diwali classroom

Indian American professor and entrepreneur Amita Roy Shah reading to children at the Rinconda Library in Palo Alto, Calif., last year. (photo provided) 

Growing up and going to school in California during the 1980s and 1990s, I recall my schools continuously, and without fail, teaching me the same concepts year after year. In October, we methodically decorated our pumpkins to showcase in our classrooms. In November, we fashionably dressed up as Indians or Pilgrims and had some sort of “traditional feast.”

However, in contemporary times, many schools are making the leap forward by going beyond pumpkins and turkeys. They are embracing diversity with celebrations like Hanukkah, Chinese New Year’s, Kwanzaa, Dia De Los Muertos and much more. By embracing these diverse cultures, schools are helping to develop multicultural competence in all children.

Multicultural competence is beneficial for ALL children. There is a critical need for children to learn how to interact with one another in a culturally diverse environment. It has been predicted that by the year 2020, students of color will comprise 40 percent of the public school population.

In addition, celebrating Diwali in classroom is especially important for Indian American children. In a previous India-West blog entry, I wrote at length about the research on bicultural identity for Indian American children. In short, the research supports that connecting children to their bicultural identity will help them perform better in school and they will have higher levels of self-esteem and confidence.

However, many children do not have their cultural identities validated in the classroom. The research also states that many teachers don’t feel equipped to teach children who are from a different cultural background than their own. They may have limited knowledge of their students’ diverse cultures and many teachers have stated that they would like more professional development in this area.

Unfortunately, this means that many Indian American children do not see their culture represented in the classroom. From a young age, these students begin to receive subtle messages, from school and society, that their culture may not be as important as other cultures that are celebrated in the classroom. This can significantly influence how they identify with who they are and who they are becoming.

By celebrating Diwali in the classroom, parents and teachers can help validate the lived experiences of our children as Indian Americans. I want parents to know that it is extremely important for them to go into classrooms to teach about Indian celebrations like Diwali.

By parents actively taking a role they will be serving as role models for how Indian American families celebrate these festivals in their communities. Parents will also be able to address any misconceptions children have based on stereotypes that exist about Indian Americans in our society. When I go into schools for my book readings, the first question I ask is: What do you already know about India or Indians? This is when I am able to address some of the wild assumptions and stereotypes that emerge from the students.

When I wrote my first children’s books, It’s Time for Holi!, one of my goals was for all Indian American children to feel represented and validated in mainstream classrooms. I wanted them to be proud of their bicultural identity as Indian AND as American. I later learned that the Kids are Readers Too (KART) Foundation announced It’s Time for Holi!” as a book list winner for the early elementary grades (Kindergarten-3rd grade). The KART foundation aims to expose children to new books each year that have “age-appropriate content that are memorable and enhance the gift of learning as a child grows.” The South Jersey Children’s Literary Festival Selection Committee (made up of educators, parents, professionals) chose 32 books from over 1,000 submissions. For me, this award meant I was able to fulfill my vision for getting this book into mainstream classrooms for Indian American children and for ALL children to develop multicultural competence.

My book Lights, Camera, Diwali! also serves the same purpose. With my teaching and curriculum development background, I have been able to create lessons that support using this book in mainstream classrooms. By incorporating Diwali, teachers can easily reinforce concepts they are already teaching while simultaneously exposing children to new concepts, new vocabulary, and new cultural celebrations! In addition, both books are correlated to the common core standards.

This year, I hope that all teachers and parents will go beyond pumpkins and turkeys to broaden the minds of children and to provide them with opportunities to critically understand the diverse perspectives of others.

Here are some tips for how to bring Diwali to your child’s classroom:

  1. Approach the teacher (ideally at the beginning of the school year, because teachers like to plan!). Let them know you have an awesome book: Lights, Camera, Diwali! with worksheets and resources that are correlated to the Common Core Standards. Find out if the teacher would like to see the book beforehand. Set a date and time to come in.
  2. Show children the Book Trailer (see link below) before reading the book. This will help children visualize the celebration of Diwali. Make sure to ask children what they know about Diwali and/or the Asian Indian culture in order to address any misconceptions or stereotypes. Ask them to predict what will happen in the story.
  3. Read the book, Lights, Camera, Diwali!Keep kids engaged by discussing the pictures of Hanuman, Rangoli designs, clay lamps, Indian sweets, etc.
  4. Take children outside to look for signs of Diwali and/or look through the book trailer and book. Have children draw in their Signs of Diwali worksheet (see link below).
  5. For older children, discuss when it is time for Diwali by using the Cycles of the Moon worksheet (see link below). Help them figure out the exact date of Diwali by printing a Lunar Calendar for the month of November and finding the exact date of Diwali. Explain why the date of Diwali is always changing (as opposed to other celebrations like Halloween or Valentine’s Day).
  6. Read The Indian Epic: The Story of Diwali (see link below) with children to extend their understanding of why Indian American families celebrate Diwali.
  7. Finally, you can have children pick a coloring page from the Lights, Camera, Diwali! Coloring pages for fun and/or have children write about how, why and when Indian American families celebrate Diwali.

*Book Trailer, Interactive Read Aloud video, Signs of Diwali worksheet, Cycles of the Moon worksheet, The Indian Epic: The Story of Diwali, and Diwali coloring pages can all be found for FREE at the link below:

http://hybridparenting.org/diwali-lesson-plan-teachers-k-3-free-worksheets-activities/

(Dr. Amita Roy Shah is an author, educator, and entrepreneur. She is an adjunct professor at San Jose State University in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development. She is the author of It’s Time for Holi! and Lights, Camera, Diwali! She is also the founder of hybridparenting.org an online platform to empower parents to invest in the social, emotional, and cultural well-being of their children. She has a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University and a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.)

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