In high school, we sometimes let these holidays go by with only a cursory nod. "Our kids are too old for that," we might say, or "We need to get through the curriculum and don't have time to waste on such things." However, I don't think either of those statements are completely true. Teenagers, despite their preoccupation with being "cool", do appreciate a little fun in class. The issue of time, though, is a real one. I know I never have enough of it, and often arrive in the last few weeks of the semester wondering how I'm going to cram it all in. But celebrating the seasons and the holidays doesn't mean we have to sacrifice time devoted to the curriculum. Read on to see how!
Backward design is always a good idea, but it makes a lot of sense if you want to find time for seasonal and holiday connections. Look at your calendar and think about how you can build in activities and lessons that will allow you to embrace the season and have some fun with your students. In English classes we use texts as tools to teach students to read critically and to communicate effectively; fortunately there are many short texts out there that we can use to do this. Spend some time thinking about how you can use these texts to build the skills your class will be working on at that time of year. I've provided a list of short stories, poems and expository texts that you can check out, as well as a sheet you can use for planning. You'll find them all HERE.
I'd also love to share my ideas for the many ways you can make seasonal connections to your curriculum:
1. READING CONNECTIONS:
This fall I've been doing reader's workshop, and am teaching my students to analyze and evaluate author use of narrative elements like setting and atmosphere. To do this, I use mentor texts as exemplars for my students, and Halloween is the perfect opportunity to find short texts that illustrate how setting and atmosphere can affect a story. By Christmas time, one of my classes will be reading Macbeth; the other, The Poisonwood Bible. At this time we will be knee-deep in character and thematic analysis, and I will have my students create Christmas wish lists and New Year's resolutions for the characters. In doing so, they will have to illustrate what they know about not only the characters, but also the major themes in each work. They are still analyzing but are doing it in a way that works with the season. I'll even play some non-religious Christmas tunes as they work. If we were doing those texts in February, the students could write valentines cards or love letters from the various characters. These activities are not "fluff", because I would expect a letter from Lady Macbeth to her husband to be written in a way that shows a true understanding of her character, and not just a superficial one.
2. WRITING CONNECTIONS
Writing prompts are a quick and easy way to incorporate seasons and holidays into your class. I like to use photo prompts, like the one above, where I ask students to write about the photo from the point of view of the car and then from the owner who has to dig it out after a storm. I have other photos of beautiful winter and fall scenes in contrast with stormy ones. With these, I ask students to reflect on their feelings about the season, or to describe the scene that I've shown. Longer writing assignments can work as well. For example, at the end of the month my students will use what they have learned about narration to write a scary Halloween story. There are also many ways you can give persuasive or expository writing a seasonal twist. Assign students options like should football be banned? Creating the perfect Halloween costume, or even Should we celebrate holidays in school? During winter storm season, you can have your students read Billy Collins' Snow Day and ask them to write their own version.
You can also easily bring seasons and holidays into your grammar instruction. My students love it when I create grammar exercises that have a story, one with their names in it. For Halloween, the story has the principal show up at the door as a zombie. During the winter, I have an exercise that focuses on students getting storm stayed at school; each time I use them, students are very engaged in fixing grammar errors. If you'd like to try this yourself, you can use the sample and editable templates templates I've provided HERE.
3. RESEARCH CONNECTIONS
You may not have time for students to do a full blown research assignment around a holiday, but what about using this time to not only teach them research skills but to also educate them about the origins and traditions of many of the holidays we celebrate? You could model and teach paraphrasing skills by giving students a short article that explains why black cats are a part of the Halloween tradition or why we give out valentines on February fourteenth. In North America, students get inundated with information and ideas about the holidays of the dominant culture, but not everyone celebrates Christmas and Easter. To help them understand this (and each other), you could have students do a short research assignment about the other holidays celebrated around Christmas time.
4. SPEAKING & LISTENING CONNECTIONS
There are always issues to be discussed and debated during any season or holiday. Last year, social media was abuzz over the Christmas Starbucks Cup and my class had a spirited discussion over the controversy. Another time, we debated whether there is too much focus on materialism during every holiday that comes along. Starting class with a short discussion about whatever controversy is brewing is not only a great way to engage your kids, but also another way to make seasonal connections. If you have students research holidays around the world, as mentioned above, they can also present these to the class.
5. CONNECTIONS WITH NATURE
I'm a strong proponent of getting students up and moving during class; I especially like taking them outside when I can. I never see this as "taking a class off', because it never is: we go outside to learn. One of my all time favourite activities is to take my students to a nearby park to do an "imagery scavenger hunt". They go to different locations in order to find inspiration to do some descriptive writing. I do this in the fall with my semester one class and in the spring with semester two. It's a wonderful activity not only because it gives them an opportunity to work on their writing skills, but also because it gives them an opportunity to embrace nature, something our teens don't do a lot of these days. This year, I also used my students' love of their phones to get them to do some writing. They had to take a photo of something that captured the essence of fall for them and then do some descriptive writing to describe the scene. We'll do it again once the snow flies.
Thanks for spending some time at the Secondary English Coffee Shop. We'd love to hear your ideas for making seasonal and holiday connections with your students, so be sure to leave a comment! You can also go to my TpT store to check out the seasonal activities that I use in my classroom.