In this column for the AJC, Linda K. Wertheimer, a former education editor of the Boston Globe, addresses why that change was a mistake. She is the author of “Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance.” You can find her on Twitter: @lindakwert
By Linda K. Wertheimer
Georgia’s State Board of Education just took the war over Christmas in public schools to new heights. It passed a social studies standard requiring kindergarten teachers to include Christmas in the lesson plan.
This new standard puts teachers in a conundrum. Most already struggle each year with the December dilemma. Do they do activities about Christmas or avoid it altogether? Do they try to be inclusive and teach about Hanukkah, too?
Georgia’s new standard gives teachers no choice. It lumps Christmas in with Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and seven other non-religious holidays. It requires kindergarteners to learn how to identify these national holidays and describe the people and/ or the events celebrated. Approving such a standard is an educational disservice to children who will be taught that Christmas is the religious holiday that deserves to be included in the classroom but other religions’ holidays do not count.
Also, the state board seems to have forgotten about the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits a state from establishing a religion. Representatives of the state, including teachers, cannot promote one religion over another. Teachers cannot teach lessons about Christmas in isolation as if it were a secular holiday like Labor or Independence Day.
Contrary to the belief some Americans hold, America is not a Christian nation. We live in an increasingly diverse country. Christians are in the majority, but the percentage of non-Christians is increasing. So is the proportion of Americans who do not affiliate with any religion.
Singling out Christmas in the lesson plan is an ill-conceived notion that could take Georgia backwards and possibly nudge other Bible Belt states to follow suit because of a pining for days of old. Such a standard could naturally lead some educators to think it’s all right to hold Christmas celebrations and stick a Christmas tree in the hall. Some schools still do that, but when their practices become public, they usually stop. First Amendment experts have repeatedly noted that Christmas celebrations in schools are inappropriate and illegal.
It is a fine idea, though, to teach elementary students about Christianity and other religions as part of a well thought-out curriculum on world religions. It is not illegal to teach about religious holidays, as the First Amendment Center explains in “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.” Teachers do need to teach with care so they do not step over the line separating church from state. They can teach about but not celebrate holidays in the classroom. That means they can provide information about a holiday, how and when it is celebrated, its origins, history and meaning.
“If the approach is objective and sensitive, neither promoting nor inhibiting religion, this study can foster understanding and mutual respect for differences in belief,” the report says.
But how can kindergarten teachers create respect for differences if they are only asked to teach about one religion’s holiday? By highlighting Christmas, the state school board is promoting Christianity. I don’t dispute Christmas is a national holiday in our country, but two wrongs do not make a right. Not everyone in this country celebrates Christmas even if most get the day off from work. Christmas is not a secular holiday. It celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ, revered by Christians as their savior and as the son of God. That’s a Christian, not a universal American, belief. Learning about Christmas only and not Easter also gives children a skewed view of Christianity.
The executive director of the Georgia Council for the Social Studies, which advocates for teachers, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the council questions how teachers can teach about Christmas so kindergarteners can understand it. I’m more worried about the legality of teaching only about Christmas than I am about whether teachers could figure out how to make the subject kindergarten-friendly. Even kindergarteners can learn basic information about different religions and their holidays.
I’ve seen lessons about religion in public schools taught as early as first grade using the Core Knowledge curriculum, which includes such instruction as part of social studies. More than 1,200 public and private schools across the country use the approach, developed by educational researcher E.D. Hirsch. Hirsch believes there is a set of information all children should master by the time they graduate from high school. He includes learning about world religions as an essential skill. Becoming religiously literate is part of becoming an educated citizen.
Georgia requires teaching about different religions as part of world history and geography in secondary schools. That’s laudable, but if Georgia is planning to introduce Christmas to the lesson plan in kindergarten, it must go further. At the minimum, include other religions’ holidays, though learning about religion involves more than just knowing the holidays. Also, train teachers, who may need help learning content and approach for the lessons on religious holidays. They have to be sure they do not veer into celebration or proselytization.
A first-grade teacher I observed in a Wichita, Kansas, elementary school knew she was not supposed to say “I believe” when she told the story of Christmas and Easter as part of a unit on Christianity. She follows the Core Knowledge script and says “This is what Christians believe.” The Core Knowledge curriculum has teachers read stories about a Jewish, Christian and Muslim child to the first-graders. Through stories, students learn about the history of each religion, the core beliefs, and the holidays.
When the teacher taught the unit on Judaism, she brought in a menorah she found at a local Target as a prop to show how Jews light the candles for eight nights. During a few weeks in November, the children learned not only about Christmas and Easter. They learned about Hanukkah, Yom Kippur and other Jewish holidays. They learned, too, about Muslim holidays, including Ramadan, which began earlier this week. This was education, not celebration.
Were these lessons too complex for such young children? I don’t think so. The language used was simple. The teacher used photos to teach children to recognize a church, a synagogue or mosque. The children cut out drawings of the Jewish Star of David, a Christian cross, and a crescent and star, a symbol often associated with Islam.
Through reading, listening and arts and crafts, these young children could grasp what the Georgia Board of Education may not yet understand. Many faiths, not just one, exist in our world. Teachers should not be put in the position of promoting one religion over another. If we single out Christmas, we send a clear message to children that Christianity is the "right" and "only" way to live. If we make attempts to teach children about different religions, we give them an incredible gift. Those in the majority get a chance to learn about other faiths. Those in the minority in America get a chance to be proud of who they are.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.