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Kwanzaa Lesson Plan: Habari Gani (What's the News)?

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Learn about Kwanzaa, the world's fastest growing holiday, with these activities and Internet links.

Habari Gani? Those Swahili words, meaning What's the News?, may soon become as familiar a holiday message as Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or Happy New Year. For Habari Gani? is the ritual greeting of Kwanzaa and Kwanzaa is the world's fastest-growing holiday.

This year, millions of people are expected to celebrate Kwanzaa, a non-religious event honoring African American culture and community. The holiday was created in 1966 by Maulana Ron Karenga, an African American scholar and activist. Discouraged by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and dismayed by the 1965 Watts riots, Karenga based the ceremonies of Kwanzaa around the belief that lasting social change for black Americans would only come about through reacquainting African Americans with their cultural heritage and uniting them in a spirit of family and community.

Seven days, seven principles, seven symbols

Kwanzaa's seven days of celebration, which begin on December 26 and end on January 1, focus on seven principles or goals: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). The ultimate goal is that those principles, reviewed and reinforced during Kwanzaa, will become a way of life throughout the entire year.

The word Kwanzaa is derived from Swahili words meaning "first fruits of the harvest," and the holiday includes many elements of traditional African harvest celebrations. The most important symbols of Kwanzaa are:

  • the mishumaa -- seven candles (3 red, 3 green, 1 black), standing for Kwanzaa's seven principles
  • the kinara -- a candleholder, representing the stalk of corn from which the family grows
  • the mkeka -- a straw placemat, recalling tradition and history
  • the mazao -- a variety of fruit, symbolizing the harvest
  • the vibunzi -- an ear of corn for each child, celebrating the child's potential
  • the kikombe cha umoja -- a cup of unity, commemorating one's ancestors
  • the zawadi -- modest gifts, encouraging creativity, achievement, and success


Celebrating Kwanzaa

On each of the seven nights of Kwanzaa, celebrants gather to light the candles and share their thoughts about that day's principle. Each gathering includes discussions and activities representing Kwanzaa's five fundamental concepts:

  • unity of family, friends, and community
  • reverence for the creator and creation, which encompasses an appreciation of, and respect for, the environment
  • commemoration of the past, which includes honoring one's ancestors and valuing one's heritage
  • commitment to the cultural ideals of the African community, which include truth, justice, and mutual respect
  • a celebration of the "Good of Life" and appreciation for the blessings of achievement, family, and community

The most joyous and elaborate of Kwanzaa's gatherings takes place on December 31, the 6th day of the holiday period. On that night, a great feast (karamu) is held. Families and friends gather to eat, drink, sing, dance, and read stories and poems celebrating their cultural heritage. Everyone sips from the unity cup and many people exchange gifts.


Celebrating Kwanzaa in the classroom

Current events. Point out to students that in 1997 the U.S. Postal Service issued a Kwanzaa stamp to commemorate the holiday. An even newer Kwanzaa stamp was introduced on October 16, 2004. Talk about why the USPS might have issued Kwanzaa stamps in addition to its other holiday stamps. Ask students to search newspapers, magazines, radio, TV, or online resources for news stories related to Africa. Encourage students to share the news stories they find with their classmates. Identify on an Africa map the country(s) involved in those stories.

Geography/Maps. Display a large map of Africa or have students access an online map. Encourage students to study the map by asking them to count the countries, identify coastal and interior countries, find the southernmost country, and so on. Then provide each student with an outline map of Africa. Read aloud clues such as the country in the northeastern corner of the African continent is called Egypt as you write the word "Egypt" on the board. Ask students to label each country as the clue is read. Other clues might include the large island off the eastern coast of Africa is called Madagascar, the country called Libya borders Egypt to its west, and the easternmost country on the continent of Africa is Somalia. Have students compare their results with an accurate map.

Games. Arrange students into pairs to play a Mancala game. Students might even play this online version of the game.

Research and discussion. Discuss with students the many symbols associated with Kwanzaa. Explain that the three colors associated with Kwanzaa -- red, green, and black -- are also symbolic. Black stands for the unity of all black people. Green stands for freedom. Red represents the blood shed in the fight for freedom and unity. Point out that the colors are the same as those in the Bendera Ya Taifa, the African-American flag designed by Marcus Garvey in the early 1900s. Invite students to investigate the meaning of the colors and images in the United States flag and in other flags from around the world.

Home connection. Suggest that students and other family members assemble a "family album" of photographs or original drawings. Encourage students to interview adult family members and then write a news story about one of their ancestors. Students might construct a family tree, prepare a recipe representing their cultural heritage, or write a letter to another family member describing a favorite family memory.

Critical thinking. You might ask students: Why do people celebrate holidays? What symbols are part of the holidays you celebrate? What can you share about your ethnic or cultural heritage? How might knowledge of, and appreciation for, the past affect the future?

Puzzles. Try a Kwanzaa word search. On this Web page you will find a number of word puzzles.

Art. Make a Kwanzaa greeting card. Distribute heavy paper and crayons or colored markers. Ask students to create a Kwanzaa card to send to a friend or family member. Remind them to decorate their cards with appropriate African images or with symbols of Kwanzaa. Encourage them to include a greeting that reflects the spirit and purpose of the holiday. Students might like to write their greeting in English and in Swahili.

More art. Provide students with rulers, pencils, scissors, glue or tape, and red, green, and black construction paper. Print and distribute the detailed directions from the Weave a Kwanzaa mat web page so students can make their own Kwanzaa mats.

Math. In 1997, the U.S. Postal Service printed 133 million Kwanzaa stamps. At $.32 each, how much did 10 stamps cost? ($3.20) How much did one sheet (50 stamps) cost? ($16.00) How much money in all did the stamps bring in? (133 million stamps X .32 = $42,560,000.00) In 2004, a new 37-cent Kwanzaa stamp was made available. At $.37 each, how much did 10 stamps cost? ($3.70) How much did a sheet of 20 stamps cost? ($7.40) How much more did 10 stamps cost in 2004? ($.50)

Read aloud. Read aloud examples of African or African-American poetry. Younger children may enjoy poems from Scholastic's anthology African-American Poetry for Children or from the collection In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers (illustrated by Jack Steptoe). Older students may appreciate selections from Black Out Loud: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Black Americans, edited by Arnold Adoff or The Black Family Pledge by Maya Angelou.

Language/Writing. Read aloud from Langston Hughes' Sweet and Sour Animal Book and then tell children they are going to create their own alphabet-based poetry book(s). Assign a letter to each child or allow each child to pick a letter. Choose an appropriate theme, such as Kwanzaa, Africa, holidays, or December. Have each child write and illustrate a poem on that theme. Explain that the poem should begin with, or prominently feature, their assigned letter. Use yarn to combine the poems into a book.

Related resources

Kwanzaa: Everything You Always Wanted to Know But Didn't Know Where to Ask, by Cedric McClester (Gumbs and Thomas) includes information about the history, symbols, and celebrations of Kwanzaa.

More Kwanzaa links on the Internet

The history of Kwanzaa
Maintained by CNN Interactive, the site provides factual, news-based information about the history, symbolism, and celebrations of Kwanzaa.

Kwanzaa Information Center
The Kwanzaa Information Center is a year-round site offering in-depth background information about the holiday and its origins, specific suggestions for celebrating Kwanzaa, a calendar of Kwanzaa events, a chat room, and many additional Kwanzaa links.


From the Education World archive

Don't miss Education World's December holidays archive page. There you will find dozens of ideas for teaching about the holidays as well as craft activities, resources, and more.

Article by Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2016 Education World


Last updated 12/2/2016