Growing up we had a very special Christmas tradition. We would decorate the Christmas tree the weekend after Thanksgiving, listening to Christmas music and tenderly unwrapping each heirloom ornament from its wrapping and placing it carefully on the tree. Then we would eat dinner on the floor in front of the tree. We called it a “floor feast” and it is a tradition I’ve maintained as I’ve had my own tree, family, and heirloom ornaments. It doesn’t quite feel like the Christmas season until I’m eating mashed potatoes on the floor, basking in the glow of the Christmas tree.
Since I have such a love of the traditions of the season, I bring special routines and traditions into my classroom. I try to be culturally aware and take the opportunity to highlight kindness and generosity that embodies the spirit of all holidays celebrated by my students.
Through my years in an elementary classroom, I’ve always found the weeks of December loom among the hardest of the teaching year. Students of all ages can be antsy or snippy because they are often out late, shopping, celebrating and generally having their routines and schedules thrown off and getting less sleep. I’ve found that creating special classroom routines and traditions is effective this time of year and helps to put a little mindfulness into the classroom during the busy season. It helps us build our classroom culture as we reflect on sharing the season together.
One of my favorite traditions is the kind words gift exchange. We spend the week before winter break creating beautiful holiday presents out of envelopes. We label them to ourselves and from our class (The Wildcat Class of 2016-2017, for example). We think about each person in our classroom and write a special note telling them what we like about them or listing our favorite parts of their personality. It takes about 20 minutes a day to write thoughtful notes to a full classroom of 30 students but it is worth every bit of precious school time.
I spent time at home writing out a special note to each of my 60 odd students (we are semi-departmentalized in 5th grade so I teach 2 classes of students). Though it is hard to carve out the time during the hectic holidays, I like sitting down with a pen in my hand, thinking about each and every student I’ve gotten to know the past 5 months and their special, quirky personalities. It helps me to remember how much I like them and have a little extra patience with them during the last week when winter break madness reaches peak level.
One the last day before break, we seal our envelopes without reading the 30 odd notes placed inside by our classmates. We even tape the envelopes shut but most of the kids can hardly wait to leave school to find out what their classmates wrote about them.
This envelope of kind words becomes a meaningful keepsake for my students. One mom told me last year that her son read the notes to himself each night before he went to sleep. He did this for months while he was going through a rough time with his feelings of self-worth, his mom told me with tears in her eyes. Former students come back year after year, popping into my room with Christmas goodies and cards, reminding me what I wrote in their note.
Families love this tradition, too. Who doesn’t love to hear nice things about their child and get a glimpse into their child’s school life? There is one special family in my community who’ve had several kids in my classrooms through the years in various grade levels. They have a tradition of opening the kindness gift around their Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Some families tell me they’ve saved the envelope in their holiday decorations and re-read the kind notes year after year.
I sat around my Christmas tree this morning after we had opened our presents and I opened my envelope. The first note that fluttered out was from THAT kid. You know the one…major tough kid attitude, sullen, hard to reach, a tough nut to crack. That student told me that I am “funny, fun, cool, and talented.” It is safe to say that I will return to school in the new year even more determined to make an impact on that student. I’m getting through, even though it doesn’t show on the outside. I wonder what my students have read about themselves on their kindness notes.
What are your favorite classroom traditions? How do you reinforce classroom culture in December?
Happy Holidays! My best to you in 2017!