Making the Holidays a Learning Platform

Exchanging Christmas cards with students around the world – and connecting through Skype

Exchanging Christmas cards with students around the world – and connecting through Skype

There are so many things going on during the holidays that is hard for everyone at school -including teachers- to stay focused. So much of time is devoted to the preparation of the diverse events to take place during the holidays, that sometimes it feels like curriculum has taken a back-row seat. But still, for us, December means our second trimester tests. And for kids in high school, end of semester evaluations.

We teachers are usually perfectionists. We strive to make the very best of everything. We want kids to ace their midterms but also shine on the Christmas recital. If kids are already distracted by the holidays– as we all are- we should take advantage of that interest, instead of trying to work against it (believe me, no teacher is more powerful than Santa). How can we make these holiday events a powerful learning platform? Here are some tips.

Holiday Global Citizens

I teach social studies in a medium-size city in México, where more than 90% of the population is Catholic. There is also a growing number of non-Catholic Christians. Our community lacks diversity in many ways, but maybe faith is the place where we are most alike. I don’t think that, in the almost two decades since our school was founded, we have had a single student that does not celebrate Christmas. Specially for the little ones, it is easy to believe that the whole world is just like us – they have never seen different.

If we pair kids’ endless curiosity with their heightened holiday awareness, we can interest them in the many different ways people live their very own celebrations. The holidays can be a festive soup of cultures. Aside from reading and watching videos about other countries’ traditions, we like to engage in Skype conversations with classrooms from across the globe. Kids learn important lessons on diversity and respect. Even among the countries that share Christmas with us, there is still much to learn and teach. The Mexican tradition of “Pedir Posada” (“Ask for shelter”) for example, has been a hit with kids across the planet.

Giving time

If we listen to the media, it seems like the Holidays are all about the parties and the presents: the ones you give, the ones you get. Yet some high order thinking questions can help our students to reflect and keep learning. Let’s take the SDG (UN Sustainable Development Goals) in mind:

  • What kind of presents are really useful – and gentle to the planet? (SDG #12: Responsible production and consumption)
  • Much waste is created just for gift packaging. How could we be responsible with the Earth and still make our presents look pretty? (SDG #12: Responsible production and consumption)
  • Many families get together to feast over the Holidays -yet, in the world, many more are starving. Is there anything our families and communities could do to ease other’s suffering? (SDG #1: End of poverty, and #2: Zero Hunger)
  • If your family gets together for the holidays, who does most of the cooking and cleaning? Why? Is there a better way to distribute the work? How? What can you do about this? (SDG #5: Gender equality)

Every experience is a learning experience.

Our kids present an open Violin Christmas Concert every year at our local shopping mall -it’s one of our school’s highlights, and it is a big deal. Students prepare for months, and the last weeks before the big day are usually hectic. I love that we put so much into arts and music, but students get so much more beyond learning to play Christmas carols. They learn to collaborate. If you want to produce beautiful, inspiring music, it is not enough to be a good musician yourself. You must work with others to ensure that your voice -or your instrument’s voice- is in harmony with the rest. One single off-key violin can throw off the whole performance. The same could be said of theatre and dance: we must come together to make magic.

Coming together: Isn’t that the whole spirit of the Holidays?

 

As part of CM Rubin’s World Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my contribution for this month’s prompt: What are your best tips for using a holiday event as a learning platform?

Beyond Blending: Music and Arts in Education

ensambles-de-violin-2015We have done it all.

And we have all done it.

Looking to engage our students, we have incorporated arts (and sports and technology and sometimes even cooking) to our teaching. How many history papers can an eight grader submit before loosing interest? How many textbook pages can anyone fill up before the heart –and brain- begin wandering elsewhere (usually very far away from the classroom?)

We are good teachers. We know boredom painfully eats away learning. So we use the arts to make our subjects more enjoyable, to chase boredom away.

Richard Spencer is an award winning scientist – and a Biology teacher. He dances, along with his students, to help them learn complex biological processes. Even the names of his dances are funny: “DNA Boogie” and “Meiosis Square Dance

I am a Social Studies teacher for grades 7th to 9th. I have asked my students to produce and perform drama (and then to film and edit it) about historic characters. They have created art posters (and “marketing campaigns”) to choose the best monarch to represent enlightened absolutism. And sometimes we decide it is Opera day and everyone -including myself- must sing whatever words come out from one’s mouth (I have found this to be very helpful in limiting my speech outcome!)

All this works wonders with students. But still, there is a little something that bothers me. See, as part of The Top Global Teacher Bloggers, I was asked to write an answer to this month’s question:

How can we maximize the value of art and music in education and how can it be blended with more traditional subjects (math, science, history, etc.)?

But if we want to maximize the value of arts in education, we need to think beyond blending it with other subjects.

 When I was a child, my mother insisted that I have a raw egg for breakfast. Everyday. Well, she did not have to insist because I was not really aware that I was getting it. She blended it in a milkshake. Now, skipping the issue of whether this was really a good idea, nutrition wise, the important thing here is that she got what she wanted. I swallowed the egg, every time.

We have all done the blending. We use the arts as a clever disguise for the yucky subjects we want our students to swallow. We get our results, but are we seeing the arts in a utilitarian way?

I still believe that it is great to “blend” the arts with other, more traditional subjects. But that should not keep us from giving the arts their fair place in education. They are not just the means to an end. They are also an end by themselves. Just like reading or math.

In our school all kids learn to paint with oil, watercolors and pastels- and to play the violin. It is as important as any of the “academic” subjects. Yes, we have seen that it increases the ability to focus, improves concentration and develops fine motor skills – all of these very useful gains for the classroom. But even if that were not the case, we would still play the violin.

Because we believe music and art are great for the kids, period.
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