When I was growing up, I took the Christmas holiday for granted. The only debate was what to eat with my family’s traditional roast pork. Should we have Cuban dishes, such as yuca and black beans, or Spanish dishes like besugo al horno (roast snapper), favored by family members from Spain?
Over the years, my world expanded beyond my own childhood experience. I came to realize that not only do different families have different holiday traditions, but also that many of us don’t celebrate the same holidays. Today, as superintendent of Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, it is important for me to ensure that any holiday observances in our schools reaffirm the Portland Public Schools’ commitment to our great diversity and affirm our respect for different traditions.
Portland’s public schools are a microcosm of today’s global world. One-third of our students come from homes where languages other than English are spoken – a total of 61 languages district wide. Our schools reflect an increasingly diverse society with many religious, ethnic and cultural traditions and beliefs that are meaningful to our students and their families and other members of the Portland community.
We do our best to accommodate the diverse religious beliefs of our students. Because of the traditional school schedule, school vacation coincides with many Christian holidays. For students from other traditions, some religious holidays may require students to miss school, and those are excused absences. We provide schools with a list of different faiths’ major religious holidays each year, and ask our educators to not schedule important school activities or exams on those holidays.
The diverse holidays and traditions cherished by our students and families provide opportunities for learning, further creating awareness and sensitivity to our diverse society. However, our responsibility as educators is to ensure that any holiday observances have an educational purpose. We also must take a thoughtful approach to such lessons in the classroom.
For example, we must ensure that lessons don’t make any students feel excluded or forced to identify with a religion that is not their own.
Recently, the Maine Department of Education recognized the importance of being sensitive to our growing diversity by sharing information with school districts. We recently shared with our schools an article that highlights other considerations educators need to take into account at holiday times.
One key point is that we need to consider educational goals when celebrating a holiday or tradition. Is our goal to have students learn about different cultures or traditions, for example, or simply to add some fun to the classroom? Are we accomplishing those goals when some students can’t participate? Some cultures and religions don’t celebrate Halloween or Christmas, for example. Are there other, more inclusive ways to accomplish our goals?
Holiday decorations for the sake of decoration are discouraged. Symbols or artifacts of any holiday should be used as educational resources in the teaching-learning process.
We also need to include diverse voices in planning holiday or cultural observances. If everyone at the table is of the same tradition, it makes it more likely we could overlook sensitive points important to others.
Columbus Day is one example of that. When the Portland Board of Public Education sets the district’s calendar for next school year, the board will consider following the example of the Portland City Council regarding that holiday. The council has voted to designate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day.
For years, we’ve seen the Columbus story only from the viewpoint of the European settlers who “discovered” America, and not from the perspective of those who were already living here. Native Americans were decimated by disease and warfare as the result of Columbus’ discovery, and we need to acknowledge that.
This change is not about excluding Italian Americans. Many Italians past and present have made tremendous contributions to society and are worthy of recognition. This is about including the voices of indigenous people in the historical discussion.
I’ll close with this: Christmas is an important part of my family’s tradition. To those who also celebrate it, merry Christmas. To everyone else, happy holidays – whenever and however you celebrate them.
Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.