Valentine's Day: Teaching with More Than Just Cards and Candy

Valentine's Day is celebrated differently throughout the world according to customs and traditions. In the United States, the holiday arouses different connotations as it is commonly associated with romantic love. Whereas the holiday inspires some to propose marriage, others suffer unrequited love. The joys and sorrows that come with Valentine's Day find their ways into our hearts and into our schools. Parents, students, and even school faculty have legitimate reasons for not celebrating Valentine's Day; however, some classrooms have managed to orchestrate appropriate celebrations on or around the holiday.

Cultural and religious diversity often dominate an individual's choice for wanting to celebrate or ignore Valentine's Day. All schools want their students to feel included, and if religious or cultural doctrines prohibit some students from celebrating, then those students will be left out of an activity important to the school community. A sense of belonging is important for that student's future. Knowing who can and who cannot participate in Valentine's Day activities challenges schools as well, since one school may be working with students from dozens of different cultures.

Parents and students are not the only ones who can be affected by Valentine's Day in this way. Teachers, of course, face the same cultural and religious challenges, too. Recently, veteran teacher, Yvonne Lemmons, filed a lawsuit against her former employer MacArthur University Academy, which is located in Michigan. Lemmons, a Jehovah's Witness, was assigned the duty of organizing a Valentine's Day party. After requesting her school make a change because of her religious beliefs, the duty remained Lemmons' charge. When the date of the party arrived, Lemmons took a sick day—a move she believes to have been perceived by her employer as retaliation, which prompted the termination of her employment. Perhaps this event could have been avoided with a change to how the school would recognize Valentine's Day.

Although some schools have modified their Valentine's Day celebrations so students of all faiths and cultures may be included, other negative perceptions about the holiday still exist. Often, the way a school celebrates can be costly for a family. Some classes expect cards; others, snacks—even if federal food guidelines for schools prohibit this. Similarly, many parents see the holiday as over-commercialized.

Still, is there no place for the genuine feelings of caring and kindness often associated with the holiday? In what ways can schools recognize Valentine's Day appropriately?

Re-envisioning the way schools celebrate the holiday is key for giving all students a sense of belonging. At Salemwood Elementary School in Malden, Massachusetts, the student body represents 67 different cultures. Since it is one of the most diverse in the state, the school has banned Valentine's cards and candy. It has not, however, banned celebrating. Here at the elementary school, celebrations are not holiday-specific. They are designed with every child in mind. The activities provide engaging opportunities for youngsters to strengthen their sense of belonging to the school community.

Besides February being the month in which Valentine's Day occurs, it also happens to be National Heart Month. During this time, the U.S. Department of Health encourages teachers to promote heart health through physical activity in the classroom. The state of Michigan suggests its teachers inspire students through lessons that address what a heart needs to be healthy: physical activity, friends, hobbies, and activities, service, laughter and fun, and healthy food. Michigan's "Valentine Celebration Ideas" include both quick exercises requiring little to no preparation and long-term projects necessitating community outreach. In the spirit of caring and the teaching of empathy, kids can embark on scavenger hunts as they search for classmates with similar hobbies and goals. Friendships may form through activities fostering care and communication skills. Science and mathematics standards align with physical activities that investigate heartbeats. Among these recommendations are crafts and games; but, most importantly, there are clever ideas for working with the community.

Valentine's Day need not solely be about romantic love; caring for our neighbors and communities is a message that can be spread during the month of February. Groups in need, such as homeless shelters and animal shelters, benefit greatly from the thoughtful care packages assembled by classes.

Connecticut elementary teacher Sarah Magee extends the learning opportunities Valentine's Day brings to her class. Students learn through researching the holiday's origins that essentially Valentine was one who stood up to injustice. The various accounts of Valentine can inspire students to complete a service project or help with a community problem. Magee suggests using the holiday as a fundraising opportunity—think crafts, bake sales. The class can work together to raise the funds needed to support their project. In this way, Valentine's Day becomes a celebration of caring for one another.

Think outside of the heart-shaped box this Valentine's Day. Teachable moments do come with the holiday, and some will encourage the life skills that a child will carry into adulthood.