Holiday ‘Marker Talks’

Many of the children I teach come from households that celebrate multiple religious and cultural holidays. Others have friends whose holiday traditions are different from their own. Both sets of children wonder about the similarities and differences among various traditions. Offering them ways to explore the winter holidays helps them acquire critical thinking skills and builds respect for diversity.

‘Marker talks’ are a form of inquiry-based learning well-suited to cultural and religious exploration. Based on a thinking routine introduced by Harvard researchers, they create spaces where kids can respond to questions without the pressure of getting the ‘right’ answer. Children can also see what others are thinking without feeling compelled to defend their own response.

Setting up a ‘marker talk’ is easy. All you need is a large sheet of paper or poster board, a handful of colorful markers, and an open-ended question. For example, if you want children to explore connections among several traditional December holidays, you might ask, “What do Hanukkah, Christmas, and Winter Solstice celebrations have in common?” Or, if you want kids to think about the ways different holidays are valued culturally, you might ask, “How do you think children who celebrate Hanukkah feel when they see Christmas decorations everywhere around them?” or “What is the relationship between Santa and baby Jesus?

Once you decide on a question, write it in large letters in the center of the paper. Place the sheet on a table with markers scattered around. Invite children to take a break from other activities to approach the table and write a response to the query. Encourage them to read the question and sit quietly for a few moments before they begin writing. Explain that taking time to reflect may help them come up with more ideas to share. Also suggest that they refrain from reading others’ responses until after they have written their own.

Leave the paper available throughout your program session. If children do not spontaneously take turns moving to the table to respond, wonder aloud who might want to write something next. If the kids in your group are used to being given directions, then set up a rotation of responders so each child knows when it is their turn. (With younger children, act as a neutral scribe, writing down whatever they dictate.)

Near the end of your session, gather around the question sheet and review the responses together. Resist the urge to praise or challenge what individual children have written. Instead, ask kids to look for connections among the responses. Note those connections on the sheet by drawing lines between linked concepts, circling similar responses, and highlighting interesting or surprising ideas.

Keep the conversation going by asking children to identify new questions that arise for them as they review what everyone has written. Write these questions on separate sheets and place them where children can respond during future sessions. Post related sheets together on a wall where children can see how the conversation has taken shape over time. Then start another conversation with a new focus and let it play out over a few weeks as well.



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