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My December Top Ten List — 'Tis the Season!

By Beth Newingham on December 2, 2010
  • Grades: 3–5

Happy holidays! With the jam-packed curriculum we all face every day, taking time to celebrate the holidays in the classroom can be challenging. However, in this season of giving, it is important that we do take time out to teach our students about the real meaning of the season. It’s also a great time to purposefully integrate curriculum requirements with holiday activities.  

This post features ideas for creative holiday gifts, meaningful ways to help your students “give back,” awesome holiday resources on the Web, cool holiday activities I do in my own classroom, and a memorable way to ring in the New Year with your students. I have included some ideas from previous years' posts, but you will also find resources and ideas I have never shared before, innovative ideas from my Top Teaching colleagues, and links to useful online holiday resources.


Toys_R_Us_logo_gif 1.  Toys “R” Us Virtual Holiday Shopping Spree

Shopping laptop I am always looking for ways to make the use of technology in my classroom both purposeful and engaging. This activity combines math and technology skills as students navigate the Toys "R" Us site to “shop” for gifts for their loved ones.

During the holidays, students are always excited about the presents they want most. I created this activity to emphasize the importance of gift giving rather than the “gift receiving” that so many students focus on during this month. Through the downloadable worksheets below, students are invited to be part of a made-up scenario in which a long-lost relative has won the lottery and is giving away some of his money in the hope that it will be used in a positive way during the holiday season. Shopping spree sheetEach student is given $500 and is asked to spend it on friends and family. Since the relative tells the students that they cannot keep any leftover money for themselves, the goal is to spend as close to $500 as they can.

I love this activity because it requires students to understand how to navigate a Web site purposefully. The Toys "R" Us site is perfect because it allows users to search by age, category, gender, price, character/theme, top rated toys, or keyword.  Students first make a list of the people they plan to buy gifts for. On their list, most students include recipients of different ages and genders. Sometimes students know exactly what they want to buy and can use the keyword search, other times they have a certain price range in mind, and often they just search for top-rated toys for a certain age level. Of course students do not actually add any items to their online shopping cart. They just record the price on their worksheet.

Download the scenario description and the recipient recording sheet for this activity.

Scenario Shopping Spree Recipient Recording Sheet


Class 2. Holiday Hope Chests

In years past, my students have created holiday hope chests for children who will be spending the holidays in a local children's hospital. (The hope chests can also be made for children in homeless shelters, orphanages, foster homes, soup kitchens, domestic violence shelters, low-income pediatric clinics, or low-income day care centers.)  It is easy for children to take for granted the gifts that they receive during the holidays, and this project encourages children to embrace the holiday season as one of giving rather than receiving. 

I first found out about holiday hope chests on the GenerationOn Web site. The chests are simply decorated shoe boxes designed by my students.  Each chest is filled with small toys, games, and art supplies chosen especially for a girl or boy of a specific age.  My students also make holiday cards to enclose in each chest. The decorative shoebox gives the receiving child a "treasure chest" in which to keep the items together.

Katie IMG_1776

To begin the project, I introduce the idea to my students and then send a note home explaining the project to the parents. I ask parents to donate shoe boxes, and each student is asked to bring three to five small, new toys to put in his or her hope chest. I suggest shopping at local dollar stores and emphasize the fact that the items must be small enough to fit inside a shoebox.  I also ask students not to bring candy, toys with many small parts, or toys that promote violence, such as toy guns or action figures with guns or battle gear. Suggested items include crayons, pencils, markers, notebooks, notepads, glue, Play Doh, flash cards, stickers, small toys, small books, magazines, LEGOs, hair bands, card games, small stuffed animals, magnets, etc.


This project has been very successful and rewarding in years past. My students love being able to spread joy to their less fortunate peers, and it helps them to embrace the real meaning of the holiday season. 

For more photos and information about creating holiday hope chests, you can visit my classroom Web site. You can also download my hope chest parent letter and hope chest tag (as seen on hope chest boxes in the pictures above).

3. All Aboard . . . Bring the Polar Express to Your Classroom!

Class train When I taught 2nd grade, we spent part of one day in December pretending we were aboard the Polar Express.  After reading the story in class, students wore their pajamas to school and took part in a variety of activities related to the book. We even "built" a Polar Express train in our classroom for the special day. Since the young boy in the story had a most prized possession, his silver bell, students also brought along their most prized possessions. Students wrote "small moment" stories related to their special items in their Writer's Notebooks.

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See more pictures from our special day aboard the Polar Express and read more about the activities we did aboard the train.

4. Holiday Interactive Whiteboard Resources

SB1 I am officially obsessed with my SMART Board after having it for only a few short months. I can hardly teach a lesson without using it, so I know that anything I do related to the holidays will likely involve my SMART Board as well. I find that many of the activities created for the holidays are more focused on fun than on real learning, so I am sorting through what is out there and then trying to find creative ways to connect the activities to my curriculum. Here are some of the holiday resources that have looked good: Teachers Love SMART Boards' holiday resources,  TeqSmart's December holiday resources,  SMART Board Terminal's holiday resources,  SMART Exchange's Christmas activities, and Christmas SMART Board lessons on TeachersPayTeachers.

5. Making Gingerbread Houses to Inspire Your Writers

IMG_1684 It has been a tradition for over 20 years (long before I was even teaching) for Hill School 3rd graders to make gingerbread houses in December. When I was moved from 2nd to 3rd grade, I was excited to become part of this tradition. Students absolutely love building their houses and decorating them using a variety of yummy candies and icing.  Parents even join in on the fun as well, often taking the day off to come spend time with their child in our classroom for this enjoyable event.  

IMG_0810 Though I love the activity, it bothered me that it was completely unrelated to our curriculum. For that reason, I decided it was the perfect activity to link to Writing Workshop. What better way to teach students about descriptive writing than to have them use their deliciously colorful gingerbread houses as inspiration?

With a focus on word choice, students sit with their completed gingerbread house in front of them and describe the house in detail.  My previous lessons on similes, metaphors, sensory language, and rich, vivid details suddenly came to life even for my most reluctant writers. Since I often tell my students that they are creating a picture with words, we display this writing in our hallway in December with the actual picture of their gingerbread house above it.

Read about a similar project my fellow Top Teaching blogger Megan Power does with her kindergartners!

6. Homemade Holiday Gifts for Parents and Loved Ones

When it comes to the gift that my students make for their parents or other loved ones during the holiday season, I try to think of something that is creative, but also desirable for the recipient. The gift I've had my students make for the past few years is called "cookies in a jar." I am sharing this idea again because it has been so well received by other teachers and by the students’ parents who receive the gift!

IMG_1519 IMG_1520

I use quart-sized jars with lids and the ingredients necessary to make a specific type of cookie. One afternoon, I pour the ingredients into large bowls and call groups of four or five students at a time over to a table to add the ingredients to their jars. I ask parents to send in sets of measuring cups and measuring spoons for students to use for the special project. While I walk small groups of students through the steps necessary to make their "cookies in a jar" gift, the rest of my class reads quietly at their desks or completes a purposeful assignment that I have explained prior to the cookie-jar project.


Once all students have added the ingredients to their jar, they attach a circular piece of festive material to the top of the jar with a rubber band and tie a ribbon around the rubber band. Finally, students attach a gift tag to the ribbon with the recipient's name. The recipe for how to make the cookies is printed on a label and stuck to the back of the jar so that the cookies can be easily made by adding butter and eggs. 

P1010740 IMG_1802

Since the holidays are such a busy time of year, parents tend to appreciate the ease of having a pre-made cookie mix to entertain holiday guests. It is also a fun way for students and parents to spend time together at home baking (and enjoying) the cookies. I like this gift idea because it can be altered for students who celebrate any holiday. I purchase different types of inexpensive cloth from a fabric store including material with holiday designs, winter themes, and basic designs like polka dots, stripes, and plaids. You can also tie the holiday project to lessons in math to reinforce concepts having to do with fractions and measurement.

You can find specific directions for making a variety of "cookies in a jar" at Allrecipes.com. Download my holiday cookies in a jar recipe, my holiday cookie direction labels for jars (seen in picture above), and my "cookies in a jar" gift tags (on jars in picture above).

7. Holiday Integration Activities That Blend the Season

Angela1 My fellow Top Teacher blogger, Angela Bunyi, never ceases to amaze me with her creative ideas and the purposeful way she approaches the curriculum. Last year, she wrote a fun post filled with curriculum-worthy holiday ideas including making Christmas factor trees, teaching measuring skills by creating a life-sized abominable snowman, designing geo-ornaments, creating an iMovie about winter holidays around the world, teaching series and parallel lighting using Christmas lights, and constructing holiday “branches” of government. Read her great holiday post!


8. Scholastic’s Awesome Collection of Holiday Resources

There is no other place on the Web where you will find a more comprehensive collection of resources to help celebrate and teach your students about the many winter holidays.  From art projects, online activities, printables, and recipes to thinking questions, clip art, books, and classroom decorations, this is one stop shopping when it comes to teacher resources for Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa!

Scholastic 2010

 Also, check out a great holiday booklist organized by grade level. 


9. Personalized Cards for Parent Helpers

I am always so appreciative of the parents who volunteer to chaperone field trips, assist with special projects in the classroom, and plan classroom parties during the holidays. Oftentimes their help directly impacts the students. For this reason, I like my students to help create the cards we make for our helpers. 

For the card below, students worked in teams of two or three to make letters with their bodies that spelled "THANK YOU!!"  If you have more students, you can make the words "THANK YOU VERY MUCH" instead. To put the card together, I took pictures of the students forming each letter. I then inserted the pictures into a blank poster in Print Shop and used the freehand crop tool to cut around their bodies. (This makes them look more like the letters they are trying to form.) Once I have all of the letters cropped, I arrange them on the Print Shop poster and print copies for each parent volunteer. I paste the printed copies on a construction paper card and have the students sign their names inside the card.

Thank You Bodies 2006

The pictures below show a quick and easy way to make a thank-you card or holiday card from your class. I used Microsoft Word to write "THANK YOU!" or "HAPPY HOLIDAYS," printing each letter on a separate piece of paper. I glued each letter on a colored piece of construction paper and had my students hold up the letters for a picture. When making the card, I glue the thank-you picture on the front and have the kids sign their names on the inside. 

XMAS 2006   Thank You Card


10. Ringing in 2011 With Your Students

Class Fun When students come back from break, it can be difficult to get them refocused after the excitement of the holidays. For this reason, I treat January as a new beginning. I hit up the party supply store immediately after New Year's Eve to find party hats on sale (often 50% off). When my students come back to school in January, they each find a party hat on their desk. My students and I reflect on and celebrate what we have accomplished so far in the school year, and then we make plans for the rest of our year together.

Part of our plan includes the students making resolutions. I start my lesson by asking students, “What is a resolution?” They soon learn that a resolution is a promise that you make to yourself. I then read aloud some of the resolutions made by my students in previous years. This gives my current students some specific ideas about making resolutions. I follow this up with a discussion about how there are different kinds of resolutions.

IMG_1939 IMG_1938

Finally, students complete a worksheet that I created called "My New Year's Resolutions." It asks them to make two PERSONAL resolutions, two resolutions that involve FAMILY OR FRIENDS, and two resolutions that involve SCHOOL. Students share their top two resolutions with the class before we put them in our “Resolution Time Capsule” (see picture below). I decorate a shoe box with New Year’s Eve decorations and have each student ceremoniously place their resolutions into the box. I explain to the students that we will not open the box to see if we have accomplished our goals until the end of the year. When the end of the year comes around, students are given their resolutions from the box and are asked to write a reflective piece of writing about how far they have come or what things they might still need to work on. This is the final piece of writing that is placed in their 3rd grade portfolio.


I'd love to hear what special things you do in your classrooms in December.  Add your comments below!

Comments (36)

Thanks, Beth! This really did help. I teach fifth grade and I am seriously thinking about doing this next year. However, I do not have chair pockets and I don't know if funds will be available to purchase them. Do you have any suggestions on where to get them or other ideas if they're not an option? Thanks again for all of your great posts. You are such an inspiration! Jenny

Jenny (comment #33),

You mentioned that you are considering switching from desks to tables in your classroom. I switched from desks to hexagon tables this year, and I absolutely love the tables! Below are some pros and cons of tables. Overall, I am extremely happy with the switch!

Pros for Having Tables in Your Classroom: -They do not take up as much space as individual desks. -They eliminate the "this is my stuff" attitude that kids tend to get when they all have their own desks. My students share supplies that are stored in their table caddies. -They support the collaborative learning that takes place on a regular basis in my classroom. -They are useful for students working together at word study centers or during science experiments. -They make your classroom look less "messy." Student desks can become very messy and disorganized on the inside. They also get moved a lot, so my students' desks never stayed lined up like I wanted them to be. The tables can be easily moved when necessary without having every student realign their own desk. -Switching seats is easy. Students just take their chair pocket to a new seat and do not need to take everything out of their desks.

Cons for Having Tables: -Storage of textbooks or binders can be tricky if you do not have other places in your classroom. Luckily my students mainly use folders that they keep in their chair pockets, and we have lots of shelf space to store our reading binders. -Students have less personal space to spread things out when doing projects or independent work. However, my students are not at their tables all day. Most activities we do require students to be spread out around the classroom.

I hope this helps!



I looked on your website and couldn't find your email address. I'm trying to reach you so I can tell you about one of your creations being posted online by someone else and selling it. Please email me so I can give you the details.

Beth, I was wondering if you still had the hexagon tables as desks in your room and if you still like that arrangement. I have single desks that I group together, but I am considering getting rid of desks and using tables. Pros/Cons? Jenny

Maureen (comment #28),

You asked if I know of any grants geared specifically toward SMART Board funding. I am honestly not aware of any grants that would fit into that specific category, but I will ask around.

I must say, having a SMART Board has been life-changing for me! (By life-changing, I am referring to my "teacher life".... of course sometimes it seems like teaching is my life!) I'm sorry it has taken me a while to get back to you. It has been nice to have a couple of weeks off to "forget" about school for awhile and spend time with my boys:)



Karin (comment #27),

I'm glad you like my goal-setting activity for the first day back from break. Happy New Year, and thanks for posting on the blog!


Bobbi (comment #26),

You can learn more about "Talking Back to Books" if you read my post about Reading Workshop. Here is a link to that post: http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2009/10/reading-workshop.html

Let me know if you still have questions after reading that post!

You also asked if I had any suggestions for second grade teachers. (I think you are referring to word study.) I'm not sure exactly what information you are looking for, but, if I taught second grade, I would implement my word study program in the exact same way. The only thing that would be different would be the patterns and skills I would be teaching.

Let me know if I have answered your questions!




You asked if I had any other hoiday activities than the ones I mentioned. Those are the main activities I do in my classroom, but we do read nonfiction and fiction books during read-aloud time that focus on many different holidays. Also, if you click on the Scholastic Resources link (#8 on my Top Ten List), you will find resources for a variety of winter holidays to focus on during December.


Beth, Thanks to some federal funding, some special ed teachers in my district have been able to get SMART boards. They look like a wonderful tool and I am constantly thinking about how I would use one in my classroom. Do you know of any grants out there that are geared to SMART boards? Thanks, Maureen

What a great goal-setting activity for the first day back after a busy holiday! Thank you!

Thank you so much for your ideas and enthusiasm for teaching. could you tell me about the Talk Back to the Book that you mentioned in your reading workshop? I teach second grade and find your word study very interesting and well done. Do you have any suggestions for second grade teachers?

What other holidays and activities do you include; only Christmas activities are mentioned above. Do you feel that other holidays are equally represented. I personally don't feel that holiday celebrations should be a big part of a public school classroom, but some things are unavoidable and it would be nice to have a better balance.

Wendy (comment #21),

I absolutely LOVE your idea of collecting books and relating the service project to Cynthia Rylant's book Silver Packages. With such an emphasis on reading in my classroom, I think that there would be no more better gift for my students to give than the gift of books for children who have very few good books to read. We have been doing Holiday Hope Chests for a few years now. I think I may try out your idea next year! Perhaps we could even add one book to each Holiday Hope Chest.

Thanks so much for posting your idea. I hope you have a great holiday break!


Amy (comment #20),

I love your idea of having the students purchase things from the class store to fill the Holiday Hope Chests. I think it would be even more meaingful since the students are actually giving up something of their own (the money they earned) to give to those who are less fortunate. Thanks for the great idea! I may need to borrow your idea for next year!

Happy Holidays!


Amy (comment #19),

Sorry it has taken me a few days to get back to you. This time of year is so busy!! I use Print Shop Deluxe Version 23. I love it and have had no problems with it. The newest version is Print Shop 2.0. I haven't heard much about that, but I do know that some teachers have had problems opening files created in earlier versions of Print Shop.


Beth! Thank-you so much for sharing your amazing creativity in your blog! :) As a literacy coach, I've shared your link as an example of a great resource to classroom teachers. One activity a class that I worked with recently did was collect books they had outgrown at home to distribute to children in need. This was after reading Rylant's Silver Packages and the children decided on how they could be generous without spending money. It was wonderful to witness! Happy holidays and keep up the great work!

Hi Beth,

I love the idea of Holiday Hope chests! I started doing the classroom economy this year with my teammates. Have you ever had your kids purchase things from your class store to put in the hope chests? I am thinking about trying it that way next year so every student can donate, even if money is tight in their family. I also have been looking for ways to teach the students that in an economy, many choose to donate some money to help others. Do you think it would work?



Beth, What version of Print Shop do you use? I am thinking of investing in purchasing the program but have heard several negative things about it recently. Just curious

Peggy (comment #17),

Thanks for your nice comments! I'm glad you've been able to use some of my ideas in your classroom. You asked how I find the time to do it all. Lately, the answer would be "very little sleep." However, I am usually better at balancing it all. You can read the following post to learn more about how I try to balance motherhood and teaching: http://blogs.scholastic.com/top_teaching/2010/03/balancing-parenthood-teaching.html

You also asked about the Polar Express train ticket on my classroom website. See comment #8 for an answer to that question.

Hapy Holidays!



I have a question for you. I want to use your Polar Express idea but want to know how you created the tickets for your students....Do you have a template that you could share?

Thanks again and happy holidays!

Peggy Zola Goffstown, NH

Kristine(comment #12),

You mentioned that you are doing a SMART Board presentation for the teachers at your school and wondered if I could post all of the SMART Board lessons I have created this year.

I may try to do that over my holiday break, but, unfortunately, I don't have time right now to get all of the lessons in final form, upload them to my website, and design a SMART Board Resources page. This is something I plan to do in the future, but teaching, taking care of my boys, maintaining this blog, and the craziness of December is keeping my very busy right now. Since I teach part-time (and this is my day off), I am trying to catch up on these comments during my boys' nap time:)


Kacie (comment #11),

You mentioned that you have a student who does not celebrate holidays. Do his or her parents request that you do not do anything related to any holiday? In my classroom, I do not have students who are not allowed celebrate holidays. However, they certainly all celebrate many different holidays. I just try to make sure that I am not focusing solely on Christmas. As long as I am incorporating a variety of holidays and tying them directly to my curriculum, I feel like all students should be able to participate. It would be sad if the student is not allowed to do anything related to holidays since the spirit of the season can be woven into the curriculum in such positive ways! You can check out #8 in my post to find lesson plans for a variety of winter holidays.

I'm not sure if my response helps or not. If that child is not allowed to celebrate any holiday, your hands may be tied. However, class service projects that are designed to help others in your community can still be done without typing them to a specific holiday.


Jessica (comment #10),

I love your Polar Express ideas! I will have to share them with the second grade teachers at my school who still do the activity every year. Your idea of giving students a bell and relating it to how much you believe in them is not cheesy at all! What a special way to let your students know how you feel about them!

Thanks so much for sharing your ideas with me and with other teachers who read the blog!

Happy Holidays!


Adelle (comment #9),

Thanks for sharing all of your great holiday ideas! I love the Gigerbread House Mouse as another way to incorporate writing into the gingerbread house building activity.

I also love the yule log DVD idea. Is that a DVD that just shows an animated image of a yule log? I wouldn't mind having that for my house too!

We also have a holiday sing-a-long at our school. It is in the evening, and families are invited to attend!

Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas! Happy holidays!



I am presenting at my elementary school how useful Smart boards are. However, I just got mine. Would you be willing to email me some of your lessons? I love the word study lessons that you have posted on your site. Let me know!


I love all of your December ideas, especially the Gingerbread House writing! However, I have a student in my class that does not celebrate holidays. Do you have any suggestions on how I can include them while retaining the lessons you have suggested?

We also do a polar express day in 3rd grade in Cincinnati, OH. A big theme in our school the past few years has been "Believe". All throughout the school are believe sayings and we constantly are sharing with the students how we believe in them. After reading the story we talk about the boy hearing the bell and believing in Santa. I give my students each a bell on a red ribbon after the story and I tell them that as long as they can hear the ring of the bell they should know and understand how much I believe in them. I remind them when they are having a hard day or are frustrated with school or friends they can always look back at the bell and remember that Ms. Radel believes they can do anything they set their mind to. It may sound cheesy but I have been doing this for three years now and actually had a student wear theirs to school the other day!


We also do gingerbread houses as a 3rd grade tradition. I read Gingerbread House Mouse, and the students write a similar story using a different creature that could potentially live in their gingerbread house. (Living in the midst of hte stink bug land I expect many to be about stink bugs this year.)

We do not do the gingerbread kits though. We have each child bring in a pint size container and a container of frosting (the whipped white kind works the best). Then the room mom's call to have others volunteer to bring in all the fun candies to decorate. I look forward to it all month. We play a yule log dvd and listen to holiday music. The kids love to sing along.

Our school also does a Holiday Sing A Long in the gym for the last day of school, another great tradition we all look forward to!

Bethany (comment #6),

The Polar Express idea that I mentioned in my post is an activity that I did when I taught second grade years ago. It was the year that The Polar Express movie (with Tom Hank's voice) was coming to theaters, and our entire school actually went to see the movie. Since the movie was out in theaters, many stores were carrying Polar Express items like the tickets you see in the photos. I purchased the ticket from a Hallmark store and made paper copies for my students. Unfortunately, it is not something I made myself. However, it could probably be easily recreated in Print Shop.

Have fun with your read-in day! The second grade classes at our school still carry on the tradition!


Sarah (comment #5),

Thanks so much for sharing your creative reindeer lesson idea! Very cool! When writing this post, I was really hoping the comment section could be a place where other teachers would share some ideas that I (and other teachers) could use this month. Thanks for being the first teacher to share an idea!!

Happy Holidays!



Where did you get the tickets for the Polar Express. We have a read in day at the end of the quarter and I would to do an activity similar to yours.

To prepare for the holidays, I wanted my students to think about how Christmas and everything that goes with it...happens. We made reindeer and the kids wrote about "The Year Reindeer could not Fly." They had to create scenarios about why, how to fix it, how will Santa be able to give to everyone around the world without his reindeer? We then created a beautiful bulletin board, and shared our stories! Pictures to come soon!

Elizabeth (comment #3),

You asked about how the students decorate the holiday hope chests. The students bring the shoe boxes to school, and I wrap them in red or green solid paper. They then decorate the boxes themselves using scrapbook punches, my Sizzix mini die-cut machine, and construction paper. I used to scrapbook a lot, so I have tons of holiday die cuts like presents, snowmen, Christmas trees, etc. The kids can easily use the machine, and the die cuts really do make the boxes and cards look nice!



The gingerbread houses are so much fun! We do ask the parents to supply the gingerbread house kit, and they are more than willing to do so. This year, nearly half of the parents joined in on the fun by coming to school to help build and decorate the houses! You could always do the activity with graham crackers if you think your parents would not be willing to purchase a kit. Either way, it's a wonderful holiday project!

Happy holidays!


Hi Beth--

You have some great ideas here. I really like the Toys-R-Us shopping trip. It is very similiar for a math activity I do involving the Thanksgiving dinner.

A question for you about the Hope Chest project. The shoeboxes are very well decorated. It appears that they are not completely handmade by the students. Do you just give them a bunch of cutouts that they can use to create their design? Thanks!


Hi Beth,

I love the gingerbread house idea for descriptive writing! Do you have the parents of the kids supply a gingerbread house kit for their child?

Thanks for all the great ideas!


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