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Teachers walk fine line in holiday lessons

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Posted: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 12:00 am

In one local public school classroom, Christmas trees adorn a bulletin board and tiny stars of David shine on the windows.

Snowflakes dangle from the ceiling and snowmen sit proudly on a teacher’s desk.

In another classroom, there’s no trace of December holidays.

Decorating walls and bulletin boards at public elementary schools is as diverse as the students that attend there. But it’s this time of year that public educators may work the hardest to balance their personal beliefs while following rules prohibiting classroom decorations or themes that are religious in nature.

This year, Lodi third-grade teacher Emilie Leyva put up wreaths and garland and hung projects students created discussing their families’ traditions this time of year in the school’s foyer. Some wrote about Christmas, while others focused on family game night, Cambodian New Year and quinceneras.

“It was a great experience for all to learn about culture and religion,” Leyva said.

Inside the classroom, students discussed Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, save for a Jehovah’s Witness student who does not celebrate the December holidays. Instead, he gave a presentation on an annual family trip to Reno.

Other teachers are part of a small but growing number who say being inclusive of all religious holidays and traditions has become too challenging and time-consuming, according to an article in a national education publication.

During her many years teaching first grade in Galt, teacher Susan Petersen had a holidays-around-the-world unit where they celebrated all cultures and religions, she said. “And Santa always made it up on the walls (as) the students would write letters to Santa.”

Despite their own personal beliefs, Petersen, who is now an administrator, said her peers educated students about different traditions.

“It is important to remember that we are public education which means you as a teacher need to honor the traditions of everyone,” she added.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 1960s that public schools may teach about religion, but they cannot sponsor religious practices. In California, school districts typically let teachers decide how to address religious holidays.

Most, however, have policies on what type of decorations can be placed in classrooms. Lodi Unified’s reads, in part:

  • Instructional programs may include references to religion and may use religious literature, art, music or symbols to illustrate the subject matter being taught. ...Instruction about religious holidays shall be carefully tied to these educational objectives.
  • The schools may teach about religion from a historical, cultural, sociological or other educational perspective, but must not favor the beliefs and customs of any particular religion or sect over any others in such teaching. ...School-sponsored programs should not be, nor have the effect of being, religiously oriented or a religious celebration.
  • Classroom decorations and costumes may express seasonal themes that are not religious in nature.

Contact reporter Jennifer Bonnett at jenniferb@lodinews.com.

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