BLOG – New Public School Holidays: Teachable Moments that Foster Respect

January 28th,2016 ICNY Interfaith Matters Blogs, Latest News

ICNY Interfaith Matters Blog

by Debbie Almontaser,
founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy
and Board President of the Muslim Community Network


“By leaving out some children’s heritage while others are visible presents youngsters with an image of being undervalued or unimportant.”  
– Children’s book author Fawzia Gilani-Williams

This past year, under the leadership of Mayor de Blasio, American Muslims and Chinese Americans have been granted official public school closings for their high holidays. These historical school closings didn’t happen overnight, they required years of organizing and mobilizing to get them passed in the city council and ultimately by the mayor.

There are over 800,000 American Muslims in NYC. Of the 1.1 million students in the NYC public school system one out of eight public school children is Muslim. For years they were forced to make an unfair choice between their education and their faith.

According to the NYC Department of Planning, New York City has the largest Chinese population of any city outside of Asia.  According to the 2014 US Census, there are over 819,527 Chinese Americans across the five boroughs. The Lunar New Year holiday recognition is an achievement long overdue for the Chinese American community.

Now that these two holidays have been installed in the NYC Public School calendar for schools to close, what else does this mean for students and their families?  These holidays should not just be seen as additional ones that kids simply get excited about as extra days off from school; they should be a time for students to value and celebrate the vast diversity of their peers and neighbors. Every child in the NYC public school system can learn what these holidays mean and symbolize for their classmates.

On the day the Muslim Holidays were announced by Mayor de Blasio, New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña categorized the installation of the Eid Holidays as a teachable moment. In her remarks she stated, “Muslim students and their families who observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha shouldn’t have to choose between an instructional day and their religious obligations. This new addition will also enable a teachable moment in the classroom for our students to learn about religious tolerance and the societal contributions of various cultures.”

To the chancellor’s credit, this past fall, the NYC Department of Education has developed three cultural guides:

Learning About Eid al-Fitr & Eid al-Adha

Learning About Lunar New Year

Learning About Diwali

The guides contain teacher lesson plans to teach students about the rich diversity of cultures in New York City.  Though Diwali has not been added to the school calendar, I appreciate that a guide was created to help student learn about the holiday celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. My hope is that it too will become an official public school holiday. As faith leaders, teachers, social workers, and parents, I urge you to bring this curriculum to the attention of principals and teachers in your local schools.  This month offers us an opportunity to take advantage of these guidelines as the first of these new school closings is observed on Monday, February 8, with Lunar New Year.

Education is one proven way to foster respect and appreciation for diverse cultures in our city. By enacting these school holiday closings, we help our schools to create safe spaces for our children to ask questions and learn from one another, and counter the stereotypes perpetuated by the media; we give our teachers tools to create a nurturing environment where Arab, Muslim and South Asian students feel safe, and to teach all children to stand against intolerance.  These holidays are teachable moments that can help turn curious children into thoughtful, respectful adults.



800,000 American Muslims in NYC: Associated Press.

200 hundred languages spoken/ largest Chinese community outside of Asia: NYC Department of City Planning.

Gilani-Williams, Fawzia. “Say the Word Again? Eid.” School Library Journal. December 1, 2007. Accessed January 23, 2016.

Read More Articles FromInterfaith Matters Blogs, Latest News