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Category: Teach Our Children Well

Holidays Around the World

Holidays Around the World

I just finished an exhausting but totally-worth-it week in my classroom kicking off what is probably my favorite unit of the year: Holidays Around the World.

This unit spans the entire month of December and provides children with rich exposure to geography, multicultural folktales, and winter holiday traditions around the world (avoiding belief systems since I teach in a public school, but of course you could go into that in different settings or at home). It is organized around the Gingerbread Baby’s travels around the world en route to the North Pole. Anchored in literature and social studies, the full unit spans the curriculum, integrating art, technology, science, math, and music, as well. It packs a powerful punch in terms of the Common Core Curriculum.

The unit begins with a study of my favorite gingerbread stories, including: The Gingerbread Man, The Gingerbread Boy, Gingerbread Baby, and The Gingerbread Girl. When we get to the last page of Gingerbread Baby, we find that the Gingerbread Baby has jumped out of the book and left a note in his place with clues regarding his whereabouts. Thus begins a search around the school for the Gingerbread Baby. Finally, all clues lead back to our classroom, and as we get closer to the room, the smell of gingerbread (room spray) becomes stronger. When we return to the classroom, we find the Gingerbread Baby’s house and the Gingerbread Baby inside it sleeping on a pillow of cotton snow!

Children holding down the roof so the Gingerbread Baby wouldn’t escape while I got some tape

This year, we put a scarecrow out front to keep watch, and the children insisted on putting up a sign to ensure nobody would disturb the house and let the Gingerbread Baby out.

Despite the safeguards, by the time we return the next morning, the Gingerbread Baby has escaped and left a note telling us he plans to run, run, run to the North Pole and send us mail along the way.

This segues into a study of winter celebrations around the world.

Throughout the month of December, we receive a letter, postcard, or email nearly every day from the Gingerbread Baby telling us about various multicultural celebrations taking place at this time of year. He is directionally impaired to say the least and even ends up in Antarctica at one point! He is a curious cookie who just loves a party!


We read stories and do art projects related to many of the different countries, cultures, and traditions. The places where the Gingerbread Baby stops any given year vary depending on the ties my students have to different geographical locations or traditions.

Poinsettias (Mexico), faux stained glass (Italy), menorahs (Hanukkah), and an Australia display


Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am able to show my students videos of these diverse celebrations taking place far and wide via our large SMART Board screen. I also use Google Earth to show them the Gingerbread Baby’s route by “flying” from one place to the next. We touch down at various places to see landmarks or just navigate down a road to see what it actually looks like in different countries. For example, the letter we receive from Mexico references monarch butterflies (which we released in September), and we are able to touch down and see actual monarch butterfly sanctuaries! It takes a little research to find interesting locations and attractions, but the connections are so rich and entirely worth it in my opinion!

Each time we read a letter from the Gingerbread Baby, we use Google Earth to determine whether he is getting closer or farther away from his destination. We notice what kind of land masses or bodies of water he travels over, determine what mode of transportation he may have taken, discuss the different seasons occurring in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, notice how climate is a factor in the way holidays are celebrated in different places, and more.

It is so much fun.

I have spent many hours searching YouTube for the best videos related to multicultural celebrations and have created a Pinterest board that I am thrilled to share with you. (Note: I have found that researching the terms used by those cultures and locales yields some really great search terms that lead to authentic videos of community celebrations!) I’ve included videos from Thailand, The Philippines, The Netherlands, India, Sweden, Mexico, Italy, Israel, Australia, Finnish Lapland, and even Antarctica. I’ve really tried to target places and traditions to which my students have personal connections, and therefore the list is by no means comprehensive or balanced. It is a work in progress, and I love adding to it!

Click this link for my Pinterest board:
http://pinterest.com/susantara/holidays-around-the-world/

Watching these videos really puts me in the spirit, and I appreciate how so many of them focus on beautiful traditions and festivals featuring light. If I had access to these videos when my own children were younger, we definitely would have enjoyed them together. I just love sharing them with my kindergartners! I don’t know who is more excited – they or I – to see a whole community gathered to witness the festive arrival of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) in The Netherlands aboard a steamboat from Spain! We learn that there are so many ways to celebrate at this time of year and that children around the world are a lot like them. Being able to see the expressions on the faces of children across the world is quite powerful.

When we learn that the Gingerbread Baby finally has made it to the North Pole, the unit culminates in a Polar Express party.

This is a magical time of year! I love it!


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Story of Patrick Cottonwood

The Story of Patrick Cottonwood

This year, I have spent much time observing the Eastern Cottonwood trees on the riverside and have fallen in love with them. They have amazing energy and a fascinating life cycle, and I want to share their story with you. Recently, I learned that cottonwood trees are sacred to the Lakota people and are central to the Lakota Sundance ceremonies. I experience cottonwood energy as quite powerful and therefore was not at all surprised to learn of the cottonwood’s significance to the Lakota.

Spring came early this year, and I was able to start kayaking in March, which was unprecedented. I took a lot of photos of trees along the shore, to share images of tree life cycles with my students on our SMART Board. Actually, I was quite blown away by noticing that leaves in spring begin with colors quite similar to the colors of autumn. (How can it be that it took nearly half a century for me to notice or remember this?) I photographed maple, oak, and willow trees and a mystery tree that took a while to identify. The mystery tree turned out to be an Eastern Cottonwood.

First came the buds.

The buds continued to grow

 

…developing more scales.

 

When I showed my kindergartners the photo below, they loved the “starfish” and began calling it the “Patrick tree,” after a starfish character in the SpongeBob cartoon. After seeing this picture, they made a habit of asking if I had more pictures of the Patrick tree. Naming the tree was a very important development, which came entirely from the children. Once the tree had a name, it seemed to come alive and become interesting to them. Even I began to think of Patrick as a personality and wanted to learn more about him.

 

I still didn’t know what kind of tree Patrick was but continued to photograph his changes. Next, the catkins developed –  drooping strands of tiny flowers.

 

 

 
 
 
Eventually, tiny leaves came out and began to unroll. 
 
 
 
The leaves continued to grow, appearing shiny and waxy at first.
 

 

 

At this point, I had become downright intrigued with the “Patrick” tree, did some research, and was able to identify him as a cottonwood. The next day, I went to school, excited to tell the children that I learned Patrick’s last name. He has been “Patrick Cottonwood” ever since, and I just love that name!

Patrick Cottonwood’s leaves continued to grow in size and deepen in color, losing their waxy sheen.

 

I have read in multiple sources that one of the reasons why the cottonwood tree is considered sacred is because its leaves provided a pattern for the tipi. According to The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion by Kathleen Cain, Lakota (Sioux) holy man, Black Elk, explained that children began making little play houses from cottonwood leaves, which inspired the elders to construct tipis. In addition, if an upper branch of a cottonwood tree is cut, the cross-section reveals a five-pointed star (which seems to explain the five-pointed starfish pattern of the buds).

 

I read that cottonwood trees are either male or female, and that the name “cottonwood” derives from the appearance of the female cottonwood tree in fruit stage. I was eager to see which cottonwood trees would go through this stage in late spring. Patrick didn’t, which meant he was, indeed, male. But here is a photo of a tree across the river from Patrick producing green fruits that contain cottony seed clusters quite similar to milkweed. The children named this tree “Fluffy.”

 

I explained to the children that Fluffy was Patrick’s girlfriend, and he sent gifts (pollen) to her through the wind, and then she would reciprocate by becoming cottony and releasing cottony seed fairy babies into the air when the little fruits opened. Patrick and Fluffy love to give each other gifts!

 
 
On windy days in late spring, I enjoyed stopping to float near the cottonwoods and watch the seed fairies fly into the wind. (Fortunately, I seem to have outgrown my pollen allergy.)
 
 

Here (below) is Patrick, living peacefully on the riverside. Cottonwoods are similar to aspens in that their leaves quiver and rustle in the wind. When I approach Patrick Cottonwood by kayak, he is an endearing sight because it looks like his heart-shaped leaves are waving hello and beckoning me to pay him a visit – which I do. I rest for a while beneath his canopy of leaves. This is one of my peaceful places where I bring my questions and often find answers. Patrick teaches me a great deal about patience.

 

Patrick looks pretty much the same throughout the summer.

 

But now, on the first day of autumn, his leaves have begun to turn gold, much like human hair turns gray with age and wisdom.

 
 
Soon he will be completely golden and then will release his leaves throughout October until a late October breeze comes along and leaves him bare. And then he will take a long nap. When he awakens, the fascinating process will begin again – one big circle that includes a time for rest. As I watched what seemed like millions of cottonwood seeds floating on the river back in late spring, I wondered where the new generation of cottonwoods would make their home. Only time will tell.
 
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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Monarch Magic

Monarch Magic

When we walk to the edge of all the light we have and take that step into the darkness of the unknown we must believe that one of two things will happen: There will be something solid for us to stand on or we will be taught to fly.   Patric Overton

Ever since I began teaching kindergarten, my husband and I have made a tradition of searching milkweed plants for monarch caterpillars over Labor Day weekend, right before the school year starts. The goal is to collect a few caterpillars so my students can observe the dramatic and colorful  transformation from caterpillar to butterfly; however, it is an activity we truly enjoy doing together each year. My husband has fond memories of his mother packing him a picnic lunch before he headed out to look for monarch caterpillars as a child, and he cherishes the opportunity to continue this tradition with me. Observing the monarch life cycle is a magical way to begin kindergarten and a powerful reminder of the potential for transformation and transcendence. There are so many metaphors to be found in the monarch life cycle, and it is interesting to notice which ones resonate most strongly each year.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed leaves, and when the caterpillars hatch they begin eating the leaves, which is their entire diet. During August, we note the locations of the most promising milkweed patches. Some years, despite a great deal of effort, we come up empty handed. Last year was such a year. We didn’t find any monarch caterpillars but returned home with a great story. After combing all of the known milkweed patches, we expanded our search along the country roads near our home and noticed an impressive field of milkweed across the street from a farmhouse. Feeling both desperate and adventurous, we decided to knock on the door and ask permission to look for monarch caterpillars in the field. The old man who came to the door obliged our request; however, the grass was so tall that we gave up soon after beginning. On our way back to the car, the man came back outside to ask us if we had any luck, and we ended up having a lovely heart-to-heart conversation with him about life in this day and age. I wish we could have filmed him talking. He was a retired dairy farmer and spoke about how much better farming is in Canada because farmers get paid better and can afford to maintain their property and equipment, which is not the case here. He really opened up to us and talked about his perception that too much damage has been done to this country by greed, and said he is not sure we can fix it at this point. It was such a joy to interact with this kindhearted man and to hear an old farmer share his wisdom. A couple times during the conversation, I actually found myself choking back tears because I felt my grandmother’s spirit coming through him quite powerfully. (Her urn is decorated with a pastoral farm scene, paying tribute to her Vermont roots and her love of Vermont farm life, which was an important chapter of her life.) Without ever mentioning this to my husband, as we were driving home he remarked that he felt my grandmother’s presence during that conversation. That is one caterpillar mission I always will remember.

This year, however, we saw several monarch caterpillars and butterflies the week prior to Labor Day and knew we would be successful in fulfilling our goal of collecting caterpillars.

Sure enough, when it was time, we ended up collecting seven caterpillars. We begin by looking for tender, green milkweed leaves that have some holes eaten through them. We also look for droppings. Often, the caterpillars munch on the underside of milkweed leaves and thus are cleverly hidden, so we need to look for clues suggesting their presence. We squat down low to the ground to see the underside of the leaves.

This year, we found three large, plump caterpillars that looked like they were nearly ready to turn into chrysalises and were likely to do so before school started. We also collected four very small caterpillars so the children would be able to observe the active larva (caterpillar) stage.

We put the caterpillars and some milkweed into a butterfly tent with mesh sides and a transparent top that zips open. The very hungry caterpillars munch their way through leaves until they have had their fill and somehow know it is time to enter the next stage of their life cycle. I am amazed and inspired by this part of the process and how the caterpillars know when it is time to change. I wonder how often the human capacity to think suppresses an inner knowing that it is time for us to change. How often do we convince ourselves to resist doing something different that would result in living a more authentic life because we are so used to a particular way of being – and it feels too risky to do otherwise?

Each in his or her own time, the caterpillars climb up the walls of the tent to the top, and eventually begin making a silk button from which to hang. The caterpillar hangs in a “J” shape for a large portion of a day before turning into an emerald-jade green chrysalis by molting its skin. The skin, which has become too tight, begins to split around the bend of the “J,” and the caterpillar wraps itself into a chrysalis. It wiggles and jiggles its way into the chrysalis stage.

This year, all of my caterpillars managed to turn into chrysalises when I wasn’t looking. The link below will bring you to a wonderful, real time video of a caterpillar turning into a chrysalis. My students have asked to watch it over and over again:

Monarch Metamorphosis: Caterpillar to Chrysalis in Real Time

The monarch chrysalis is an elegant sight – an emerald green case embellished with numerous, patterned golden dots, like a jeweled crown.

 

 

For about ten days, the green chrysalises hang, quiet and still. The children check the butterfly tent every day when they enter the classroom to see if a butterfly has appeared. Throughout the week, the chrysalis fades gradually in color until it becomes transparent, like a window. Although this is the time when the least activity appears to be taking place, it is a powerful time of metamorphosis. It reminds me of the human potential for great transformation to take place during periods of stillness.

In time, the chrysalis splits open, and the butterfly emerges. This was just beginning to happen when I entered my classroom this morning, and I grabbed my camera quickly!

The butterfly lowers itself out of the pupal case, extends its legs, and clings to the pupal case.

The abdomen is swollen with fluid that needs to be pumped into the tiny wings to help them expand.

 

Eventually, the wing tips will fill with fluid.

And then the butterfly will wait for its wings to stiffen and dry.

After several hours, the adult butterfly will be ready to fly. The monarch butterflies born in our area at this time of year will migrate to Florida, Eastern Texas, or Mexico and gather on trees that are literally covered with monarch butterflies. It is amazing to think that such small, delicate wings will carry them thousands of miles on a rigorous journey and that each butterfly somehow is able to find his or her way!

 

When it is time to release a butterfly from our butterfly tent, I gather the children on the playground outside our classroom and let the butterfly perch on their fingers if it is not in too much of a hurry to try out its wings for the first time. The expressions of wonder and joy on the children’s faces are priceless, as is the gentleness with which they pass the butterfly along to the next classmate and the sincerity and hope with which they wave and exclaim, “Fly, butterfly, fly!” This is an authentic learning experience that leaves an impression on the soul that no assessment tool could ever measure.

It is a truly magical way to begin the year, and I continue to be inspired and fascinated by the process every year.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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