Sleigh Bells Ring…Is Anyone Listening?

A MiddleWeb Blog

kids_cusp2The holiday season at school has many facets, ranging from a general sense of excitement, as the holiday break approaches, to an increase in student impulsivity and inability to contain this excitement (see aforementioned “holiday break approaches”).

Visions of sugarplums have been pushed out of my head, as “to do” lists push their way in, trying to help me recapture my inner Scrooge. These lists are stuffed, like the stockings that will soon be hung by my chimney with care.

old bells on red 250The only time the busyness of the season doesn’t seem to crowd my thoughts is at school, when we are lost in our learning and focused on exploring new ideas, discovering more about the world around us.

Thankfully, my 4th grade class is full of children who, despite the upcoming break, are still working hard and staying excited about learning. They’re a wonderful blend of personalities, temperaments, and faiths.

Why we bring the holidays into the classroom

Incorporating holiday traditions is an important way to teach citizenship and character building, as we take a little “time out” to ignore the separation of church and state, synagogue and school, and introduce some traditions and holidays from a variety of religions and faiths across the globe.

We boast a wonderful variety of cultures in our classroom this year, but Hanukkah and Christmas seem to be the two major holidays celebrated in our respective homes, so it was quite an experience, last week, when our substitute librarian came into our classroom to read to us.

menorah on blue 250We’d had a visiting author presenting in the school library earlier that morning, so the kids were still in full reading mode as she came in to do a make-shift library experience in the classroom.

As I sat, attempting to focus on grading papers while she gathered the kids on our reading rug, I found myself unable to focus on the task at hand. My ears perked up as she began to read The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate by Janice Cohn. This was a title I’d never heard of, and I couldn’t help being drawn into the story. What I came to learn was that Cohn’s picture book was based on a true story.

A community comes together

It is the story of a hate crime that took place in Billings, Montana in 1993, almost three decades ago. After a rock is thrown through the window of the Schnitzer home because of the Hanukkah menorah they’d placed in their front window, a town moves from hatred to love. Families of different faiths support the Schnitzer family’s right to express their own religious beliefs, as they re-dedicate the unity of their neighborhood by choosing to place menorahs in all their windows, regardless of their varying faiths.

menorah coverThis united Montana neighborhood community sends a clear and shining message to those who would use violence and bullying. It is a message of tolerance and acceptance of others, no matter what holiday they celebrate or what faith they believe in.

I’m glad I didn’t get lost in the grading zone that day – that I was given the opportunity to hear this story.

A link from present to past across content areas

When my ears are in the right frame of mind, when I can hear the bells, I find myself listening for ideas that enhance my teaching. This is a gift that I can give my students all year long. Listening to the Schnitzers’ story was one of those moments of inspiration. The bells in my head were ringing crisp and clear. I quickly jotted down the title and put it, ironically, in my “Christmas” file.

I may have to wait until next year to read and discuss Cohn’s inspiring book with a new class, but these moments of inspiration tend to lead further. They usually lead me to asking myself, “Is there a way to use this now?”

The answer is usually “Yes.”

During Social Studies lessons, we have been discussing the reasons for early exploration. Religious intolerance, and the confusing relationship between church and state, were quite dicey back then. Spreading religion was one of the many reasons for those living in that time to explore the unknown.

History gives us a timeline of faiths and their divergence. Taking a historical look at some religious traditions and beliefs can educate children about more than the difference between a menorah and a Lenten candle.

drk red rel symb on pale yellow 250As circumstances would have it, we are also knee-deep in a non-fiction reading unit right now, one that focuses on gathering facts and using these facts to form our own opinions. Looking at narrative non-fiction, through stories like Cohn’s Christmas Menorahs, is one way to blend religious cultures, explore their similarities and differences, and discover our commonality as human beings, deciding what is important to us.

Just a little tinkling on the keys of my laptop gave me a few possibilities for extending our work in Social Studies as historical thinkers, especially for the two-day week, right before break, when the kids’ excitement will be at its peak…and mine will be headed in the same direction.

Stories from the past, whether they be in a children’s read aloud, a Torah, or a Bible, have something to teach us. In each, there are lessons to be learned and opinions to be formed.

2019 Update: PBS presented a program, Not In Our Town, showing how Billings residents reacted to mistreatment of Native Americans and African American church goers as well as the desecration of the Jewish cemetery prior to the rock throwing. (Source)

One “cool fact” we will learn next week is that the word Hanukkah (or Channukah) translates as “rededication,” or “dedicate again.” Historical writing tells us that the Macabees rededicated their temple to their religion, and the gift of eight days’ worth of oil was received. According to the text, there was only enough oil to last one day.

Dedication is also defined as being a feeling of very strong support for, or loyalty to, a person, a group, or a cause. The people in Billings, Montana, the Schnitzers’ neighborhood community, certainly showed their dedication – a dedication to kindness, loyalty, acceptance, and support of others.

‘Tis the season to rededicate

yes vaI have to believe. I have to listen for those moments that help me rededicate myself to teaching. The sound of possibilities can be heard, if I open my ears to hear them.

Some days they are fainter, harder to hear. Some days I have to listen for them earnestly. But most of the time I still hear them. They ring out, loud and clear…in the twinkling of my students’ eyes and the soft chimes of their laughter…

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

This post was originally published in 2014.

For more seasonal holiday resources, see MiddleWeb’s Teaching Faith-Based Holidays

Mary Tarashuk

Mary Tarashuk teaches 4th grade at Wilson Elementary School in Westfield, New Jersey. Mary has been an educator for over 20 years. She has served as content writer and creative consultant for the national, award-winning initiative The Walking Classroom since its inception in 2005. Mary’s work has been published in Education Digest and was honored with the SmartBrief Education 2016 Editors’ Choice Content Award. Trying to balance her old-school teaching style with New Age methods that integrate ever-changing technology keeps her on her toes. She believes that fresh air and exercise enhance learning and engage students of all ages. Follow her on Twitter @maryrightangle and visit her personal blog (launched in 2021) Behind the Doors of the Teacher's Room for some adult conversation.

3 Responses

  1. JoeP says:

    Great article from a terrific teacher!

  2. Aw, Joey P…Thanks, my friend and fellow writer!

  3. Ann says:

    This book has been a favorite of mine for years. I always get a little teary at the end when I read it to my students. So glad you will be sharing it with your classes, too!

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