Minnesota Mamaleh: Dear Public School Principal…

Backpack Dump

All moms know about the "Backpack Dump." What to do when your kids bring home such a variety of backpack things to dump on your kitchen table?

There are two things on my mind on this cozy, snowy day. The first is how much I love hot chocolate stirred with candy canes and the second is how my sweet Kayli fared through her first holiday season at a public school.

These thoughts have flitted around our household all month long. Jason and I watched Kayli’s face as the girls described their school days and shared their projects. Chloe, still at her Jewish preschool, easily felt the connection between  her Hanukkah curriculum at school and what we have going on at home. We’ve been wondering what has been going on behind Kayli’s serious little eyes as she described being Santa’s helper, reading Christmas books and making reindeer and stockings at school; all extremely fun activities but not exactly reflective of her experiences at home.

We absolutely adore our school situation. We think so highly of our district, school, principal and teacher. Between the two of us, Jason and I have taught for about a dozen years in three different states. We believe in the public school system and are exactly where we want to be. But every once in awhile, we can’t help but wonder how much easier things would be if we went the Jewish school route. Then maybe we wouldn’t have to wonder about those serious little eyes.

But fact is, even though that would indeed be easier in a lot of ways, we do want our kids exposed to as many cultures, experiences and learnings as possible. We want them to feel that they are a part of this big world even if that means that sometimes things feel uncomfortable and serious.

So what’s a Jewish Mamaleh to do when her daughter looks so serious while talking about school and there’s just so  many more elementary school Decembers to follow? After some hemming and hawing and a lot of talking it over with Jason, I wrote a letter. To our principal. Commending her for her amazing school. Acknowledging the amazing job Kayli’s teacher did in inviting me into her classroom to teach the kids about Hanukkah. And asking if she was open to meeting with us to discuss if there was any way that Jason and I could help classroom teachers move forward in their approach to December teaching. Not that we know it all, but we might be a good place to start.

You might be surprised to hear that I have participated in decorating a Christmas tree, playing “find Baby Jesus” and making a reindeer art project or two. All in my classroom. When I was I a public school teacher. I have also been a part of a Kwanzaa creativity share, made Hanukkah latkes and eaten long soba and udon noodles in honor of the Japanese Omisoka (New Year). Again,  all in my classroom.

The issue isn’t about taking Christmas OUT of the classroom. It’s about letting everyone else IN.  For example, I used to invite all families into the classroom to share a holiday tradition with the kids. We all learned so much from each other, enjoyed ourselves immensely and authentically experienced our differences and similarities. Everyone’s traditions were acknowledged, respected and celebrated.  I kept a Christmas tree in my classroom. It was right next to the Hanukkah menorah, the Kwanzaa kinara and whatever else any family was willing to let me use for the season.

Often times when things upset me, big things, little things, nothing things…I get fired up.  I  rely on Jason to help me back off the ledge.  More often than not, by talking things through, we figure out how to deal with issues on our own; just the two of us.  This is different.  This is about our kids. And their learning. And their hearts. And how they view the December holiday season, what it means to them and their place in it. “Just the two of us” doesn’t cut it.  We need to find a way to partner with the school and other families to drive change and move forward.

Hence the letter. And, more importantly, the ask to be a part of whatever change the principal would be open to. No worries everyone, Jason edited the letter and smoothed it’s rough edges. Our purpose was just to open the conversation.

In my experience,  public educators do want to be inclusive of all students but may simply not know how or where to start. It’s hard to approach the unknown. So our goal is to become the known. And to be helpful. And to partner up and move forward. We’re in this for the long haul. We’re in this for our kids.

I want my kids learn about all cultures reflected in their classrooms and community. I want them to feel comfortable and excited discussing their own celebrations and everyone else’s as well.  I would love to see “moving forward” go beyond the “Christmas-Hanukkah” issue and tackle stumbling blocks like standardized testing occurring during  Ramadan (when many students are fasting). You get the idea, change for the sake of kids. In my heart-of-hearts, I think that’s what educators want and envision as well and that working together, we can make a dent in this vision. We shall see when we meet with our principal in January!