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December 7, 2011 Using the Holidays to Break Student Holidaze By Kristy Mall
Grades 1–2, 3–5

    That’s right, fellow teachers, snowflakes are blanketing parts of the country, Christmas carols echo through the malls, and the attention spans of our students have shortened with the amount of daylight. If your students are anything like mine, it is getting hard to hold their attention. So, rather than fight it, incorporate it.

    The holidays are steeped in wonderful learning opportunities, and lessons abound. I use the holidays to teach about the cultures associated with Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa. There are great opportunities to teach about religion, culture, and geography; to create art projects; and to incorporate great literature. This week, I have activity ideas and book suggestions for winter holidays from three different cultures. So hold on to your yamakas, because here we go!



    Christmas offers lots of great opportunities in the classroom. For instance, I love that it suggests a great history lesson about the Roman Empire and its origins. However, I also love exploring the ways different cultures celebrate Christmas.  Santa's Net  and the Holiday Spot explain traditions ranging from leaving shoes by the fireplace for France's Père Noël, to Ethiopia’s Christmas celebration, Ganna, which is celebrated on January 7 and entails religious ceremonies, meals, and gifts of clothing. These are great Web sites for kids of all ages to use for research, reports, or projects. 

    A quick search of Scholastics Book Wizard will also reveal a large number of books about Christmas in different cultures. I would suggest Christmas Is . . . by Gail Gibbons,  Christmas in Germany by Kristin Thoennes Keller,  and Christmas in the Philippines by Cheryl  L. Enderlein. Victorian Christmas by Bobbie Kalman  takes students to another culture, but one of another time, instead of another country.

    Another fun holiday idea is to take The Night Before Christmas and read it to your students, pointing out how the words used during that time are different from the ones we use now. Then take the poem and do a Mad Lib from it, just for fun. I usually make my own, taking out key verbs and nouns, but I was able to find some online at Disney's FamilyFun.  I would also suggest incorporating Walter Wick's take on the poem from the Can You See What I See? series.



    Hanukkah is also a great holiday to teach in the classroom. Students are always fascinated by the menorahs and love to play with the dreidels I bought for the class. It is based on such a fascinating story, and its traditions are always fun to discuss. 

    It’s Hanukkah by Jeanne Modesitt is a great book to use to teach students about the holiday. It teaches the story of Hanukkah, but also explains the menorah, describes how to play dreidel, and provides a recipe to make and a song to sing.

    I also like to use the Web site  with my students. It is very kid friendly, and offers great information, recipes, a kid zone, directions for how to play dreidel, stories, and even videos. In addition, I would recommend Akhlah as another great, kid friendly site.




    Kids are always captivated by Kwanzaa. They love the symbolism and the uniqueness of the holiday. Although Kwanzaa isn’t a religious holiday, it occurs on December 26th, so students will be celebrating it during winter break. It is also a relatively new holiday: they are fascinated by the fact that one person can start a nationwide celebration.

    There are a lot of great Kwanzaa books on the Teacher Book Wizard. Seven Candles for Kwanzaa by Andrea Davis Pinkney  is a great resource to read to the class. It teaches about the seven candles, has really great recipes and instructions for making masks and toe puppets, and even teaches students some phrases in Swahili. It is really fun!


    Winter Holiday Class Ideas

    One of the things my students love is sampling the food of the holidays. You can have a big potluck and let them try foods that they normally wouldn’t eat.  Whether they get help from their parents or make the recipes themselves, they are learning how to follow directions and measure things I also love to have them research the foods themselves so that they have ownership of the recipe and learn good research skills.

    One fascinating fact they found while researching is that even the candy cane’s shape is significant to Christmas. Originating over 350 years ago, these candies shaped like a shepherd’s crook were handed out to keep kids quiet during long Nativity services. Depending on where you live, you may have students that have never tried a latke before, or will have never heard of the foods offered during Kwanzaa. It is a fun way to introduce the culture and create a lasting memory.


    Another thing that they love is playing games associated with the holidays. I love teaching them 20 Questions or Blind Man’s Bluff — which is in A Christmas Carol. It is also really fun to play dreidel. I have even had students bring in piñatas for the kids to break!




    Have students write down the traditions that they share, if they celebrate a holiday over the break. I like to talk about how every family has its own traditions, and it is interesting to see how varied they are. It is also fun for them to research the significance of those traditions by interviewing  relatives. These are things that they can save and pass on to future generations.

    Another fun research idea is to find the history of Kris Kringle. The kids are fascinated by how his appearance changes from culture to culture as well as his name. Have them make a prediction: What will the holidays be like in the future? What traditions will change? Then have them write stories based on their predictions.

    Finally,  read the book Horrible Harry and the Holidaze by Suzy Kline, which is a delightful book about one boy’s attempt to understand all of the traditions that his class is studying in school. Then have the kids pick one of their favorite books to share.


    My Wish for You

    Thank you for letting me share some ideas for teaching students about the holidays. I would love for you to share some of yours! I think that it is such a fun and stimulating time of year, and the kids can benefit so much from learning about the different cultures in the world around them. I hope that you have a wonderful winter break, and that if you are celebrating a holiday, it is as festive and full of love as can be!



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Susan Cheyney