“So, I got this watch for Hanukkah,” one of my students explained, showing her watch.
Another student asked, “So you get eight gifts?”
“No, we get gifts for eight days.”
“Right, one gift a day?”
“No,” she said, “sometimes one, sometimes five, maybe three, it depends.”
“You get to open gifts for eight days?” he roared. He looked at me, “Ms, you’ve gotta tell my mom I want to be Jewish!”
“I leave all religious conversations to you and your parents,” I said.
“But she thinks you’re a good teacher, she’ll listen to you.”
“Ms, are you Christian?”
“Are you Jewish?”
The student looked a bit confused. “Korean?”
She nodded and walked away. I wondered why she didn’t ask if I was Muslim, but maybe she figured three guesses was enough.
Ahh, the wintertime. The time of the year when schools try to navigate various holidays respectfully. This is always an…odd time of year. Some teachers throw snowflakes and snowmen up on their walls. Others figure they can put Santa all over the place because it’s “secular.” Some think Santa’s OK, so long as they put an image of a menorah up. I really feel for the music department, although they always seem to manage it well.
Me? I avoid any mention at all of any holiday. In part, this is because religious holidays only very, very loosely relate to the curriculum, so I’m not required to teach anything about them. In part, this is because the students are already going winter stir-crazy and I am trying to keep them calm and tempered and any mention of anything related to presents is sure to excite them. (And to most of them at this age, holidays are about presents.)
Instead, I let the students lead me. I only stop the students if they start proclaiming that what they believe is the only thing anyone should ever believe. At the elementary level, this usually amounts to “each family celebrates different things. How would you feel if someone told you what your family thinks is wrong?”
Otherwise, if they want to make a Christmas card during their free time, I don’t stop them. Writing this time of year tends to be centered around gifts. If they want to talk about holidays and gifts, I listen with an open ear, nod, and comment. But I’m honest, too. I don’t celebrate Christmas. Or Hanukkah. Or, or, or…
I used to be really afraid of students finding out I wasn’t Christian. Somewhere along the way, I loosened up. (Perhaps it happened in Korea, where “Are you Christian?” is a fair opening question and families often practice multiple religions in one home.) I figure as long as I respect all of their religious practices, it’s OK. And most students have a sense of privacy and respect, so they don’t ask too many questions. And the fact is, I have had other non-religious students in the past, and they need someone to identify with, too. (And of course, I’ve had students who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and thus are Christian, but don’t celebrate Christmas.)
One of the benefits of working in this area is that we have students who practice Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism in my class. Heck, some of the students practice more than one of those religions.
I was still surprised, however, that “Korean” was a religion. I had to work hard not to burst out laughing at that.