How to Celebrate Valentine’s Day, While Being Inclusive and Culturally Responsive.
The tradition started with the best intentions. It was the annual “Lollies for Life” Valentine’s day fundraiser, a time to spread friendship, love, and admiration to middle school peers. It worked like this: If you loved someone, send them a red lollipop; if you were friends with someone, send a pink pop; and if you had a secret crush, send a white pop. Each year, the lollipops were delivered to students during homeroom on Valentine’s Day in a manilla envelope. Students opened them in class, counting aloud and sharing, and it was the worst kind of popularity contest.
As a shy pre-teen with only a handful of close knit friends, I dreaded this event. I knew I would be able to count the number of lollipops I received on one hand while others were handed two or even three envelopes busting at the seams because they had so many friends. It was embarrassing, degrading, and anxiety provoking to sit near those kids. But during 7th grade, at the height of my worry, I had been saved. When my envelope was delivered, it was filled to the brim, not only with the pops I expected from friends, but there were also six secret admirer pops. I breathed a sigh of relief, excited to learn so many people had a secret crush on me (!!!!) while also feeling sorry for my friends with just a few pops.
Ah Valentine’s Day! What is supposed to be a yearly celebration of love, can go so wrong for so many students. When I was in elementary school, it was benign enough, trading cutout hearts, cards, or small boxes of candy hearts with sayings inscribed on them like “Be mine” or “Best friend”. But as we grew older, the stakes were higher.
Well, not to be a Debbie Downer but Valentine’s Day is not only an annual celebration of love but also a potential minefield of personal, cultural, and religious issues that can derail your classroom and undermine the community of learners that you are trying to grow. The COVID pandemic is certainly not helping things either.
Did you Know?
Valentine’s Day is about 1600 years old and started as a celebration of the life and sacrifice of St. Valentine. St Valentine was a Christian priest in Rome in the third century. He ministered to other Christians even though Christianity was illegal and persecuted at the time. He was arrested and put to death. Legend has it that he gave sight to the blind daughter of his jailer just before he was executed. However, in the middle ages, Valentine’s act of love grew into an expression of romantic love and it has grown from there into a huge celebration. Valentine’s Day is now celebrated in most parts of the world.
While Valentine’s Day is recognized worldwide, it is not celebrated by everyone. Whether it be for economic, personal, religious, cultural, or philosophical reasons, it’s best not to assume that everyone in your class celebrates the day or enjoys it. Instead, look for ways to honor the day through a celebration where everyone feels included and has fun! Below are some ideas to consider:
Know Your Audience
Start early by surveying your class to see what their traditions are (or are not) for the day.
You can do this via a simple Google Form or quick paper survey. Ask them if they celebrate the day and if so, how they celebrate it. Ask them if they want to celebrate the day in class. Involve students in the decision-making process. It might be a good idea to send this survey home for parental input too. This information will guide you to your next steps and help you decide if there will be a celebration at all or if it will be small or large. Hopefully, the answers will lead you to a celebration that will be appropriate for all.
Set Rules for Valentine Card/Gifts
If you decide as a class to share valentines, ensure that you eliminate barriers. . Make sure to distribute class lists and ask students to create them for the whole class. Provide access to resources (paper, stencils, markers) so they can make Valentine’s without having to purchase materials. Avoid popularity contests that can leave some students feeling like they want to go hide in the restroom (check out our SEL article on the amygdala hijack to learn what kind of response Valentine’s day can elicit in some kiddos).
Celebrate Love and Kindness
- As the saying goes, love is a universal language. Celebrate the day through ways that all students can get involved (also, it’s best to eliminate/minimize cost and any out of school preparation).
- Group Work. Have your students work together in small groups to share a story of kindness. You may want to pair students up yourself, to avoid anyone feeling excluded. Provide options for how they bring their stories to life. Some ideas for how to do this include:
- Creating an animated video. There are so many platforms to do this. Suggest using one that your students are familiar with or challenge them to find one on their own.
- Storytelling apps. Encourage students to bring their story to life online if that is available to them – here is a great roundup of examples that they can try out.
- Write or tell a story
- Create a comic book or visual story via imagery/drawings
- Make a Playlist. Ask students to all send in their requests for their favorite love song and then play DJ and play different songs throughout the day. Share the playlist for your students to listen to on their own.
Shed Light on Cultural Stories and Personal Connections
Holidays such as Valentine’s Day can be a great opportunity for students to bring their cultural experiences into the classroom.
Encourage your students to find resources that match their own traditions and share what they come up with as part of the celebration. Options can include interviews with their caretakers or grandparents, samples of the foods or recipes that they make for the day or other traditions that they follow. This can be done remotely in a video conference too and get the whole family involved. This will give your students a chance to explain their traditions and cultural experiences. Encourage your students to explore poetry, writing and performing songs, or drawing images that have meaning to them. Integrate all of these ideas into the subject(s) that you teach and the standards that you are reaching for to make it as educational as possible. When providing the assignment, share your personal traditions as an example.
The bottom line: not every student has a secret admirer to save them on Valentine’s Day. As their teacher, it’s your job to ensure that the day is filled with joy instead of heartache, and it is within your power to control some of the factors. While exclusion and popularity contests are sadly part of life, there are plenty of opportunities outside of the classroom for students to learn those tough life lessons. While they are within the school walls, they should be given every opportunity to learn at high levels, and that means keeping them regulated and safe.
As for my secret admirer? Years later, I learned who it was: none other than a 13-year old Katie Novak, my big sister, who knew even at that age that no kid should ever feel excluded in school. Take a page out of Katie’s book and make it a Happy Day for everyone!