No matter which holidays your students celebrate in December, they are sure to be somewhat preoccupied with merrymaking and counting down to the winter break. And so are you! Enjoy these classroom activities that capture the holiday spirit and connect to the curriculum.

Rewriting "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and The Polar Express

Ranell Cox, a teacher in Ponte Vedra, Florida, challenges her class to develop a new theme and lyrics for the familiar carol "The Twelve Days of Christmas." She reports: "You can change it to fit almost anything, even different holidays around the world." One of her favorite adaptations is "The Twelve Days of Florida," which begins and ends with a particularly catchy line: "On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a coconut in a palm tree!"

Like many elementary school teachers, Cox also uses literature to celebrate holiday traditions. The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg, is always a big hit in her classroom. She reads it the week before the holiday break and then has her students create a train car by decorating shoeboxes and displaying them in the hallway. "Then we pick a day, wear our PJs, bring our favorite books and stuffed animals, and read [in the morning] and share our books," explains Cox. "Before we leave, we watch the Polar Express movie and drink hot chocolate. When we finish, we use a Venn diagram to compare the movie and the book. I also give students their own silver bell." See Bookshelf Bests for more ideas on connecting literature to holiday activities.

Hosting a Holiday Open House

The Friday before winter break, Sue Nixon, an ELL teacher in Prescott Valley, Arizona, and her students host a holiday open house for all members of the school staff. "This a great pick-me-up for the staff," says Nixon, "and it also gives my English language learners a meaningful way to interact with adults. They practice greetings, questions, goodbyes, and informal conversation." Nixon and her students provide snacks and drinks throughout the day. They also craft small ornaments and give them to their guests as a way of thanking them for dropping by.

Scrapbook Pages for Holiday Gifts

Lori Knight, a third-grade teacher in Clarksburg, West Virginia, takes pictures of her students early in the school year. In December, she gives the students their photos to create a scrapbook page. Then they add a journal entry to the page about what they have done that year, explains Knight. "I place the finished page in a page protector as a holiday gift for parents and families," she says. Since so many students enjoy this type of writing and artwork, she tries to give them the opportunity to create more pages during center time. "I have a supply of scrapbooking materials, a digital camera, and photo paper available. The parents really appreciate the gifts and students may pick up a hobby." And, of course, the journaling fits into the language arts curriculum.

Presenting a Holiday-Themed Reader's Theater

Impromptu reader's theater productions of The Baker's Dozen: A Saint Nicholas Tale by Aaron Shepard have been a successful holiday activity with 4th and 5th graders at the Parmenter School in Franklin, Massachusetts. The Baker's Dozen works well because the script is straightforward and takes no more than ten minutes to perform. "I bring in simple props — Santa hats for narrators, a chef's hat and apron for the baker, and a kerchief and shawl for the old lady who casts a spell," says Margie Markarian, who runs the school's Reading Is Fundamental Program. "I hand out scripts to performers that morning and give them a chance to read it through together once or twice." Then, they line up across the front of the room with their hats, and the show goes on.

"I try to give kids who like to ham it up the lead roles because it makes it more fun," says Markarian. "I've also changed the number of narrator parts from two to four to give more students an opportunity to participate." But whether they perform or watch, the kids love the change of pace, and it's a creative way to keep them engaged in an ELA activity. If your school allows it, consider distributing holiday cookies to everyone at the end of the performance. It reinforces the theme of generosity and good will. For an overview of the story, check out Bookshelf Bests: Holiday and Winter Themes for Elementary Students.

Catching the Spirit of Giving

Since many of her students can't afford to buy a gift or donate food, Kelley DeBoer, a teacher in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has developed a cost-free way for them to give and receive. She pulls out inexpensive molds she picked up from a garage sale (plastic candy molds work, too) and has her students make plaster of Paris ornaments.

"Every student mixes the plaster of Paris with water and pours it into the molds," explains DeBoer. "When they're dry the following day, the students color on them with markers and then wrap them." When everyone is done, the students all write their names on a slip of paper and put it in a box. "As each child's name is pulled, he or she presents the gift he or she made to another student in the room. When we're done, everyone has a gift that someone in the room made for them."

Gingerbread House Making

"My 4th grade students make gingerbread houses," says Leah Richards, of North Bay, New York. "We brainstorm materials we need and make a flow chart to show the steps we need to take. Then we follow a recipe to make the frosting. At the end of our two-day activity, my students write a process essay." This idea can be tied in with a reading of Gingerbread Baby by Jan Brett, mentioned in the Bookshelf Bests: Holiday and Winter Themes for Elementary Students.

Handmade Greeting Cards

Expose children to different holiday traditions by inviting them to create a homemade card that illustrates their own holiday symbols, traditions, or memories. Let students know they can bring items from home (photos, magazine or newspaper pictures, postcards, brochures, wrapping paper, etc.) to create their cards; or, they can use materials available in your classroom art center. When the cards are complete, "invite each student to share his or her card with the class," says Judy Wetzel, a teacher in Falls Church, Virginia. "Have them explain how the idea for the card originated and how it was constructed." Then, hang all the cards on a bulletin board or around your door frame under the heading "Season's Greetings."

Filling Bar Graphs With Holiday Food Favorites

Judy Meagher's class gets into the holiday spirit by creating bar graphs of favorite holiday foods. Here's how: "Send students home with enough small white paper plates to equal the number of people in their families. Have them ask family members to draw their favorite holiday foods on the plates," says Meagher, who teaches in Bozeman, Montana. "When the plates are returned, sort them by food type, then create a bar graph on the wall with the actual plates and discuss the results." Let students share the results with their families by compiling the findings into a top ten list that ranks the foods in order of popularity. If you don't want to involve families, you can modify this activity by having each student identify and draw their favorite foods in different categories — ethnic specialties, desserts, appetizers, and main dishes — and then graphing them.


Adapted from Teacher magazine, published by Scholastic.