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Celebrating Holidays in Public Schools

Celebrating Holidays in Public Schools

Last week I read an article in the newspaper about how some schools in Oklahoma City and elsewhere are embracing a new way of teaching children the Thanksgiving story. A booklet distributed by the OKCPS Native American Student Services office, “A Story of Survival:The Wampanoag and the English”, chronicles the events factually through a Native American perspective, where historically school children have been told about Thanksgiving mostly by focusing on the English colonists.  

Lessons associated with the booklet help educators better understand how to avoid activities that stereotype or are culturally insensitive, such as making construction paper headbands or vests from grocery bags. The focus is instead on heritage and traditions. According to the article, there is a good deal of interest in this booklet in other districts as well. It would appear that we are becoming more responsive to educating ourselves about cultures and values that may differ from our own and to learning about facts that differ from what we have been taught in the past.

We still have some problem areas, particularly with the observance of religious holidays in the public school setting. Through decades of litigation we’ve established some norms of what is acceptable and what is not. For example, most school officials are aware that they should not display a Nativity scene or put on a play about the Hanukkah miracle. They may, however, have questions about the content of music in a winter holiday-themed concert or about how to properly accommodate those who wish to observe religious events. If you fall into one of those areas of uncertainty, please do not hesitate to give me a call and we’ll work through it.

Terri Thomas

Director, Legal Services

Terri Thomas serves as Director of Legal Services for OPSRC. Ms. Thomas is an attorney practicing exclusively in the area of Oklahoma school law, with a primary focus on rural and smaller school districts. Prior to OPSRC, she served as legal counsel for the Organization of Rural Oklahoma Schools (OROS).

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