With Spring celebrations of all kinds popping out of the calendar left and right like whac-a-moles, it seems like a good time to explore The New Century School‘s special take on holidays. Rather than shying away from holidays, which often include a religious component, nondenominational TNCS opens its wide embrace to any and all. Though none are strictly observed, all are respected and welcome topics of exploration. And, as a multicultural, multilingual school with a diverse international student body, opportunities abound to do so, both as part of the curriculum and to enhance it.
Although some resent the commercialism that almost any U.S. holiday inevitably entails, holidays present ideal cultural teaching moments, both domestic and international. In addition to culture, holidays also educate us about history and geography as well as help us mark the passage of time and differentiate between the seasons. They serve real, important functions in the annual cycle. Finally, they bring together loved ones (or Peeps, if you will).
So, as the Northern Hemisphere bursts into bloom following the recent vernal equinox, which marked the point at which day equals night, a festive feeling naturally overtakes many of us. From Mardi Gras to Norwuz, from Easter to Shavuot, from May Day to Earth Day, folks want to celebrate. At TNCS, celebrating holidays focuses on the tradition and rituals inherent in the associated culture. Parents are integral here; they are encouraged to share their native holidays with their child’s class, to cook the traditional food that comes with the particular celebration, teach a special dance, or do a related arts and crafts project. They introduce the class to special cultural elements but also share their’s and their children’s identities: “This is how we celebrate where I come from, and where I come from is foundational to who I am.”
The students are exposed to a kaleidoscope of cultures and celebrations, which is extremely academically meaningful and enriching, and, even more importantly, they learn to truly and deeply appreciate differences and each other. As Robin Munro, TNCS Director of Admissions put it, “An important part of this school is that kids understand their own backgrounds and come in ready to share that. They know who ‘they’ are, but through all of this beautiful cultural interchange, are also able to readily appreciate who ‘you’ are.” No one is excluded; likewise no holiday or celebration is held in higher regard than any other. Maria Montessori believed that this multicultural inclusiveness was the way to achieve no less than world peace.
Speaking of Maria Montessori, it’s worth mentioning that, in TNCS’s primary program, student birthdays are observed with that loveliest of Montessori traditions, “Celebration of Life.” Instead of cake and icing and all the sugar-laden trappings of conventional kids’ birthdays, the emphasis is on the child’s time on earth—metaphysics for 3 to 5-year-olds. Even those who don’t observe birthdays for religious or other reasons could hardly object to this sweet ritual that helps the child understand that his or her life has purpose and meaning. Though witnessing this lovely ceremony is priceless, here is a basic description: A candle is placed in the middle of the room, and the class gathers in a circle around it. The birthday child then circles the “light” while holding a globe to symbolize the earth revolving around the sun and the passage of a year. As the child makes a revolution, significant personal events that occurred during that year are recounted, such as learning to walk. The child’s age determines the number of revolutions. While the child circulates, his or her classmates recite:
We celebrate your birth And your place on the earth. May the sun, moon, and stars Bring you peace where you are.
But birthdays in the non-Montessori programs are equally special, a chance for each child to bond with his or her classmates and deepen their shared community. Parents can participate by sharing details about the child’s life or by contributing a special snack for snacktime. One elementary student even decided to celebrate his half birthday by giving a violin recital to his class. He got three encores, and the class joined in to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Happy Birthday.” Said his mother and TNCS Executive Director Jennifer Lawner:
For a student to feel empowered and comfortable enough in his environment that he can share something special with the group is a rare and wonderful thing. An education that makes this possible is completely different from one that does not. It is setting up children to be contributing members to society in a very deep way from an early age. I’m so happy that my children can go to TNCS, and that such an experience is natural for them.
Whether small and informal in the classroom or organized for the whole school, these celebrations and rituals highlight and affirm TNCS’s values and vision. By learning to deeply appreciate others, TNCS students come fully into themselves as compassionate, engaged citizens of the world. Now that’s something to celebrate!