Archive for January, 2010

diversity and holidays

After working in education/childcare and pediatric medicine for over a decade, I still find myself wondering about the best way to deal with holidays in public, group settings.   Schools, for the most part, seem to stick to highlighting the traditional Christian holidays, to the point that school vacations in most communities revolve around those dates.  The hospitals I’ve worked in often seem to try to erase holidays from the scene, or at least display tokens of holidays in a handful of traditions.  I find myself dissatisfied with these tactics.

In a school setting, celebrating holidays gives a certain structure to the school year, and helps forge a connection between the child’s home environment and school, at least for those kids who celebrate the same holidays as those in the curriculum.  Holidays are often exciting times for children, and incorporating them into the curriculum can bring that same enthusiasm to their schoolwork, and holiday celebrations can bring a sense of community to the classroom.  However, celebrating holidays has the potential to isolate the children who don’t belong to the tradition celebrated.

So, should schools remove holidays from the curricula?  I don’t know of any schools that have taken this approach.  I’d personally be okay with that.  The classrooms might lose a little liveliness for a while, but I think eventually new traditions would replace the traditional holiday ones.  But would you remove just the religious holidays or all holidays?  Do Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day count as religious holidays?

Or should schools attempt to incorporate a variety of holidays into the school year?  Many schools make at least token attempts to do so, putting up Hannukah decorations alongside Christmas ones, for instance.  My understanding is that Hannukah is a relatively minor holiday in the Jewish tradition, though, so it isn’t culturally sensitive to highlight that holiday.  At the same time, the traditional American holidays that are based in Christianity have become so commercialized that it is much simpler to incorporate them into school activities: handing out valentines, doing math problems with Easter eggs, making Halloween masks.  Finding a way to include Ramadan or Yom Kippur is more challenging.  I personally think that doing so would be worthwhile, but teachers’ time is already very limited.  If one doesn’t put effort into researching the holidays of other cultures, before trying to bring them to the classroom, you risk perpetuating stereotypes and historical misrepresentations and further alienating and offending minorities.  Heck, if schools are still mis-teaching or glossing over the issues with the Thanksgiving story, how can they be trusted with an non-mainstream tradition?

I’d love to see schools seek out families to find out what traditions are important to them and to get suggestions of how those could be honored at school.  Hopefully families would feel respected, rather than marginalized, and seeking information from within the minority cultures would help ensure accurate representations of the celebrations.  And exposing students to holidays from various traditions would build an appreciation of diversity.

But what if holidays cause conflicts?  Some Christians might take offense at their children being introduced to a pagan tradition.  Do we take a firm stand that, at least in public education, all students’ backgrounds are welcome in the classroom?  Or do we try to keep religion out of the classroom entirely?  The former appeals to me, but might be too idealistic, while the latter seems impossible, with so much of our culture being rooted in Christianity, even if much of it has been extensively secularized.

In my current work in the medical field, I think there are further challenges.  A hospital usually serves a wider community than a school, so there may be more cultures and traditions to try to honor.   And the relationship between medical providers and patients, while intense, is generally shorter and more formal than that between schools and families, which makes the exchange of cultural information more difficult.  Cultural awareness is a buzzword at hospitals, especially because cultural differences can get in the way of open communication between patients and providers, can impact treatment options and adherence, and basically pose difficulties in helping patients get better.  However, from what I have seen in many medical settings, there is still a long way to go before anything approaching cultural competence is achieved.  I think organizations often err on the side of cultural blindness – one of the nurses at the hospital where I work was actually told not to express any sort of holiday greeting to patients, even if she knew the family celebrated a particular holiday.  Seems like a great way to make medicine even colder and more impersonal.  But even when an organization wants to be culturally aware, there are roadblocks.  Interpreters aren’t always available.  Doctors barely have enough time with patients to cover their medical history and educate about treatment, much less learn how to navigate the patient’s culture.   If we can’t address the cultural issues that impact the physical treatment of patients, how can we deal with those that impact their overall well-being?

Despite the challenges, making the medical environment welcoming to community members of all cultures is important.  Medicine is increasingly accepting of the idea that to effectively treat a patient, you need to address the whole person, not just their physical ailments.  Cultural elements are key to this concept.  You can help patients heal by providing spaces and resources for prayer, meditation, and alternative therapies.  I also firmly believe that emotional and social well-being contribute to healing, so if a patient is supported in observing their cultural and/or religious traditions, it may help him or her get better.  That support also helps the patient feel respected as an individual, which enhances trust in the medical community and encourages cooperation.

With children, I think this is especially true.  The medical environment is inherently frightening and foreign to most children.  Incorporating cultural and holiday elements into the hospital or doctor’s office makes those settings more familiar and approachable to kids.  Holiday celebrations can also add an element of fun to the hospital, and alleviate some of the distress patients and families feel when they can’t be home for those important celebrations.  Child life specialists strive to normalize the hospital environment as much as possible, and that includes incorporating holidays and other milestones.  But too often I think we don’t work hard enough to be inclusive.  In part, it is a numbers game.  Many individuals and community groups want to bring donations or special events to the kids for the mainstream holidays, but other cultural events don’t get the attention.  Maybe we should seek out members of the minority communities to help with their important days, and to spread awareness and an appreciation of diversity.  Hmm, too bad I have already set my performance goals for this year at work, or I could take on that project.  Maybe next year.  🙂

I’d love to hear what readers have to say on the subject.  I’m especially curious to hear any personal accounts of those with backgrounds outside the mainstream.  How did it feel that your holidays weren’t celebrated at school?  Would it be meaningful to you to have medical staff support you in finding a way to incorporate your cultural traditions  during a hospital stay?


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