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How to Survive December in the Classroom: 3 Creative Teaching Tips


Click below to hear tips for teaching in December:

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Overview of episode 38:

As the holiday season approaches, it’s important to be aware how hectic and unpredictable this time can be for teachers, but also how fun and memorable it is for students. Having a nice mix of the two is the perfect balance for surviving and  teaching in December, but how can you do that successfully? We’re sharing our 3 creative teaching tips on how to find the calmer moments while teaching in December. 

When it comes to surviving December, you want to have the right mindset, utilize tools that reinforce structure, and plan for lessons that include a mixture of new content and review. We keep mentioning balance because that is such a key component when teaching in December. Almost as much as we love lists, we also love sharing our ideas with our audience. Therefore, throughout the episode, we provide our planning ideas that involve our 3 teaching tips. 

No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on when it comes to holiday involvement in your classroom, there are still small or big ways to celebrate and bring more festivity to the month of December. Just remember our 3 strategies and you’ll have a calmer time teaching in December while making memories for your students!

Highlights from the episode:

[00:56] Today’s morning message: what is your favorite part about teaching in December?

[3:39] Resource of the Week: Christmas Brain Breaks

[6:59] A list of 3 strategies for teaching in December.

[9:58] Planning ideas and examples on how you can survive teaching in December.

[19:28] Today’s teacher approved tip for utilizing brain breaks.


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Read the transcript for episode 38, How to Survive December in the Classroom: 3 Creative Teaching Tips:

Hey there. Thanks for joining us today. In today's episode, we're sharing three strategies for surviving December in the classroom. And we've got a teacher approved tip for utilizing brain breaks.

We start our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do at morning meeting in our classrooms. This week's winning message is what is your favorite part about teaching in December? Well, we're going to be talking about our favorite things about teaching in December throughout this episode, so let's go straight to the responses from our community.

Kathy said glitter Oh, bless her. I know she is I can already tell she is a more fun teacher than I am. She says I love to look at the carpet in May and see sparkles from holidays. Makes me smile. Love that glitter. And I have a student teacher who hates it. So she's in for a treat very soon. Oh, yeah, that'll be an awakening. Diane said our gingerbread kid caper musical. It's an old musical from at least 25 years ago. But it's fun. The kids loved it and so did the parents. Everything is sung to Christmas tunes. I'm pretty sure I've seen that it has been around a while but it's cute. I don't think I've seen it. You've missed out.

Jeri Anne said, I teach first grade and love giving my kiddos a gingerbread cutout to decorate however they choose. I then have them write a narrative using as many adjectives as they can to describe their gingerbread boy or girl. Last, we display all the gingerbread boys and girls for the class to see making sure names are not seen. And let each student come up and read their writing and have the rest of the class guess which one belongs to the author. My students love this activity. Oh, that's a lot of fun. That's really cute. Joy said grade level craft day right before vacation. The kids rotate between rooms. We also mix up all three classes into groups, so they get to work with different children. Four stations per class equals 12 presents for kids to give. That's smart to like spread out the work. It's a third of the planning. Yeah, and then they've got presents they can give to their family and friends.

Jennifer said Santa's Stuck activities. We read the book to them and then talk and write about what we would do if Santa was very stuck. Then put a craft together. I've done that with my classes a lot of fun. Cindy said I love leading a service project each year different. We've made nursing home gifts and gone singing when we delivered the gifts, we sponsored families whose home was lost in a fire, done food drives. In a season where many look forward to receiving it is nice to teach giving. Beth said winter Bingo helps with classroom behavior and expectations during this crazy time. The boxes on the bingo board are filled with tasks like quiet transition, and students helping others. I start with five in a row. They earn things like stuffed animal day, no shoes in the classroom, extra recess, pajama day, etc. Oh, I bet that's perfect for December. Goes along with our episode last week. It does. We'd love to hear your response to this and other questions over in our teacher approved Facebook group or on Instagram at @2ndstorywindow.

Now it's time for this week's resource of the week: our Christmas brain breaks. Our brain breaks are printable, and they require no technology. So you never have to worry about your internet or devices working properly. Just grab a brain break and go. Heidi, why don't you want to tell us a little bit about the different types of brain breaks we have?

We have three types of brain breaks because you need different types of activities for different situations. Yes. So we have recharged brain breaks and these are for movement. And you use these when you need kids to get their wiggles out and they likely elicit a lot of giggles. Refocus: these are my favorite, the very calming. They involve concentration and meditation and control movement. Refresh are for activities that will engage your students minds and fun activities and that will just make them smile.

Our Christmas Brain Breaks contain 60 Christmas themed activities like Rudolph Requests and Calming Cocoa. And stay tuned because we're going to give you a preview of one of our brain breaks later in this episode. You can find our Christmas brain breaks in our store and linked in our show notes.

I have such fond memories of December as a student in elementary school. It felt like one long party, don't you think? Oh definitely. And I carry that over into my own teaching for sure. One of my favorite parts of the year was planning my December calendar. Because if you had any questions about what kind of nerd I am, so sometime in November, I would print out a blank calendar. And then I would just start plugging in all the assemblies and concerts, and then I would figure out where I could schedule all the activities that I wanted to do. There's always so many activities to do. And honestly, so little time in December. There's always a million interruptions too. Oh, yes.

In Episode 36, we talk about how to plan for what we call Swiss cheese weeks. Those are weeks where there are so many days off and early outs that it can be hard to maintain your routine. But with December basically the whole month is made of Swiss cheese. Even if the calendar says you have five school days, you likely don't have five uninterrupted days. Oh, I learned that the hard way I couldn't figure out why I was feeling so behind till I looked how often, the regular daily schedule was interrupted in December, and interruptions even for fun things like assemblies and concerts and parties. affect your planning. Yeah. And if you are planning a holiday party, check out Episode 33, where we give seven steps to help you plan any class party.

And the trickiness of planning in December is compounded by the fact that it's December and we teach children. There's an old joke about how to lesson plan in December: Step one, scrape children from the ceiling. Step two, repeat as needed. That sounds about right. Even if your students don't celebrate Christmas, the anticipation of a long break is enough to send kids energy through the roof.

But all that being said, I love teaching in December. But it definitely pays to be strategic about how you approach this month. And you know, we love a list, we can't help ourselves around lists. So we have a list of three strategies to help you thrive as a teacher of hyper humans in December.

The first strategy is to approach December with the right mindset. Let's be honest, it's not going to be your most productive month of school, you might have to hold to your plans more lightly than you're used to and pivot more often than you'd like. Teaching in December requires a significant amount of flexibility. But it's also important to know when to hold the line. Kids need structure to counterbalance the novelty December brings, and they can't supply it themselves. So they're counting on us to provide the structure that lets them have fun without spiraling out of control. Right.

So the second strategy for December teaching is to use the right tools. Specifically, we are looking for tools that increase the structure in our classrooms. So implementing a reward system in December is one tool that adds structure. In Episode 37, we talked about why you might want to use rewards in December. Check out that episode for all of our tips and tricks and don't forget to sign up for our free Reindeer Games management system. And you also need the tools a routine and procedure to help you cope with December. If we lighten up on our expectations, it will come back to bite us. Routines and procedures help kids navigate the excitement they're feeling. So do your best to maintain some sense of normalcy in your day.

Once you have the right mindset and the right tools, the last strategy is to have the right plans. When dealing with Swiss cheese weeks, we need to start by identifying how much regular content you need to cover. Even though it's December, your curriculum map still needs attention. So make a plan for teaching the content you need to cover this month. But as you're looking at your plans for teaching in December, here's another wrench in the works. There's a point in December, where it becomes just absolutely futile to teach new content. Part of that is because the kids are too hyper to focus and part of it is because we're headed into a break. You don't want to launch a new unit right before the kids take off for two weeks. Yeah, that's a good way to just end up re-teaching it all in January.

Now there's no surefire way to pinpoint the exact date you should stop teaching new content. The best we can suggest is to start at your break and work backwards. The week of the break and maybe even the week before the break are best left for review. But the first two weeks of December can still be really productive.

But even if you're not teaching new content, they still expect you to fill all the hours of the school day so I know crazy. So how do you decide what goes into your plans? That's where our three strategies come into play. We're going to share some planning ideas that will help you not just survive but also thrive as a December teacher.

Our first idea is to decide is how seasonal you want your month to be. Don't let social media or the teacher across the hall determine this for you. It is not a competition, even though like I acknowledge it feels like it. Maybe you want to cover every flat surface in your room with snowmen, or put up a tree, or decorate your door to look like a gingerbread house, and maybe you don't want to do any of that. Yeah, please know you can still be a fun, caring, responsive teacher without putting up a single decoration.

You have our permission to go as big or as minimal as you want to. I definitely tip to the minimal side as a teacher, I didn't want extra clutter. And the idea of doing a big classroom decor transformation made me queasy. But I did like to work in holiday flair to what we were already doing, so I added seasonal greetings and games to morning meeting and I normally had instrumental music playing in the mornings. So I just swapped that out for some nice seasonal stuff. Yeah, starting with your normal routines, but looking for opportunities to make seasonal swaps is one of the easiest ways to bring in some more festivity to your month without feeling like you're throwing a month long party.

And another easy planning idea is to utilize movies. We tended to watch more movies in December than probably the rest of the year combined in my class. My district really discouraged watching full length films during the school day, which makes sense, but no one could get too mad if we watched an episode of Arthur right? A lot of the PBS cartoons have holiday specials that you can watch on Amazon Prime.

And scholastic has a bunch of videos that are short animated versions of seasonal books. Oh, yes, Too Many Tamales is one of my favorites. Oh, that's a good one. The Snowman is another great choice because it only lasts about 25 minutes, and there is no dialogue. There's just music. It's a very chill movie. Yeah, good job. I love the Snowman though. Whatever you decide to watch, just make sure you preview it first before you show it to your kids. Let's not end up on the evening news. Okay, we definitely don't want that.

But having a queue of short movies can be a real lifesaver in December. When you need a backup plan or a few minutes of calm. You might have a great science lesson planned, but it is also the season's first snowstorm. Even the best science lesson is no match for mother nature. Or maybe you just got back from an assembly or it's just a random Tuesday in December and no one can focus. That's when it's nice to come the crazy with a quick movie. And just be sure whatever movies you pick, try not to step on any family traditions by showing something like the Grinch or Rudolph that a family might want to watch together. I would be so bummed if my kids watched the Charlie Brown Christmas movie at school before we had a chance for our family watch party at home.

Another way to lean into the seasonal fun is to commit to a theme. I always love doing lots of activities with the Nutcracker, and snowman and gingerbread themes are classics. One of my favorite literacy units was comparing different versions of the gingerbread man. I know lots of teachers do that. And I had to hit up a library or two to have enough copies of books. But it was so much fun. I love that; there are so many great gingerbread books to choose from. And it's a great way to teach kids about comparing and contrasting similar texts. I love when the fun stuff can still have an educational focus.

There's also a ton of fun writing ideas for December. In our morning message Jennifer mentioned doing Santa's Stuck, which is a combination of reading, writing and crafting. And there are so many other book related activities out there now. I know I used to do a persuasive writing with my second graders, where they had to convince Santa to hire them as elves. Oh, I love that.

December also lends itself to informational reading and writing. There's so much you could do learning about animals winter adaptations, learning about polar animals, learning about winter customs around the world. Like a lot of teachers we had a lot of fun teaching about different cultures around the world and their celebrations during the winter months.

My particular favorite was teaching about Christmas in the Netherlands. We learn about Dutch traditions and then because I have a Dutch last name, I told them I had a special connection to Sinterklaas, and he had agreed to swing by. They would also want you out in the hall and they'd watch you on their feet and we would read the book Baker's Dozen. And of course, while reading I substituted the books mentioned of St. Nicholas was Sinterklaas because I am a Dutch girl. Yep. And then we would go get the shoes and surprise they all had gifts inside. Sinterklaas like to bring those little coloring packs you can get at Target for $1 that have like a little coloring book. and some crayons inside. And then Miss Van Natur got to enjoy her gift from Sinterklaas, which was 15 minutes of time to work while the kids colored their book. Sinterklaas always knows just what we like; he's a good guy.

Another fun tradition was doing a book advent calendar. And I've done this in the classroom and at home with my own kids. And you can do it in a few different ways. I've done it where I printed out small pictures of the covers of my favorite Christmas books. And then I tucked those little mini book covers into like a felt advent calendar with pockets oh so cute. But an even easier way to do it is just to wrap up a bunch of Christmas books and unwrap one each day. If you don't have a lot of books in your collection yet, you can utilize library books too. And just wrap those up, just pay attention to the due dates before you wrap them.

We honestly cannot get enough of books in December. One tradition that I definitely start my classroom is the Icelandic Book Flood or Okay, bear with me here. Jolabokaflod. That's how you say it, I watched a video. If your Icelandic, let us know. In Iceland, people exchange books and chocolate on Christmas Eve and then the evening is spent reading and eating chocolate. We started celebrating this tradition as a family a few years ago, but it would be so fun to do in the classroom. You could project one of those fireplace videos and the kids could bring pillows and blankets. Then you'd all just spend a cozy afternoon reading by the pretend fire. You could even break up the reading time between individual reading time and teacher read aloud time. Or you could even show some of those short Scholastic Book videos just to mix things up.

December is also a natural time to include service in your plans. Kids love to give secret acts of kindness and it does so much to build their sense of community. With our preschoolers, we had them decorate Meals on Wheels bags. It was such an easy and fun project. If you want to try it Meals on Wheels uses specific bags, so you'll have to coordinate with the Program Director in your area. I just picked up a few bags from their center and then we let the kids decorate them with pictures and nice messages.

There really are so many fun creative ways to make the most of the craziness of December. So remember, our three strategies for coping as a teacher in December. First, have the right mindset. Absolutely, don't feel pressured to keep up with what any other teachers might be doing. Do as much or as little as you want. Second, have the right tools rely on your routines and procedures and embrace flexibility when it comes to the rest. And third, have the right plans. Think about themes or traditions you might want to include. Consider adjusting your regular content to be more seasonal, and look for ways you can involve your class with service or kindness. Just be sure in your planning that you're being sensitive to the array of cultures in your classroom. We want to make sure everyone's experience is given equal importance.

But whatever you plan to teach, however much you lean into the seasonal festivities, the hard and fast rule of teaching in December is get ready for January. Yes, you deserve to enjoy your holiday without having to worry about work. It's not like they're paying you to work on the break. So take your vacation and enjoy. And you are probably thinking well that sounds nice, but it's very impractical, Heidi. But the easiest way to buy yourself some extra prep time is to schedule independent work time every day, the last week of school before the break, or maybe even a week before that.

You don't want to be teaching new content right before the break anyway. So plan review activities, work packets, those short movies, center rotations, extra reading time, whatever your students can do independently, is what you want to plan so you can prepare for your first day or two back. Then when the bell rings on that last school day in December, you can stack your copies on your desk, take down any seasonal decor, change the calendar for the new year, and you will be out the door by four o'clock. Yes, we'd love to hear about your classroom plans for December, you can come share with us and get ideas from other teachers in our teacher approved Facebook group.

Now let's talk about this week's teacher approved tip. Each week we leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week's teacher approved tip is get some calm in your classroom crazy by utilizing brain breaks. We combat the surprise and novelty of December by increasing the structure in our classes. And one way to do that is to redirect that skyrocketing energy with a brain break.

In particular, you want a brain break that promotes calm. Yes. And as we mentioned, we have a set of seasonal brain breaks and a third of them are designed to calm and refocus your little elves. I figure we could all probably use a minute to refocus, so, here's our brain break called Calming Cocoa. Imagine you're standing at the stove, stirring a big pot of hot chocolate. The liquid is hot and bubbly. Use a large spoon to slowly stir. Stir with the other hand now, feel the warm steam on your face. Take in a big deep breath and then spoon some into your cup. Sprinkle marshmallows on top and take a big drink. Yum! I feel calmer already. Oh, perfect.

I am also going to let you in on my magical never fails, sure to calm everyone down secret weapon. It is the song Asleep the Snow Came Flying by Tim Story. And here's a little clip so you can get an idea.

Now I have paid to have the research conducted and I promise it is 100% the most calming song ever written. One way to use it is to play the song and you can stream it easily. You just turn off the lights, have everyone rest their head on their desk, and you have four minutes and 34 seconds of just calm.

But it gets better because there is also a YouTube video that plays the song while snowflakes drift in front of different winter backgrounds. If the feeling of an exhale were made into a video, it would be this video. I love it. So use it well, my friends. And every time you have to bust it out in the coming weeks do that Hunger Games salute in solidarity with all the other teachers also needing four minutes and 34 seconds of peace right at that moment.

To wrap up the show we're sharing what we are giving extra credit to this week. Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to this week? I am giving credit to cheesy Christmas movies, Hallmark, Lifetime, I love them all. It's just so calming to tune into something where there are zero stakes, everything looks beautiful and festive. And you know it is all gonna work out perfectly. It is my holiday coping mechanism. I love it.

Emily, what's your extra credit? I'm giving extra credit to CatBen Yep, she is a creator on Instagram and Tiktok that I randomly found a few months ago. And she makes these fun videos just like organizing her fridge, restocking her laundry products. It sounds like the most boring content ever right? But I'm not crazy. She has like a million followers. So this isn't just some random lady I found. But I can't explain it I find it so relaxing. And she's my favorite account to go to when I just need to chill for a few minutes. So if you too like ASMR, organizing or cleaning videos to relax, be sure to check out CatBen on Instagram or TikTok. I feel like that was a really weird extra credit. We all need ways to relax in December. Yeah.

That's it for today's episode. Remember our three strategies for surviving teaching in December. And don't forget to try our teacher approved tip for using calming brain breaks.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.