In our third column taking a lighter look at education, we asked four administrators for their favorite pre-holiday methods to keep students engaged.
The week leading up to a break can be particularly difficult for educators and students alike, with the former often struggling to hold the latter’s attention as they become increasingly anxious about the prospect of time off. This is especially true of winter break, when — no matter what they might celebrate — everyone is looking forward to the opportunity to spend time with loved ones and perhaps exchange a few gifts.
We reached out to four administrators to get a sense of the best seasonal activities they've either seen in the classroom or put in place school-wide to keep students focused, while also giving them a chance to take a breather and reflect on the year so far.
Connecting students present to students past
At Paul Robeson High School in Philadelphia, our 2017 Principal of the Year, Richard Gordon IV, says he typically expects a number of alumni to return and visit the school around the holiday season. He uses those visits as an opportunity to arrange “Alumni Socials.”
“We will have our current students mingle with our former students and staff to discuss Robeson now versus then, lessons learned, and how the school prepared our students for life after high school,” Gordon said.
The gathering includes a Q&A panel so current students can ask questions about what alumni are up to these days, their experiences at Robeson, their experiences with staff members and more. The panels also include some of those former staff members, who lend insight into what makes Robeson unique as a school and what they liked about working in the building.
“Although it isn't exactly a holiday focus, it is an activity we are coordinating for the holiday break that coincides with our staff and students’ vacation availability,” said Gordon. “It is all being sponsored by a community partner, who will host a luncheon with select staff and students to debrief afterwards about the event and its purpose.”
Seasonal decor (including 'college trees')
“At the high school level, the holidays come at the time of semester exams, which can be very stressful for students,” said Susan Kessler, executive principal at Hunters Lane High School in Nashville, TN.
Kessler says that using holiday decor provided one method of lightening the load for students as they prepare for college entrance tests and review for cumulative exams. But even the holiday flair added to the school has educational appeal, as the school’s main office sets up a “college tree” rather than a Christmas tree.
“One of our parents created the college diploma scrolls as ornaments to represent every college in our state,” said Kessler. “The college tree is a great way to show holiday spirit while maintaining our priorities on college and career prep.”
The school also uses elementary-style snowflakes hung from fishing wire in its lobby to make every day in December a “snow day.”
Likewise, at New Jersey’s Tabernacle School District, Superintendent Glenn Robbins said educators engage in holiday door-decorating contests and various staff competitions.
Tying STEM to the season
At Alexandria Country Day School, located in Northern Virginia outside of Washington, DC, educators find ways to incorporate snow or holiday themes into STEM activities.
“Alexandria Country Day School is nonsectarian, so we try to ensure that we maintain an inclusive environment for diverse perspectives around the holiday season,” said Scott Baytosh, head of school. “Still, we recognize that there is a lot of energy and excitement among the kids leading up to the long winter break, and there are lots of ways that we change up the regular routine while still keeping the focus on learning.”
Students in grades K-4, for example, might be tasked with discovering the best way to quiet a jingle bell with various insulating materials, building bridges with toothpicks and marshmallows to get a gingerbread person across a river, or making snow from conditioner and baking soda. Meanwhile, 5th graders in social studies and science construct gingerbread depictions of ancient Egyptian architecture and geologic landforms.
And in Tabernacle, Robbins said 5th grade students engage in a large-scale project to save wildlife and address water conservation in the nearby Pine Barrens.
Thank you to the Pinelands Commission for the opportunity to learn more about our own backyard! It tied in so well w/ our 2nd grade @EiE_org unit about the importance of clean water in an environment & it tied in w/ our #Unless project too!#TigerStrong #CollaboratoryCubs #staywild pic.twitter.com/4SXWR5T6ce— Brittany Murro (@BrittanyMurro) December 12, 2017
“The students have teamed up with the Philadelphia Zoo and Pinelands Conservation Group to raise awareness about the Panamanian Tree Frogs, and water conservation,” said Robbins. “In the upcoming future, they will also be teaming up with the Alliance of Living Ocean, on Long Beach Island, to broaden their project to our local bay/sea area, which is 30 minutes away.”
An “Idea Street” trophy case will see students house their own frogs in a new habitat designed for them. And students have created electronic brochures, t-shirts and other items to raise awareness while also teaming up with 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders to create what Robbins says is “a true ‘district’ project.”
Tabernacle also had a 2nd-grade class participate in the global Climate Action Project, which was showcased in National Geographic. And there are also holiday-related takes on classic experiments, like Elf-on-the-Shelf-themed egg drop experiments.
Assemblies and other festive get-togethers
And of course, there’s the age-old tradition of the school assembly. At Tabernacle, these have included holiday concerts and a jazz festival.
Baytosh added that at Alexandria Country Day School, such events are also used as a means for students reflect on the year so far.
“During our final assembly,” said Baytosh, “7th graders present written reflections on the winter season and traditions before the whole school. In addition, our middle schoolers are buddies with our elementary students throughout the year, and they get together on the last day before the winter break to read winter-themed books together and drink hot cocoa.”