive sustaining educators who support the academic success of each student, we must consider how our planning includes who our students are (embedding students’ cultures into every aspect of teaching and learning), their interests (what students are most passionate about) and how we provide high quality opportunities for our students to become critical thinkers who can connect what is being taught in classrooms with what is being experienced in the real-world (students take ownership of what is being taught/shared and become the teacher).

Overall, the goal is to cultivate a space where all learners feel a sense of being.

Create a space where families can visit and know their child’s teacher has high expectations for all, regardless of what their test scores might suggest. In an ideal world, this is what every school is providing. The reality is, schools are struggling to provide opportunities for academic success for all learners, especially in the inner cities, because we are failing the number one rule: getting to know each of our learners. This takes me back to the point of this article. Not every student celebrates holidays like Christmas, and if they do, not every student has the at-home support (family, resources) to celebrate holidays.

Each year, I sit back and observe teachers all over social media sharing the many activities they are having students participate in; like Thanksgiving potlucks, “Elf on the Shelf,” or decorating Christmas tree ornaments. Not too often do I notice educators incorporating who students are into how schools celebrate the holidays.

This sense of meaningful planning that we used to create differentiated curriculum must also be used when providing opportunities for students to build and sustain community.

In a diverse school community, where all stakeholders are serious about equity, you would notice the importance of inclusion throughout the entire school year. Not every student celebrates Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Valentine’s Day, but every student celebrates events that are near and dear to their culture and family. Schools can provide these opportunities by creating a space for student choice and amplifying student voice. By encouraging students to share more about themselves throughout the year, schools can have a better understanding of what their families celebrate and if they may need extra assistance throughout the holiday season. It isn’t about teaching discipline through naughty elves on shelves or decorating ornaments that most students will not take home because they don’t have Christmas trees or have a need for them during the holiday season. It is all about inclusion and accepting diversity and differences throughout the school year, which helps students charter their own holiday committees to enrich school communities of life beyond a predominantly homogenous setting.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the holiday season and inner-city students. So I think this would be the perfect time to explain the correlation between the two. It is my belief that many teachers, when celebrating holidays, forget about the students who may not have families to go home to, or are displaced and living in shelters. Inner cities are a melting pot of diverse cultures, race, language and experiences. When teaching these students and communicating with these families, it is vital that you take the time out to know about their communities. What can we do to help those students who may not be able to bring food to the holiday potluck because their families cannot afford anything extra this month? Or to promote acceptance when students may bring foods to the potluck that are not your ordinary “pecan pie” or baked macaroni dishes? Being a culturally responsive educator means having all of these thoughts when planning celebrations that are based on your own cultural identity and social identity- for students who do not share the same cultural identity, racial identity or social identity as you do.

The holiday season is a time to be a part of a community. In order to sustain being culturally responsive, one must continue to reflect on the activities we are promoting and how they impact student sense of belonging-all year round- not just during the holidays.

Founding President of YV Educational Resources Inc. 501(c)3 and Host of the Flipgrid series #AskYaritza, Yaritza Villalba has eleven years of experience in education. She started her career teaching Social Studies to high school students in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. Currently, she is an Assistant Principal for the NYCDOE. Throughout the years she has developed Culturally Responsive curricula and conducted a variety of professional development webinars for educators around the world. Her overall mission, in education, is to provide teachers and students with an array of strategies and materials to assist in connecting what is being taught with the world in which they live in.

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Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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