Friday, December 5, 2014

Year 5: Week 14 – Jesus Vs. Zombie Snowman?

Like schools across the country, our elementary school age students put on a Holiday performance before the winter break and like schools across the country we spend time examining what music is appropriate for children to perform for the community.

Some schools take the route of avoiding religious aspects of the holiday season and sing songs about zombie snowman and taking a girl out for a “sled ride.” My school on other hand leans into the religious and cultural traditions associated with this time of year. Here’s a selections of songs we’ve sang is past years: “Silent Night,” “This Little Light Of Mine,” “S’Vivon,” “This Is Kwanzaa, “ “Imagine, “ “Los Reyes,” and this year “Light One Candle.”

We live in a Christian-centric society. There are many parts of our culture where what is Christian has blended into our sense of what is means to be American. The holiday of Christmas itself has taken on a meaning that has little to do with the actual the birth of Christ. When you look back into to the history of this holiday, it becomes clear that Jesus Christ wasn’t even born during this time of year and that Christmas was melded to together with pagan harvest festivals.

We have to reconcile how we honor diversity in our communities while reflecting the predominant culture. Does this mean that you perform a specific number of songs in relation to the proportions of different cultures at your school? Is there a point to singing a song about Hanukkah if none of the student body is Jewish? What if a child isn’t Christian and who has parents doesn’t want their child to sing the word Jesus?

All of these questions are tough questions that speak to cultural difference, religious conflicts and the challenge of living in a nation that claims to be accepting on pluralistic in public but still contains many people who are bigoted, racist and xenophobic.

Instead of steering away from cultural traditions and religions for our holiday program we steer straight into studying, learning and performing songs of different cultures. When I taught my 3rd graders “Silent Night” we talked about the virgin birth. When we performed “Imagine,” we discussed why some people might see the absence of religion as a benefit and for the past week I’ve been teaching about the struggles of the Maccabees and how the story of Hanukkah relates to the oppression of people in the the present.

Have I had complaints from parents about our song choices? Yes.  However, most parents are fine once they realize the way we are teaching these songs and that their culture is represented somewhere in the program or in the larger curriculum. These discussions take time and can sometimes be tense, but we’d rather face the challenges of these conversations and have students have a meaningful experience with the winter traditions of a culture than sing songs about snowflakes.

This isn’t just me and the other general music teacher who is responsible for this approach to Holiday music. Our school's philosophy encourages this level of exploration and inclusion.  I also have administrative support whenever these discussions arise.

I understand teachers who don't have any choice but to sing songs about snowflakes because of their school community, but if you have the chance to be more inclusive and speak more directly to the variety of Holiday traditions in our cultures, it's worth the challenge.

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