For some children, Christmastime isn't always so merry

December 07, 1992|By McClatchy News Service

Modesto, Calif. -- Most youngsters nearly burst wit excitement this time of the year as Christmas approaches. But in the midst of classroom celebrations, non-Christian kids may be feeling alienated.

In a recent survey on self-concept and classroom environment, non-Christian kids scored significantly lower than Christian children during the Christmas season. Non-Christian kids included children following Baha'i, Buddhist, Jewish and Sikh faiths.

Nina Rosenthal, professor of education, and Todd Russell, associate professor of education, both at Stanislaus State University in California, conducted a control test in October and a final test in December 1991. The study involved 222 public school students in grades 4-6. They located the students through Modesto churches, synagogues and temples.

In one part of the study, children were asked to describe how they felt in the classroom during the Christmas season. They were asked whether they felt excluded or included; comfortable or uncomfortable; loved or unloved; and others.

Twenty-six percent of the non-Christian kids felt excluded in the classroom, as opposed to 9 percent of Christian students. Twenty-four percent of non-Christian children felt annoyed, while percent of Christian children said they had that feeling.

Ms. Rosenthal and Mr. Russell said they were surprised that the disparities between Christian and non-Christian kids were so large.

"At some deeper level, there's obviously a difference," said Ms. Rosenthal. "Kids are feeling less certain about themselves."

Ms. Rosenthal and Mr. Russell, who both train school counselors, had in some way expected to find some alienation among non-Christian students. Ms. Rosenthal, who is Jewish, remembered attending public schools when she was a child and feeling confused in December. The school, in a Jewish neighborhood, was more than 90 percent Jewish. Ms. Rosenthal said she couldn't understand why they sang Christmas carols.

Although Mr. Russell is Christian, he also has some concerns about the emotional well being of non-Christian kids at this time of year.

"My family starts celebrating Christmas on Thanksgiving Day. But as a counselor educator, we're training teachers not just for the majority but we're training them for every student regardless of race, creed, or religious beliefs.

"Teachers have to be sensitive to diversity," said Mr. Russell. "And people have to recognize that a youngster may outwardly appear happy and willing to go along with everything, but that inwardly they are feeling rejected."

Mr. Russell and Ms. Rosenthal also found that schools displayed a significant number of religious symbols during Christmas. Secular symbols such as Santas, canes, trees, snowflakes and wreaths were most common, but 32 percent of the students said angels were hung in their classrooms. Twelve percent of the children said crosses were displayed in the classroom, while 11 percent said they saw nativity scenes in the classroom.

Rosenthal and Russell said that using religious symbols and songs in public schools creates a divisive social environment in the classroom. A non-Christian student can't help but feel alienated when surrounded by those symbols and songs.

"It's inappropriate to sing 'Joy to the World,' " said Ms. Rosenthal. "The religious songs should be treated as religious songs when teaching religious music." Otherwise singing religious songs as a celebration of a holiday is wrong, she said.

zTC Mr. Russell said that with heightened awareness of multicultural sensitivity in schools, teachers need to take it one step further to include religious sensitivity.

Some teachers may want to broaden their students' awareness by recognizing a variety of religious holidays in the classroom. Ms. Rosenthal said that is not the answer.

"It's talking about the holidays vs. celebrating the holidays." Ms. Rosenthal said discussing a variety of religions in public school can be educational but celebrating different religious holidays and making students participate is inappropriate.

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