Culturally Responsive Instruction for Holiday and Religious Celebrations

A burning candle.

This article shows teachers how to bring rich cultural content into their teaching in a way that expands students' knowledge, interest, and respect for the group being featured. The article offers suggestions that teachers can use throughout the school year, as well as when observing cultural and religious holidays and celebrations.

Note: This article was originally written for the American Federation of Teachers.

The first step in implementing more culturally responsive instruction is recognizing how our own cultural conditioning is reflected in our teaching: how we set up our classroom, establish relationships with students, even how we design and deliver our lessons. This article shows teachers how to bring rich cultural content into their teaching in a way that expands students' knowledge, interest, and respect for the group being featured. The article offers suggestions that teachers can use throughout the school year, as well as when observing cultural and religious holidays and celebrations.

Meaningful Multicultural Education in a Nation of Immigrants

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See this interview with Dr. Cynthia Lundgren for more great tips on culturally responsive instruction!

Our nation is rich in many cultural and religious traditions, and celebrations focusing on specific groups have grown and become more popular in the last twenty years. Some of the most prominent are African-American History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Women's History Month. Growing in popularity are American Indian/Alaska Native Heritage Month and Asian Pacific Heritage Month. Along with these we also observe and recognize Martin Luther King Day, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, Kwanzaa, Labor Day, the Jewish holidays, and many others.

While we are more explicit about our recognition of various groups and ethnic differences, we have always been a diverse nation. In the beginning, our nation was primarily the home of Native Americans and other indigenous groups representing more than 400 languages, Africans from a wide range of different regions, and Europeans of mostly British heritage. Take America at the turn of the 20th century — that's when our country experienced one of its major influxes of newcomers, and waves of immigrants made their way to our shores. Soon, many of the children enrolled in our public schools had come from such faraway places as Italy, Poland, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and China.

Now turn the clock forward a hundred years. Our public schools are again being asked to meet the challenges that come with a rapidly growing and diverse population. With a global economy in place and our technology moving at a rate faster than we'd ever imagined, every teacher needs more help meeting the needs of and being culturally responsive to his/her students, many of whom now have roots in places like Mexico, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Somalia, Croatia, and Jordan.

Our country has always been home to people of many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds. But meaningful multicultural education must go beyond saying that we're a "melting pot," having an ethnic food celebration a couple of times a year, and acknowledging a few well-known historical figures. We currently live in a world where our knowledge about other cultures, languages, and traditions is extremely important to foster understanding and mutual respect, and we are now expecting teachers to be our first responders on the front line in this complex task.

Given that research, test data, and anecdotal evidence repeatedly confirm that culture plays a significant role in teaching and learning, student diversity challenges us to explore ways to bridge cultural differences and develop culturally sensitive teaching practices that recognize and accept these differences.

And teachers, like their students, behave in ways that reflect their culture. We recognize the obvious cultural differences such as foods, heroes, holidays, arts, and clothing — differences that, much like the tip of the iceberg, are clearly visible above the water. Less visible are the different ways in which our cultures influence our understanding of the world and how we interact with others. These more nuanced differences might include how we understand and define concepts like family, responsibility, education, and success. These hidden aspects of culture can cause misunderstandings and cross-group conflicts; they can impact teacher-student and student-student relationships, and create hard-to-identify barriers to academic content matter.

Culturally Responsive Instruction

So at the point we decide that we want to implement more culturally responsive instruction, where to do we start? The first step is recognizing how our own cultural conditioning is reflected in our teaching: how we set up our classroom, establish relationships with students, even how we design and deliver our lessons. When we acknowledge that our classrooms are natural extensions of our own culture, we can begin to make room for the cultures of others. This can be done in a few simple ways:

  • Look for ways to integrate cultural traditions of your ELL families throughout your school. Becoming familiar with and including the cultural traditions of your ELL families within the larger school community not only creates a welcoming and respectful school environment — it has practical considerations for scheduling, opportunities in the classroom, and improved communication and engagement with families. (See more tips on how to integrate ELLs' cultures effectively in this excerpt from our ELL Family Engagement guide.)
  • Add classroom visuals reflecting the racial and ethnic diversity of the classroom. Look for images that come from various sources and steer clear of long-held harmful stereotypes (e.g., Latino people wearing large Mexican hats, Asian people working in rice fields, etc.). If you can not find any adequate images, hold an event inviting the various families to school and take photos of the children interacting together and with each other's families.
  • Incorporate books with multicultural themes and different perspectives into classroom readings. For recommended titles, consult our booklists on Colorín Colorado and Reading Rockets. Also, do not automatically discard books that reflect the mainstream culture. Discuss all these books (multicultural and mainstream) with students and ask them what they learned that they did not know before about the characters, situations, geographies, etc.
  • Explore themes that are common to all cultures. Discuss universal concepts like the importance of families, the search of a better life through migration, friendships, uses of music to express emotions and celebrate, and different kinds of work, etc.
  • Take interest in students' lives outside of school and asking questions about community events and traditions. When possible, call students at home to follow up on an assignment and introduce yourself to their parents (ask your school about an interpreter if needed). After this type of initial contact, try and visit students at home, visit their neighborhood and the places they shop, and participate in community events. Keep an open-door policy in your classroom for their families. Sometimes, families may be hesitant to interact with you due to language or perceived cultural barriers.
  • Ensure major assignments or exams do not fall on religious or cultural holidays. Plan this calendar far in advance. Students from a particular country may have more religious holidays than other groups and you also want to inform others in the school about this so that no misperceptions or misunderstandings arise.
  • Integrate ethnic art, music, and games into classroom activities. For information about ethnic art and games, consult Learning for Justice, and for international music selections and fun classroom activities, consult Putumayo. You can also visit special museum exhibits, conduct a field trip to a special performance, or invite artists and performers to your school.
  • Support English language learners and their families with materials in their first language. If your school does not have ESL or bilingual education teachers or specialists, see if the district can help. Do not make the children in your class who are becoming proficient in English be your primary mode of communication with other children of the same language background or with families. If an adult interpreter is not available, look into recruiting a volunteer from the community who is familiar with school issues. For more information on supporting ELLs and their families, visit Colorín Colorado's Educator Section.
  • Use current world events to teach students to read, think, and discuss from multiple perspectives. The internet and television broadcasts from other countries can provide international versions of world events. Responding to events from a variety of perspectives not only reinforces critical literacy skills, but establishes a forum for voicing disparate perspectives.

Celebrating Holidays

When it comes time to highlight specific cultural holidays, how do you pick the right culturally responsive materials? No matter what you choose to shed light on the subject (a lesson plan, ongoing unit study, field trip, cultural fair, special performance presentation, etc.), the goal is to expand your students' knowledge, interest, and respect for the group being featured. Here are some ideas to help you highlight multicultural and religious holidays appropriately, and select the right activities and materials:

  • Recognize various talents and accomplishments when focusing on people. Do not limit your commemoration to famous leaders and heroes. Go beyond Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, and Susan B. Anthony to find other little-known role models who are historical and contemporary.
  • Consult more than one internet or library source and do not expect a student to be your sole "ambassador" or resource for finding out about a whole culture or ethnic background. Multiple sources are always a good idea for formulating knowledge about a particular subject. More importantly, do not put a particular student on the spot without asking them beforehand if they are comfortable sharing information with the whole class. Each student is an individual and their experiences may or may not be similar to that of the group they represent.
  • Incorporate the information you select into existing lesson plans or special projects. Don't miss out on the opportunity to make this into an ongoing process for learning. One great source of information is children's books, which often have background information and activities, such as these titles about Ramadan, Chinese New Year, and Día de los muertos.
  • Make it more than just about food, music, or popular icons. As with the earlier tips on holiday celebrations, it is best to precede these type of events or approaches with meaningful and thoughtful pre-planned lessons, information, and learning. There is more to St. Patrick's Day than wearing green and pinning up images of leprechauns — turn the holiday into an opportunity to learn about the Irish people and their history.
  • Seek various representatives to show the diversity within a common group. Keep in mind that no one group is as homogenous as it might seem. To illustrate, Latinos may share the same language and have very similar customs but there are many cultural differences between countries — for example, only Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo; Argentinians, on the other hand, will most likely have never heard of the celebration or know what it stands for, and will celebrate different holidays. "Chinese" New Year, on the other hand, is not only celebrated by the Chinese. Other Asian cultures refer to it as Lunar New Year.
  • Plan ahead of time. Don't wait until the day of the celebration or designated month to bring up the subject. If the topic at hand involves a heritage group represented in your classroom, consult with the student and their families about your plans, and find out if they are interested in and comfortable sharing stories, traditions, or family history. Ask them for suggestions and ideas.
  • Encourage other children who may not have "official" holidays representing them or whose families have lived in the U.S. for multiple generations to explore and share their own heritage and background. For children who come from the mainstream background, ask them where their ancestry is from. Students may not realize that people of European background do not share the same languages or traditions — for example, explore the differences between countries like Sweden and Portugal or Hungary and Scotland. While they may not relate to the language and customs of their ancestors anymore, it is important to point out their own immigrant roots and emphasize how rich we are as a nation because of our immigrant heritages.

Religious Holidays and Traditions

When it comes to religious holidays or traditions, what is their appropriate place in the curriculum? How do teachers approach such issues as textbook content, values education, controversial issues, and religious holidays? The general rule of thumb is to do this carefully. The First Amendment Center, in coalition with the AFT and a number of other organizations including the NEA, have issued a guide for educators on such issues called "Finding Common Ground." Some of the guidelines urge educators to:

  • Have an approach that is academic and not devotional.
  • Focus on the awareness of religions rather than acceptance of any one religion.
  • Sponsor study about religion, not the practice of religion.
  • Expose students to a diversity of religious views and do not impose any particular view.
  • Educate about all religions — do not promote or denigrate any religion.
  • Inform students about various beliefs, rather than conform students to any particular belief.

The complete guide and a more comprehensive list of recommendations is available at the First Amendment Center website.

All of these recommendations are in line with the standard that officially guides states and schools on this issue — the "Lemon Test," named after the 1971 court case of Lemon v. Kurtzman. The Supreme Court decided that schools could not receive public funding if they engaged in religious instruction. However, it does not prohibit students from worshipping on their own. This court decision has three important parts to it:

  1. The government or public action in question* should only engage in secular or civil matters, leaving religion up to the individual.
  2. The government or public action in question must not actively promote or prohibit religion.
  3. The government or public action in question must not involve itself excessively with religion.

[*such as classroom instruction in a public school]

It's important to know what your purpose is in bringing up religion — most often, teachers intend to foster tolerance for other beliefs and faiths, and one of the best ways for teachers to do this is to plan ahead and to consult with informed sources, colleagues, parents, and the community. If students of a certain religion will be missing school days, it would be helpful to post these on a classroom calendar and let everyone in the class know ahead of time. Likewise, if students need to excuse themselves for prayer during the school day, it'd be best to plan a schedule and accommodate them in such a way that it does not interfere with their educational time in the classroom or with other students.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, all of these strategies for cultural responsiveness support our goals for student achievement in two ways. First, we build a democratic foundation for equal access to education. Secondly, we help students develop their own culturally sensitive skills to be successful in our diverse, multicultural, and global world, enriching not our classroom, but our nation as well.


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