Freethought in the first grade

I received this email yesterday.

Hello JT. I saw you at the Reason Rally and was very motivated by all of the talk and encouragement directed toward the students and teachers who are making a difference in the public school setting.

I am an elementary teacher in ##### (1st grade). Each year I struggle with the pressure from others in my school system (whether it be to put up a tree in my classroom, write letters to Santa, visit the Santa that comes to school and allow children to sit on his lap and ask for presents, make reindeer food for flying deer, etc….. The list could go on and on.

I have decided that I would like to make a change this year in my approach to the holiday season. One alternative I have tried In the past is to spend the month of December teaching about the different Christmas traditions around the world. This is enjoyable for the students and they became a little more enlightened about the world outside of their everyday existence, but I’m yearning for something a little more.

I am writing to you to see if you might be able to guide me in a different direction for this year. I know your work is geared mostly toward high school, but I’m hoping you might be able to direct me toward resources for the primary grades? Thank you so much for what you are doing. You are truly making a difference.

I love the idea of teaching the different holiday traditions from around the world!  It’s knowledge every child should have that will convey to them, at an early age, that we are not part of our own little world here, but we are instead a part of a diverse and enormous global community.

What’s more, it’s a few steps ahead of any administration that takes issue with it.  If the school tells this teacher to stop and then the teacher pushes back, the school must take the position of being opposed to knowledge and diversity. Even the worst admins know that’s not the position you want to take publicly.

However, I know of no other resources for teaching critical thinking/freethought at that age.  I’ll bet some of you do though.  :)

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • John Horstman

    Wikipedia is a good place to start – one can then Google for age-appropriate books/films/etc. about specific festivals/traditions:

  • carlie, who has nice reading comprehension

    Maybe instead of focusing on the celebrations that happen around Christmas, focus on celebrations that revolve around giving gifts to others or recognizing the importance of family and friends and community or something. That way you could include celebrations that happen at other times of the year and that are and aren’t related to religion, so sort of dulling the impact and repetitiveness of CHRISTMAS.

  • Jay

    I remember that Arthur the Aardvark (remember him?) had a Christmas episode where there were several different families celebrating several different holiday traditions. Could probably find it at the library.

  • guest

    teaching the different traditions and customs is how my high school religion class looked like! It was a very valuable two years.(especially because people laughed at us and asked if we pray all day)For elementary school, how about you include some practical task, different foods, music etc.

  • Kevin

    So, if you’re going to do it right, present the pagan pre-Christian feasts from whence most of the traditions have sprung.

    Christmas isn’t even a day off for maybe half the world’s population. Not China, Japan, Indonesia, or Israel, to name just a few. And in Russia, they use the Orthodox calendar, so Dec. 25 is not a day off, either.

    Also, all of my Jewish friends (religious or cultural) declare that the “fair balance” some people try to give to Hanukkah is bullshit. It’s a really minor holiday that just happens to be in December, and would probably be ignored were it not for the perceived need to present “diversity” in programs that are otherwise 100% Jesus-centric.

  • Ibis3, member of the Oppressed Sisterhood fanclub

    Don’t forget to include *historical* celebrations — you know, the ones where all the fun Christmas stuff originally came from.

  • Drakk

    I’d explain where, ultimately, all the traditions derive from – the solstice, and why it happens from astrophysical principles. To add in the cultural aspect, discuss why it was important to ancient civilisation, the efforts they would make to calculate its date, and the celebrations they would have around the time.

    Remember, axial tilt is the reason for the season!

  • Dan!

    My university did something similar last year. Here is a list of world holidays in December. It’s a place to start!

  • Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven

    The first thing that occurs is to expand it beyond “Christmas.” Around-the-winter-solstice-time festivals are a pretty common feature of northern hemisphere cultures, as I understand it, and there’s probably a midsummer thing from the southern hemisphere or two that could be thrown in for a nice contrast.

  • tms

    Don’t forget Festivus, for the rest of us!

  • Rachel Pridgen

    Not sure if it’s what she’s looking for, but I just posted a list of our favorite critical thinking, comparative religion, and secular science resources that we use for homeschooling. Perhaps some of it would be helpful.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Would a well-illustrated presentation* on axial tilt and orbital dynamics work for 1st-graders?

    * Cover the windows, gather the kids in the center of the room, one kid holds a flashlight and the teacher circles around the group holding a globe, f’rinstance.

  • Rebecca Hensler

    One of the things that profoundly shaped my secular Jewish childhood was my awareness of diverse mythology from a very early age. The myths and traditions of multiple cultures were shared with me from an early age. As a result, when told stories from the Torah, I could recognize them as mythology, rather than history.

    Unfortunately, mythology does not show up in the curricular standards (at least in CA) until 6th Grade Social Studies, when public school students learn ancient history. (One of our teachers has them all make up their own creation myths.) But by that time, all those bible stories have had time to hardwire as truth.

    I think teaching first graders about winter holidays around the world and helping them think critically about why just about every culture in the northern hemisphere celebrates a winter holiday would be great. You could even have your class make up it’s own winter holiday, choosing the traditions they like best.

  • Mandagator

    I love the idea of looking into multicultural traditions. I remember that one of my favorite Christmas books as a kid was an illustrated book about Christmas around the World.

    Here are some fun things I can think of:
    -Set up a mailbox. Have the kids write letters to people of different religious traditions, and then put responses from those religions in the box for the kids to open (you could either write the responses, or if you know a friend in that tradition, have them write the response)
    -If food is allowed in your classroom, have a multi-holidy food day
    -Have a food/necessary items collection bin in the classroom, and talk to the kids about being good to everyone in need, regardless of any differences
    -Put a world map on the wall, and have the kids tape pictures from online to it with the theme of “If I lived in _____, I might be doing [insert picture] at this time of year.”
    -Make snowflakes and then talk about where in the world it can snow at this time of year, and where it cannot
    -Have them make creative “snow” sculptures out of marshmellows or cotton balls
    -Have them write wish lists along the lines of, “If I could get a present for someone in need, I would get them…”

    Does that help?

  • furtivezoog

    Outside of the ‘Christmas’ holiday traditions, my son and I just watched a Sesame Street episode about “an Indian holiday called “Rakhi”, when sisters, brothers, and friends show how much they love each other by exchanging special bracelets, foods, and gifts.”

  • Margaret

    What a wonderful teacher! My 5th grade teacher told us that the Sun went around the Earth, but she didn’t really seem to have a very good grasp of what that meant. Pathetic, but that was probably the closest we ever got to science in grade school.

    Suggestion: As a combination of science and telling time, have the kids track the time of dawn/sunset all year. And arithmetic practice can calculate the length of daylight. You can track the temperature too, and relate length of day to season. Talk a bit about how farming relates to seasons (food is important, food comes from farming, farming depends heavily on seasons, the seasons depend on the length of daylight). This shows why the solstice is so important. Then go into all the various holiday traditions around solstice/new year.

  • Ray

    I don’t know the book JT but in 50 Popular beliefs that people think are true but Guy P. Harrison he mentions Maybe Yes, Maybe No: A Guide for Young Skeptic by Dan Barker. The teacher might enjoy it.