Message from NCSM President, Paul Gray

How in the heck is it already December?


Y’all already know that I grew up in Houston where December is part of the season we call “not summer.” On Christmas Day in Texas, we could set a record high one year and record low the next. One year, we even had a white Christmas. That was the year Victoria, Texas, had more snow on the ground than Minneapolis, Minnesota. Let me tell you…none of us knew what to do with that.

When I was a student in elementary school, we had “Christmas Break” on the official school calendar. But then, I started Kindergarten the year after my school district was forced by a federal court order to desegregate its schools. And my first elementary principal suddenly retired when she was forced to stop leading the Lord’s Prayer over the school intercom every morning. Thankfully, the late 1970s in Houston were a different world than we have now.


As we wrap up 2022 and engage in our holiday break, I’m thinking about how important it is for our public schools, where we educate all children in our community, to be inclusive of many holiday traditions. One might call them culturally relevant celebrations. Think about it…how many different holidays do the students in your school or district celebrate in December? And what might we do to honor those holiday traditions in our school in such a way that makes them feel like they are valued members of the school community? We have a perfect opportunity to build students’ cultural competence, one of the three tenants of Gloria Ladson-Billings’s culturally relevant pedagogy framework.


Many schools have a Christmas tree prominently displayed in the front office. Some folks will call it a “holiday tree” but I have never liked that. The notion of bringing a pine tree indoors (cue the visions of Clark Griswold buried inside a voluminous pine tree yelping, “Sap! Lots of sap here!”) and decorating it with lights and ornaments is a Christmas tradition that we Americans and Canadians borrowed from Germany. In my opinion, let’s just call it what it is…a Christmas tree. And that’s OK. A Christmas tree is culturally relevant to students from a Christian culture.


While we’re talking about Christmas as a Christian holiday, remember that Christians aren’t only found in European countries. What are some of the African Christmas traditions that could be spotlighted in your school? How do the Latinx students, teachers, and community members in your school and school community celebrate Christmas? As much as I love José Feliciano’s version of “Feliz Navidad,” that ain’t gonna cut it. There are meaningful traditions and customs that can be brought into the school for the holiday season, like a school-based version of Las Posadas. These Christmas rituals and celebrations make the school’s holiday celebrations culturally relevant to students from Latinx cultures.


Right next to that Christmas tree, put up a menorah to honor the Jewish students, teachers, and community members. Please don’t stick it in the teachers’ lounge or in some back corner of the front office. Give it the same prominence that you would the Christmas tree. Light the candles. Have students and teachers share the story behind the menorah and why one candle is lit each day. Doing so makes the school’s holiday celebrations culturally relevant to students from a Jewish culture.


How can we also incorporate the seven principles of Kwanzaa in our time before the winter holiday break? How might we use traditions of storytelling and poetry readings for all of our students, teachers, and community members to feel valued? Many cultures around the world use music, lights, and oral traditions to share and acquire knowledge. Bringing these ideas into the school’s holiday celebrations makes them culturally relevant to students from African cultures.


New Year’s Day also brings many traditions that we can celebrate in our schools. In most places in the US and Canada, this is a secular holiday. Many cultures also place religious value on New Year’s Day. What are the New Year’s Day traditions that students, teachers, and community members in your school and school community celebrate? How might you use those to welcome everyone back in January after the winter holiday break? I’m a good ol’ Southern boy and you’d better believe we’re having black-eyed peas with our New Year’s dinner. I missed them on January 1, 2020, and you know how 2020 turned out.


Let us remember that teaching and learning is a human enterprise. As Zaretta Hammond tells us, when humans interact, culture is at play. The question is never “is there culture here?” Rather, the question is “who’s culture is here?” Just like when we select contextual mathematics tasks, when we select holiday observances, decorations, and customs, we must ask ourselves, “who’s culture are we honoring here?” and “how can I make sure we are honoring other cultures in my school?”


Y’all be careful. We’ll touch base again in 2023!



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