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Rethinking Your Holiday Projects (Ep. 294)

As we end November and move into December, it is a good time to think about how you approach the holidays in your classroom. Do you teach holiday projects? Should you teach holiday projects? In today’s episode, Tim welcomes Amy Neiwirth to the show to talk about these ideas and so much more. Listen as they discuss how we teach during these months, how we deal with tradition, and why we need to foster authentic artmaking experiences for our students.
Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Transcript

Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

It is Thanksgiving week and is time to talk about the holidays. Joining me in just a bit will be Amy Neiwirth, an art teacher from Columbus, Ohio, who is making her first appearance on the podcast. And we are going to talk about the holidays and maybe why you should stay away from holiday projects in the art room because we’ll get into all of this when Amy comes on but just a couple of thoughts before we do that. I think as teachers, we have a little bit of a challenge when it comes to holidays if we are going to deal with them in the classroom because we need to not only acknowledge and respect the wide variety of holidays and traditions that students have, we need to do that without implying that some holidays are more important than others.

And I think that because comes a dilemma for a lot of us because can we actually talk about and teach about different holidays and traditions without making some of our students feel left out? I think it’s difficult to do. And sometimes even when we make an attempt to feel inclusive, we do it in a way that still is making kids feel excluded. Today I want to talk about whether there is a better way to deal with the holidays in the art room as we move into the end of November and December. Should you be doing holiday projects at all? Is that the best way to spend the limited time that we have with our students?

I would argue, no, that’s not the best way to do it but I’m also aware that I’m kind of a curmudgeon. And so that being said, I think there are better and more important things we can do with that time in the art room. And even if you are someone who disagrees with me there, I would encourage you to think more deeply about what you’re doing during the holidays and why you’re doing things the way you do. And so I hope that this discussion today helps you consider how you can help your kids make meaningful work over the next month or so. Amy is here to help me talk through a lot of these ideas. She’s here to share her perspective and we will talk about how we can best help our students with what we teach. Let me bring her on now.

Amy Neiwirth is joining me now. Amy, how are you?

Amy: I’m doing awesome. Thanks so much for asking. How are you?

Tim: I am awesome also. A lot to chat about tonight. I really wanted to have you on to talk about holiday projects, Christmas projects. I’m not sure which phrasing we should use but before we do that, can you just kind of introduce yourself? Can you tell us about you, your teaching, your interests, just other things you do outside of school?

Amy: Sure. Awesome. This is my 17th year teaching visual art and right now I’m teaching fourth and fifth grade at an intermediate school in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. And I used to teach K-12 art for 15 years at a Jewish day school here in Columbus and outside of school, I make handmade polymer clay jewelry that looks like tiny foods.

Tim: Nice.

Amy: And Sweet Stella Designs is my small business name and I’ve been doing that since 2006 but I’ve been taking an extended hiatus due to all of the life things. I got married in 2019 and then the pandemic has been a thing. I just having a hard time finding the energy to keep up the side hustle.

Tim: Fair enough. We can’t do it all. I’m kind of intrigued by polymer clay, tiny food. This sounds interesting. I feel like I need to check it out.

Amy: I’m sweetstellaoh on Instagram is my jewelry account.

Tim: Okay, very nice.

Amy: And I’ve been really bad about posting but there’s some good past stuff in there.

Tim: That’s all right. We can still a link to it and everybody can still check it out. That’ll be good. Like I said in the intro though, we wanted to talk about holiday lessons and why you and I both don’t necessarily love them but you have a much different perspective than me. If you don’t mind, I’m going to ask you maybe more of a personal question here but I wanted to get your perspective, just being Jewish, what is your reaction when you’re seeing teachers posting Christmas projects and talking about everything that they’re doing with holiday projects with their students?

Amy: Right. I think the first thing to think about is when people say holiday, what do they actually mean? I think a lot of times people use the term holiday in an attempt to be inclusive but then when it boils down to it, there’s really just one holiday represented there.

Tim: They actually just mean Christmas.

Amy: Pretty much just Christmas, like Starbucks holiday cups, for example they’re always red and green so it’s pretty coded as Christmas there. Or when people say holiday ham, most people are not going to have a Hanukah ham or a Diwali ham. But from a Jewish perspective, I think there’s a couple things going on. First, I think some people might be dismissive of my opinion because they might think, oh, well of course she doesn’t want Christmas projects, she’s Jewish. And I guess when you transfer that thought to students, yes, of course. The kids who don’t celebrate Christmas, aren’t going to want those Christmas projects necessarily.

But also, I don’t think it’s fair to be dismissive of that mindset just because what I care about or what I do in my personal life doesn’t necessarily always align with what I’m choosing to do in the classroom. For example, yes, I’m Jewish but my husband is not Jewish. I’m not on a war against Christmas. His family celebrates Christmas. I have nothing personal against it. It’s a little exhausting to see it so pervasive in our culture. But when it’s so prevalent for six weeks or more, does it have to be in a public school setting also? What are we really trying to accomplish by bringing it into a public school setting when it’s so pervasive?

Tim: Yeah. I think that’s a really good question because honestly, you start seeing Christmas stuff being set up before Halloween even starts and that’s a full two months and not that I want to rant here but let me try and say this briefly. What are you adding to the discourse? Or like you said, what can you bring to this that’s new, that’s different when it doesn’t already exist? We’ve been staring at this nonstop for two months by the time Christmas actually comes around.

But thinking about that in a way that relates to our curriculum and to what we’re doing in the art room, for me personally, I’ve always disliked Christmas projects because I don’t think they really challenge kids. I haven’t seen much that is really going to be a great learning experience for our kids. I feel like it takes away from things that we could be doing differently, things that we could be doing better. We have an entire curriculum that we could and should be teaching instead. Is your thinking along those same lines? Or do you have other reasons that you dislike those projects?

Amy: Yeah, absolutely. It’s very multi-layered. I feel like I have complicated feelings. Yes, to everything that you said. Absolutely. We as art teachers, especially at the elementary level have really limited time with our students. Some questions that we can ask ourselves is, are we using our time and resources as best as we can if we’re focusing on holiday-themed art? And then with the teacher-led projects, we’re really presenting students with often cookie-cutter, follow the directions kind of things. Are we fostering those authentic artmaking experiences? And then of course, are we risking othering and excluding students when we focus on a religious holiday in a public school? And I’m going to try not to rant also but I think sometimes people will say, “Well, Christianity is the majority and we just have to go with what the majority is doing.”

And I think this majority rules mindset doesn’t necessarily work in this mode because everyone already sees the majority culture and the majority religion everywhere so no one has to necessarily learn about it because it’s already there. It exists. That’s a little bit of Christian privilege there. If you’re a Christian or you celebrate Christmas, you can always walk into a store in November and December and see the things that represent your holiday. And that’s just another added layer of that. And so when we’re thinking about what the majority is doing and bringing it into the classroom, I just think it feels like too much Christmas and definitely an opportunity to alienate and other students who really don’t celebrate. And I think that that could be kind of harmful.

Tim: Yeah, absolutely. And I want to circle back to that in just a second but I want to just comment on something you said there. You gave a lot of reasons that you don’t necessarily like these projects and what I’m thinking is for me, it’s always been just about curriculum and fostering those authentic artmaking experiences, like you said but then I’m coming to the realization that that’s very much a surface level understanding of why we shouldn’t be doing that. And I probably need to dig a little bit deeper and I need to think a little bit more about those repercussions, about what we’re forcing on kids that maybe are getting excluded by this. And so, that gives me a lot to think about. Thank you for that.

But that also leads me into my next question here, which you mentioned just, I don’t know if we want to say majority rule, but the idea that this is already a dominant part of the culture and because of that, people will often say, “These projects are tradition. This is what I did as a kid. This is what I think our kids should be doing. They’re important.” Or along those same lines, a lot of times they’re in a very homogeneous teaching situation where a lot of the kids are celebrating Christmas and they can say everybody celebrates the same thing. What is the problem there? And I guess I would love your perspective on those things. When people are just saying, “This is about tradition.” Or, “It’s okay because this is what we’ve always done. This is what all our kids want to do.” What is your reaction to those types of arguments?

Amy: Yeah. So I think that still Christmas projects for everyone only acceptable in a parochial school setting. I think in a public school setting, it just, it feels inappropriate. And I think even if a teacher is 100% certain that all their students celebrate Christmas, it’s really best to go another route for art making in December. There’s scores of ideas that have nothing to do with the holiday and the reason for that is sometimes the holiday can bring out big and not so great feelings in students. Not every family situation is one that is cozy and conjures feelings of comfort. And so I think as art educators, we have a duty to make sure that all students feel considered and included. Even if you know, oh all of my students celebrate Christmas, it’s fine. Maybe that there’s other underlying reasons why we could stay away from it.

Tim: Yeah. It may not be the best holiday for them. It may not work well with their family. That’s an excellent point. Sorry to interrupt.

Amy: Oh, no. I was going to say that some teachers have said to me, “Oh, well I know my students and students would tell me if they felt uncomfortable,” but my thought is, would they?

Tim: Yeah. Would they really?

Amy: Because there’s already this inherent power imbalance between student and teacher. And so, especially an elementary kid, are they going to tell their teacher that they are not comfortable with something that the rest of the class is really into? I think it’s something that a teacher who has a good rapport with their students might expect but I don’t know that it would really happen the way they would anticipate.

Tim: Can you imagine, put yourself in a kid’s shoes if you’re in sixth grade, we’ll say, and you speak up about something that your teacher loves and all of your classmates love? Oh, I would rather die than speak up from front of the class about that.

Amy: And honestly, this is a role that a lot of Jewish kids have already played. We’re the Santa ruiners and the fun police. And so it’s a lot of my friends and my family have had these experiences. I grew up going to Jewish school so it never really was an issue. I didn’t go to public school until I was in high school so the Christmas projects never really came up for me personally as a kid but I’ve really become tuned into how prevalent they are through the online Facebook art teacher groups and communities. And I’ve just year after year, see all of these calls for Christmas themed artwork, help me think of something to do with reindeer or I’m putting an Elf on a Shelf in my classroom. And it just really, I don’t know if the teachers are thinking about the messages that it’s sending to students, whether intentional or not.

Tim: Yeah. You kind of have to be the fun police on Facebook too, is what you’re saying.

Amy: Yes. I am the fun police on Facebook. I am a part of just a little group of people who every time there is a post like this will say, very kindly or as kindly as we can, “What if you considered decentering Christmas a little bit and focusing on winter or focusing on the theme of light?” And sometimes people really like that idea and are willing to make that shift and other times it’s met with a lot of pushback and anger and resentment and it’s just interesting to me how those conversations sometimes play out.

Tim: Yeah. Yeah. I don’t want to dive too deep into the drama there so I’m going to go back to something you said about just that being a tough experience for kids, if it’s not what they’re believing or what corresponds with what they’re doing in their life. Putting ourselves in the situation of those kids, what kind of negative consequences are there? And I will say this, people who are teaching these lessons usually are very good hearted people. These are probably unintended consequences but what are those consequences that can come with teaching Christmas lessons?

Amy: Well, it can definitely make the students who don’t celebrate or have complicated feelings about the holiday feel left out or feel like an afterthought if the teacher is offering an alternate project. Everyone’s going to make Christmas trees and oh, Seth, you can make dreidl.

Tim: Right. Oh also, can I interrupt again? I’m sorry. I’m very bad at this tonight.

Amy: No, it’s okay.

Tim: You and I were talking off air and this is something that everybody needs to know, Hanukah is fairly early this year.

Amy: November 28th.

Tim: Right. And so if you’re doing a Hanukah thing along with your Christmas lesson, Hanukah is over at that point, right?

Amy: Right. The Jewish calendar is mostly based on the lunar cycle so our holidays move around a little bit and then they get adjusted with a leap year. Sometimes the holidays are a little earlier, sometimes they’re later. Hanukah falls anywhere between late November and late December, just depending on the year. This year it’s Thanksgiving weekend and so if it’s mid-December and teachers are trying to offer Hanukah projects, it’s over. Holiday’s over.

Tim: It’s a little late. Let’s get back to sort of the consequences and the mindset of kids. What else were you saying about that?

Amy: Oh, well, it just signals to students that Christmas is important in the art space and it’s kind of paramount and so this happens not just through the teacher led Christmas projects but when teachers bring in Christmas decor or deck out their classrooms and they have trees, they put their Elf on the Shelf. And again, I’m sure it’s not an intentional thing but we as art teachers study visual culture a lot, I hope. And so what message are those symbols sending to everybody? What is important in the classroom? And it could be so important to the teacher in their personal life and that’s great but as we know from being educators, not everything that you personally love needs to be brought into the classroom at that kind of level.

Tim: Exactly. Exactly. Okay. I feel like we’ve had a good discussion here but a lot of it has been us saying, “Oh, don’t do this and don’t do this and don’t do this either.” To close out here, can we maybe share some ideas, just alternatives that are out there? How can teachers step away from doing holiday projects and what else is out there? What can they do instead?

Amy: My cop out answer is literally anything else but my helpful, specific answer is you could go with a seasonal theme based on where you live geographically. Some teachers in Florida were saying, “Well, there’s not any snow where we live so doing snowman lessons seems weird.” Think about where you live, where your students live and what might a landscape look like at that time of year? I love northern lights projects, pastel, watercolor blending. And when you’re thinking about mid-December, that time of year when everybody seems to be losing their minds, it’s right before winter break, everybody wants to get out of there, calming, relaxing art is awesome. And I love neurographic art. The overlapping lines and the thickening of some parts where the lines meet and then filling it in with color, setting an intention is just really something that’s relaxing that students can enjoy. And it’s something that’s non-representational, which is a win for all.

Tim: Yes, yes. For sure. What was I going to say? And then where would you suggest the teachers grab ideas? Where can they research? What can they do? What kinds of things should they be looking at to help develop some of these ideas?

Amy: I think first and foremost, widening one’s professional circle is a really good way to see things from other people’s perspectives. Talking to a variety of teachers from different backgrounds, exploring choice based art and more open ended projects. Offering a theme and choice, students will naturally gravitate towards holiday art on their own if that is something that they’re interested in. Opening up choice, if a student does a holiday project, it’s because it’s something that they care about and that’s more authentic and student centered. And then just doing some research. If a teacher is thinking, I want to do holiday projects but I want to include winter celebrations from around the globe like we were talking about before, it’s pretty essential to do the research because a lot of different faiths and cultures don’t use the Gregorian calendar and it’s important to know when these holidays actually fall.

It’s also important to be gathering information from a variety of reliable sources. Not just a Wikipedia article or what your friend is posting. It just doesn’t make sense if you’re going to focus on these celebrations to reduce them to something trivial, just for the sake of a crafty project. I see that a lot with Hanukah. Hanukah is weird because it’s a minor Jewish holiday but it’s become so commercialized because it usually falls around Christmas.

Tim: It’s right around Christmas.

Amy: But it’s commercialized extremely poorly. And now there’s an Instagram account called Hanukah fails. There’s just a lot of really poor attempts at being inclusive. And it’s just a collection of fails is the best way I can describe it.

Tim: Nice. Nice.

Amy: My last piece of advice is for teachers to avoid the cultural imagery that’s still Christmas-aligned. what I’ve heard from some teachers is that, well, a reindeer isn’t religious so I don’t know why students are having a problem with it or why another teacher would have a problem with it or elves or whatever is coded as Christmas as we talked about like red and green. I know they’re complimentary colors yes, but in our visual culture, especially around December, they do signal Christmas. It can still be an issue for those students who don’t celebrate.

Tim: Well just ask yourself, when’s the last time you talked about reindeer elves when it wasn’t December? Just a good rule of thumb there.

Amy: Yeah. And I do need to give another shout-out. This is a great resource in addition to some of the other things that I shared that anti-racist art teachers group and Paula Liz created an awesome infographic about decentering Christmas in the classroom. And they usually share that around this time of year. That’s been really helpful. It had some great talking points and some links for further investigation.

Tim: Awesome. We’ll make sure we find that and direct everybody there so they can check that out as well. Amy, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s been a great conversation and hopefully we can have you back on the podcast again soon.

Amy: Amazing. Thank you so much for having me.

Tim: Thank you so much to Amy for sharing her perspective, for enlightening me on a few things because this is a learning process for me too still. And also thank you to her for giving us some alternative ideas. I appreciate everything she had to say during this conversation.

Next week on the AOEU website, I would love for you to look at an article from Jonathan Juravich coming out on Monday, I believe. It’s called Meaningful Artmaking Ideas that have Nothing to do with the Holidays. It has a number of great ideas for artmaking throughout the entire month of December that can be the alternatives that we discussed at the end of our conversation today. But however you approach your teaching in the next month or so, whatever you decide is most important, I would encourage you to keep your students in mind and help them to make work that is meaningful to them.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Thank you as always for listening and we’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.

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