I began my own schooling in a Jewish preschool classroom rich in play and learning activities related to religious and secular topics. When I began kindergarten, I attended a public elementary school where my older sister and I were the only Jewish children enrolled. I had incredible teachers there and a great early learning experience. It was, however, a bit of a culture shock!
When it came to the month of December, I was included in common and fun holiday activities. None of them related to the holidays I celebrated in my own home. The building was decorated festively with a variety of Christmas and winter-themed items. None of them were representative of artifacts and decorations in my own home. I would not say I felt left out in any way — on the contrary, I felt very included in class activities and special events.
I would say that I did not feel represented in my earliest school classrooms and I wonder now if other students felt similarly who may have had different religious backgrounds.
Teaching Kids About Hanukkah
Now our school rooms and communities are very diverse. There are a plethora of traditions and religions practiced in our students’ homes and educators aim to be culturally sensitive and inclusive within the parameters of federally set educational standards.
Teaching children about all of the neighbors in their neighborhoods as well as abroad is an important value in our education model.
However, when it comes to teaching about topics we are not personally familiar with, it can feel intimidating or overwhelming. Particularly if we are teaching about topics related to culture and religion.
Even within the Jewish religion there is a diverse expanse of traditions practiced from home to home! What we do in my house at Hanukkah is different from what we did in my home of origin and different from what our good friends around the corner do.
There is beauty and joy in all of that difference and rather than allowing it to cause anxiety or concern over teaching about Hanukkah in a classroom setting where there may or may not be Jewish students in attendance, I invite it to be an opportunity to see the common themes and joys of the season.
Additionally, there are a plethora of fabulous resources right at your fingertips, in your local libraries, and around your community.
Here are some things to consider when teaching kids about Hanukkah:
What Materials to Include
In classrooms that are culturally diverse, it can be really meaningful to include props, artifacts, books, and art that represent a variety of customs and traditions.
During the winter season, having materials related to all holidays observed by families in your room as well as those observed by others in this time of year can enhance the feeling of joy as well as inclusion in the space.
It can be helpful to send a letter home asking families to send in a photo of something they do in their home to celebrate the season.
Also asking families to donate holiday-related props and artifacts (even temporarily) can be a great way to include symbols of the season in your classroom.
Your local library is a great resource this time of year
Many have a designated space for winter holiday books and a decent collection of ones about Hanukkah. Many synagogues also have lending libraries and would be happy to connect teachers with some literature for their rooms.
The internet is an important resource
There are many materials available on websites like Teachers Pay Teachers, ideas on Pinterest and Instagram, and even Jewish educational websites. (I will include a resource list below.) You can easily access free printables, artwork and even videos about Hanukkah to use in the classroom.
Invite a Special Guest
If you have Jewish students and families in your school and/or classroom, you have an opportunity to pass your teacher baton for a day (or part of one).
Many parents, grandparents or even local community rabbis would love the opportunity to come in and speak about Hanukkah and lead a related activity.
If you do not have any volunteers specifically within your classroom or school community, do not hesitate to reach out to a local synagogue or Jewish Community Center and find out if someone would be interested in the opportunity to teach about Hanukkah.
Many high school and college students would also be interested in a volunteer opportunity, so contacting local Jewish Youth Groups and campus Hillel groups can also be a good resource.
Many synagogues have Jewish education programs in their care as well. They may have materials and resources that are appropriate for use or adaptable in a classroom or home learning environment.
Meaningful Props, Symbols, and Activities to help kids learn about Hanukkah:
In addition to books and information about Hanukkah, you’ll want to include some meaningful props, symbols and activities. Here are some ideas:
- Share the story of Hanukkah with your students. There are wonderful children’s books written about the story and history of Hanukkah. There are also videos available and this is a particularly great activity to invite a special guest to take on if you have someone to fill the role.
- Music plays a big part in the festivities of this season. Include some Hanukkah music in your repertoire. YouTube and audio websites like Pandora or Google Play are good resources for streaming in your holiday playlists. You can also often find Hanukkah CDs available at public libraries or synagogue libraries. If you have a holiday musical performance or event in your school, consider including a Hanukkah song to your set.
- Everyone loves to eat and Hanukkah is a holiday rich in delicious foods. Have a special guest come in and demonstrate frying latkes or take on the task yourself. You can find easy mixes at many grocery stores but just as easily, you can make your own! Here’s a great recipe if you’d like to try it in your classroom. You can use an electric griddle if you do not have access to a kitchen. I totally confess to using pre-shredded potatoes when I make latkes at home as it is a huge time and energy saver. If you’re feeling more ambitious, peeling and grating potatoes can be a wonderful activity for the children to help with.
- Donuts are another popular holiday food, often called sufganiyot (Hebrew). They are typically jelly-filled donuts and you can buy or make your own as well. Many children also enjoy eating chocolate gelt (coins) on Hanukkah and this is a sweet treat to finish off your latke meal or send home as a gift.
- Common holiday props and symbols include menorahs, Hanukkah candles, dreidels, and coins (gelt). If you or another family has access to any of these props, they can be a meaningful tool and decoration in the classroom. In the absence of actual artifacts, I love to use artwork and photographs depicting them.
- There are a lot of great games, learning activities, art projects and playful ways to explore Hanukkah themes.
Highlighting Differences and Commonalities: as you teach kids about Hanukkah
During the holiday season, many families have different traditions and holidays they observe. I think it is important to maintain the individuality and unique beauty of this while also observing the shared commonalities.
Winter is a season for many that is cold and dark. The winter holidays, Hanukkah included, shed a great deal of light and love on the season. It is wonderful to see how each of us celebrates the season in our special way and to share in that together.
Here are some great resources you might use in your classroom or home learning:
PJ Library is an organization that aims to connect Jewish families and children to books and resources worldwide. In their article on Sharing Hanukkah at School you will find age group categorized books, videos and activities related to teaching about Hanukkah in a classroom setting. Also check out their Hanukkah Hub for some great multimedia ideas and additional resources.
I’m going to date myself because I grew up watching this, but Bubbe’s Boarding House Hanukkah video is now available to watch from YouTube. It’s a great kid-friendly version of the Hanukkah story and traditions portrayed with puppets and a splash of humor.
There are a LOT of Hanukkah children’s books. Here are some of my favorites, many of which are available through Scholastic book orders, at your local library (or synagogue library) or, of course, on Amazon:
- Hanukkah Bear or The Chanukkah Guest by Eric Kimmel
- How Do Dinosaurs Say Happy Chanukah by Jane Yolen
- Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah by Sylvia Rousse
- Hanukkah, A Counting Book in English, Hebrew, and Yiddish by Emily Sper
- Latkes and Applesauce, A Hanukkah Story by Fran Manushkin and Robin Spowart
- Harvest of Light by Allison Maile Ofanansky
One Last Meaningful Extension Activity:
The winter holiday season is one of giving and receiving in many religions. Those who reside in nursing homes are often alone during this time of year. Many towns and cities have Jewish nursing facilities and group homes.
Consider looking into whether there is such a location near you and making Hanukkah cards to send to the residents. Or if you are already visiting a nursing home or similar facility for a holiday performance, consider including a Hanukkah song to your repertoire for Jewish audience members.
You can find great song ideas on YouTube and a couple of the most popular songs that children may enjoy singing are…
“The Dreidel Song”
“Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah”
I wish you all a season of joy, light, and celebration!