A holiday of many colors reveals new worlds to kids

December 13, 1991|By Mary Corey

After a particularly exciting school day, Daisong Tan went home and taught his parents, who are Chinese, to say "Merry Christmas" -- in Polish. Lydia Legg added another item to her Christmas wish list: a dreidel. And George Bilias wondered how he could convince his family to not only celebrate Christmas, but Hanukkah and Kwanza, too.

Welcome to the holiday season of many colors. At public schools throughout the state, students are being given a secular lesson about the diverse ways ethnic groups celebrate. As the American population grows more varied and the multicultural approach to education gains wider acceptance, December is fast becoming a prime time to teach youngsters there's more than one way to make merry.

"Our world is changing. The United States and many countries are becoming a melting pot for many cultures. . . . We believe that everybody is doing something exciting and interesting, and we should share it," says Beverly Ellinwood, principal of John Ruhrah Elementary School in Highlandtown, which has the largest non-English speaking population in the city school system.

In Carolyn Smith's second-grade class, youngsters from Poland, Honduras, China and Greece recount lessons they've learned about the menorah, pinata and Christmas tree. "Merry Christmas" has been translated into at least five languages on a bulletin board in the front of the room. And a homework assignment awaits: Write a letter to your grandmother relating what you've learned about different cultures.

Seven-year-old Daisong plans to focus on the candles in the menorah. "I wish I could have one," says the youngster, who emigrated from China a year ago.

George asked his parents the night before if they could begin celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza. The Greek-American youngster now wants to share the good news with his grandmother: "They said, 'We'll try to do it one day.' And they never lie to me."

His schoolmate Lydia is mentally expanding her Christmas list to include a Barbie doll, a real horse and a dreidel, the Jewish top that children play with during Hanukkah. If it doesn't turn up under the tree, she already has Plan B in mind. "Maybe at the store I can buy it and teach my family how to play," says the 7 1/2 -year-old who lives in Highlandtown.

Her mother, Mary Jo Legg, is going to need some lessons, too. "I didn't even know what [a dreidel] was," the 32-year-old mother of three says sheepishly. "My daughter's already better educated than I was."

FTC Population studies suggest Lydia is going to need to be. In

Baltimore City public schools alone things have changed significantly in the past 20 years. In 1970, roughly 67 percent of the population was "non-white;" in 1990, that figure rose to nearly 82 percent.

Such statistics mirror a larger trend, sometimes referred to as "the browning of America." During the next century, racial and ethnic groups in this country are expected to outnumber whites, according to projections by the Census Bureau.

The block in Fells Point where Phyllis Bays and her daughter, Carly, live is evidence of that. Their neighbors include families from Poland, Germany and Korea, and the school that Carly attends -- General Wolfe Elementary -- has been nicknamed the "Rainbow School" because of the many nationalities there. Ms. Bays considers it a benefit of city life that her daughter can sample a variety of ethnic traditions. "It gives her more of an incentive to learn and gives her a wider variety of knowledge. I want Carly to experience all she can of life," says Ms. Bays, 42.

Not all parents agree. In the past few years, several Jehovah's Witnesses have asked that their children be excused from holiday lessons at John Ruhrah. And the State Department of Education has received at least one complaint from an Islamic parent who felt his child was being given too narrow a perspective on holiday culture.

"Multiculture education has raised many fears with people," says Jill Christianson, an education equity specialist with the state. "It means accepting a richer palette as to who we are, how we define ourselves as a nation. There's a hesitancy about change, even it's for the better."

Ms. Ellinwood admits that teaching cultural diversity is not always an easy thing. "It's a challenge, but a fun challenge for us," she says. To encourage acceptance of different nationalities, she formed an ambassadors club last year, in which students act as good-will emissaries at the school.

She's also made a point to have every student's country represented in the school recital. While grand Christmas pageants featuring Jesus, Mary and Joseph were the norm in the past, schools now focus more on a holiday-around-the-world theme.

"Schools want to make things inclusive, rather than exclusive," explains Jacqueline Shulik, social studies supervisor for Howard County elementary schools.

At General Wolfe Elementary School in Fells Point, Tasha Bethea is in the thick of learning the steps to an African harvest dance. While she sees fun in such an endeavor -- so much fun in fact that she admits to rehearsing instead of doing her homework -- she's also aware that learning is part of the process. "Part of my education is learning about other countries," the 11-year-old says.

That's exactly what principal Guinevere Berry hopes all students believe. "We're trying to give children the sense of universality of the holidays," she says. "If one thing can be learned, it's that we're all very much alike. . . . And the more we understand ourselves, the more we're able to understand and help others."

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