Christmas = Family + Food + Games

When my girls were little, our Christmas celebrating routine was as follows:
Christmas Eve – family dinner, presents and game playing at Grandma and Grandpa’s house (my husband’s childhood home) with one or two aunts attending (he is the youngest of five).
Christmas Day – presents, Christmas dinner and games at my parent’s house, Nana’s with two of my siblings attending.
Day after Christmas – a return to Grandma and Grandpa’s as my husband’s remaining siblings and their kids came bringing more presents and time for more playing of games.

On Christmas Eve, the game often was The Encyclopedia Game. All sat in the living room with a penicl and paper and one dictionary was needed. The person who was “it” randomly picked a word. Said it. Everyone else wrote down what they thought the definition was. “It collected all the written answers. Then read them out, one by one, along with the correct definition sprinkled in. Listeners had to pick the one they thought was the correct answer. Points were given to those who guessed correctly and to those whose false definition was picked by another. Then the dictionary was passed to another player to be “it” and the steps repeated. Much laughter was included, especially when those playing added creativity to their made-up definitions!

Christmas Day at Nana’s involved cards. Pinnochle was always a favorite. Also Uno and Pit were a big hit!

The day after was probably the most fun for my girls as they spent the whole day in Grandma’s basement with all the toys she kept from my husand and his siblings’ childhood. The favorite was Match-box cars. The cousins, my two girls plus Uncle Bobby’s three kids and Aunt Sharon’s 3 kids spent hours having racecar races using the long orange track with the loop-de-loop! Then all were enticed to sit and eat and watch The Sound of Music together in the family room. My daughters loved playing on this day with their cousins, all either the same age or just a few years older or younger.

This year, my husband and I drove to his oldest sister’s home in CT to enjoy the Christmas holiday. If we couldn’t be with our own daughters this year (both are living in Europe and we plan to visit them later this year), we decided to visit his sibling who also is a fabulous cook. Along with yummy meals throughout our stay, she purchased a new game to try – Wingspan. At first, there was sceptism about learning a new game. As we read and tried to comprehend the written directions, more sceptism ensued. Then we saw in the directions a suggetion to view the video directions. Now we got it! We played past midnight! (I give it 5 stars!)

Over the years, Christmas time for me involves family, food and enjoying time to play together. This year, spending time with my husband’s sister provided great family time and great food but no little kids were around. Instead, my daughters and their cousins are now all adults and all are scattered across the globe. But just before we started playing Wingspan, we got a text. The oldest cousin had the best news to share. His first born, a little girl, was born! What a great Christmas Eve gift! Surely, the tradition of family, food and playing games will continue.

25 Book Advent Calendar!

Last month, I had my students research their family heritage to create a classroom display for the school’s Multicultural Night. As the teacher, I needed to create my own display as a model so I searched for items. While I rummaged through some boxes in the basement, I found an old Advent Calendar. This would work, I thought. I was raised Catholic and my family celebrates Christmas. This artifact represents a part of my heritage. Holding it, I remembered how growing up, I’d open a window each day, read the verse inside from the Nativity Bible story and see a small object – a star, a bell, a sheep – something matching the story of Christmas. I enjoyed this daily task as a countdown to Christmas Day!

Now it is December, 2018 and I saw this idea on twitter:

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I loved this idea because I love children’s books. I immediately thought how it would be a perfect present to send to my grandkids on December 1st, except I don’t have any yet. I envision a box of wrapped books with a number on each from 1-24. Each December evening, a book would be opened and read and enjoyed.  It sounds like an expensive endeavor but I actually have loads of picture books still – ones I just can’t give away. Ones I read aloud to my girls. Ones I read aloud as a teacher. All have a story that matches why I haven’t part with it yet. But I could part with it and would proudly part with it as part of a special non-traditional Advent Calendar gift to to my girls and their family.

So here is my first December Book Advent Calendar lineup and why each book. I realize I have to eventually  make two as I have two daughter! But for now, I’ll start by building one and then, year after year, I can enjoy rereading the stories myself,  until I have someone to pass it on to.

  1. Teddy by Sara Ball 
    I bought this wordless book in Munich, Germany in 1991. It was my very first time traveling outside the USA and I was traveling alone. I left my 2-year old with Nana for the month of May and was traveling to Venice to be with husband, as he finished his grad school semester abroad. I remember that my plane landed in Munich, Germany and I had a few hours to find the train station and take it for a five hour ride to Verona, Italy where my husband was meeting me. It was 1991 so no cell phone, no GPS. I must have had some German money because I recall buying a hot dog and this book for my daughter. It was the perfect German book because I could “read” the wordless concept book and I knew she’d love it. Plus, books always help in nervous situations!
  2.  Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss
    So many nights I read-aloud this book. I’d skip some of the tongue twisters as the book is rather long. But I could never skip The Tweedle Beetle Battle! A favorite of my girls during their pre-school years. This copy also is evidence that it was before they learned that books were for reading and not writing in!
  3. Go, Dog, Go by P.D. Eastman
    A favorite book for the WHOLE family! As December begins, it seems a good time to enjoy an old favorite. I especially enjoy studying the ASLEEP page and then quickly turning to observe the AWAKE page. Asleep – awake! Of course, the very best is the DOG PARTY at the end. I can stare at that tree to notice all the many, many antics going on. A festive book for a festive month!
  4. Andrew’s Bath by David McPhail
    A small moment story about bathtime, with an imaginary twist. My sister gave me this book in 1984 when I was “Miss Stallings”  teaching Kindergarten and the book plate inside is evidence of that time.  She worked at a publishing office which received many books to be reviewed. She passed them along to me to use in my classroom and eventually to read to my girls. 
  5. Leo the Late Bloomer by Jose Aruego
    I loved reading this book to my kindergarten class because it is what I believe. We bloom when we are ready. We all eventually will say, “I made it!”
  6. Flying by Donald Crews
    I love ALL of Donald Crew’s books. But Flying is a favorite because of the surprises on each page. As the plane flies, the reader notices all the other modes of transportation Donald Crews created in his other books. It’s fun to read and notice the bike, the carousel, the freight train, the truck, the school bus. I first taught Kindergarten and would spotlight an author a month and I filled my reading corner with books checked out from the library by the spotlighted author. My students LOVED listening to me read Donals Crews’ books. Then, as emergent readers, they felt confident to “read” these simple concept books during free reading time. A personal connection – Amy Crews, his daughter, was in my husband’s architecture grad school class in Venice. While I visited my husband, I enjoyed a few meals with her and her sister, Nina. Now, as I reread his books, I look for his dedications to his girls and places where he adds A&N for Amy and Nina.  
  7. Round Trip by Ann Jonas
    I love how creative this book is. You read it forward. Then you turn it upside down and read it back to the beginning. Using only black and white spaces, this gifted author and illustrator creates a round trip that takes the reader all around town and back and forth through the book. As a Kindergaten teacher, I enjoyed reading ALL the transportation books by Donald Crews (see #5). Then I’d introduce them to his wife, Ann Jonas. I was inspired by this married couple that writes childrens books! A personal connection – their daughter, Amy was in my husband’s grad school class in Venice. He got to dine with this literary couple but thinks of them as just Amy’s mom and dad. I can also recall watching from the sidelines at grad school graduation as Amy showed her family around the UVA Architecture school. I so wanted to meet them, have them sign a book and tell them how much I enjoy their books as a teacher. But I just watched from afar, as they were there as parents, not as authors. I guess this is why I love all books by Donald Crews, Ann Jonas and now Nina Crews, a family of authors and illustrators!
  8. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco
    I love all of this author’s books. Her picture books are meaty and I ended up using them more once I taught 4th and 6th graders. But back when I did teach Kindergarten, my school had an auction to raise money each year. And I suggested the students help make a quilt to auction off. So I’d read-aloud this book to share a story of the importance of fabric used again and again as the years go by in a family. This book also inspired me to save the fabric of my daughters’ lives. Their first onsies, their Catholic school uniform, the dinosaur curtains from their bedroom. Then as a high school graduation present, I made the saved fabric into a small quilt for them to take to college. Thanks for the inpsiration, Patricia Polacco!
  9. Exactly Opposites by Tana Hoban
    Tana Hoban was another author of the month when I taught kindergarten because emergent readers can read her book. She uses photography and creates her books around a concept. This one is opposites! In the 1990s, when cameras were not carried in your pocket as part of your phone, it was special to take my students on a walk around the school, looking. Once they found a shape, I had them use my Olympus camera. Then I’d take the film to be developed at the drug store and get it back in two days. I’d tape each photo to the top of the card stock page and the student added words. We slowly made our own class Tana Hoban inspired concept book. Now taking photos is not a novelty and making sa similar project can be created quickly using the school issued iPad. However, I’ll always enjoy rereading Tanan Hoban’s books and remember that years ago, making a photographic concept book was a new concept.
  10. A Letter for Amy by Ezra Jack Keats
    I love ALL books by this author who I discovered while teaching.  I taught kindergarten in an all white school but Keats allowed my students and I to see what other neighborhoods looked like. I especially like this book because I would read it during our Letter Writing Unit. In the 1990s, the post office was the only way to send a letter. Walking to the mailbox, as Peter does in this book, is what we also did after writing our letter. I guess this book would be considered historical fiction today, allowing 21st century readers to glimpse another time, when emailing and texting did not exist! 
  11. The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Manus Pinkwater
    “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dream,” Mr. Plumbean said in this book. In December, 2015 we were able to occupy the house that my husband designed. It truly is a unique home (just like Mr. Plumbean’s and it matches all our dreams! It’s especially comfortable at Christmastime, with the fireplace ablaze, the tree lights twinkling and the table in the double height dining room filled with holiday treats!
  12. Dancing in the Wings by Debbie Allen
    This book was introduced to me during a Summer Institute at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. It helped me understand how to pay attention to what a character says and does in order to identify character traits. I also learned to pay attention to all the secondary characters, placed into the story for a reason. This story also reminds me of all those ballet dancers performing The Nutcracker during this month. 
  13. Sheila Rae and the Peppermint Stick by Kevin Henkes
    This is another book introduced to me during one of my many visits to Teachers College. We discussed character traits. We discussed who has the power. We debated fairness and discussed our own sibling connections. So much to do with such a little book written by another favorite author!
  14. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
    This story reminds introduces the reader to the Lupine Lady whose motto was ” to visit faraway places, come home to live by the sea, and so something to make the world more beautiful”. Her “something” was to plant lupine flowers. My dear art teaching friend, Donna Beth, would read aloud this book and then have her students paint a lupine. She visited my classroom in the fall of 2001 and painted with my students. Her sudden death months later in January, 2002 make we cherish this book and the lupines I painted with her even more. Every year, I hang painted lupines in my classroom to be inspired by a teacher who truly made the world more beautiful during her short time on this Earth.
  15. Fig Pudding by Ralph Fletcher
    I recall co-teacing 5th grade as a reading teacher. The other teacher wanted to use this book for the class read-aloud. I didn’t know it so I read it. However, it was also at the time when I was learning to read, stop and jot my thinking. Because of my close study of this book, I loved it! There is a scene where Ralph’s family is making fig pudding and streudel. I recall enjoying stredle with the class as we sat in December, finishing the book as a read-loud.
  16. Dream Snow by Eric Carle
    I love ALL books by Eric Carle. This one seems most appropriate for reading in December. 
  17. An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco
    Here one of my favorite authors telling a depression-era Christmas story based on a true story, experienced by her grandmother. Rereading it reminds me to appreciate all I have and to always share with others when I can.
  18. The Tiny Star by Arthur Ginolfi
    I recall my mom giving this book, signed by the author for Bridgit in 1990. The author was at Barnes and Noble in 1990 and Nana happened to be in the store the day the author was there. I read the simple story of the nativity told from the star’s point of view and saw it as a play that the kindergarteners could perform! I casted the following roles: Starlet, the moon and stars. Each made a star or moon to hold and I was the narrator. It became the Kinder play for years! 
  19. The Christmas Train by Ivan Gantschev
    This was another book given to me by my sister when she worked for a publisher. I love the watercolor illustrations. I love the story of a brave girl who is the hero who saves the train.
  20. The Clown of God by Tomie dePaola
    I love the message in this book – use your gifts to make others smile. That used to be the theme of my Catholic School classroom – Use your gifts. And I stapled gift bags up across the bulletin board above the blackboard as a board. Each having a different student’s name on a bag. I love how Giavanni in the story uses his gifts until the very end.  I love that it is set in Italy, reminding me of my trip to Italy with Brian in 1991 and our family Christmas trip to Venice in 20__.  Plus, this copy got signed by the author!
  21. Jesus of Nazareth: A LIfe of Christ Through Pictures illustrated with paintings from the National Gallery of Art
    In the 90s, I taught Kindergarten for many years and always planned a fieldtrip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Once I bought this book and took my girls on a scavenger hunt, looking for each painting in the book. If near DC, I recommend a trip to the museum to see the paintings in person!
  22. Pop-up of The First Christmas by Tomie de Paola
    I recall taking the girls to the City of Alexandra’s Children’s Book Store to met this author. It was a crowded bookstore. They were pre-school age and not really in to waiting in line. I loved Stega Nona! I just had to meet the creator and the girls picked this book out to get, too. It must have been in the mid-90s when we lived on Luray Avenue. It was propably the first time meeting an author in person.
  23. Pop-Up The Night Before Christmas 
    This is the classic tale by Clement C. Moore in a pop-up verison! The perfect story to enjoy tonight. “Happy Christmas to all and to all a Good Night!”
  24. Grandma’s ABCs of Christmas: My husband’s mother saved everything. Because she had a big basement, she had room to save stuff and she did. Everthing!  For example, she kept ever Christmas card she ever received. Stacks and stacks. Every single one. Then she got an idea. She typed up a poem called The ABCs of Christmas and placed each verse on a different page of a photo album. On the first page, it says, A is for Angels. Then, as a collage on the page, she arranged angel images cut out from her old Christmas cards. She continued this idea for B-Z. And she made one book for each of her five children’s family. Now that she is no longer with us, this books means even more. She enjoyed making a book for us to read each Christmas, made from the greeting cards of all her friends. Definitely saving this book for last – the best for last!



If your heritage is like mine, what would be on your LIST
if you decided to make an Advent Book Calendar
Suggestion: Get it ready NOW and be ready for Dec. 1, 2019!!

If your heritage is different than mine, 
how might YOU include books as a way to countdown?

December, 2017

My daughter send me a text with the link to this poem by Ken Nesbitt:

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She is teaching English to students in France so the list poem can give the kids a laugh, as well as teaching them vocabulary. This poem gave me the idea to change the last lines to:

So that’s my list
of everything
I love about

Here’s my Poem…

December, 2017

Neighborhood houses aglow with lights.
Roofs outlines and door frames wrapped.
Porch rails draped with pine branches.
Some have elegant, simple wreaths at windows.
Others have over-the-top giant, inflatable characters
squatting on their lawns.

In my kitchen, dough is mixed and dropped onto the tray.
Then red and green M&Ms added on top and baked.
Cream cheese is mixed with chopped green pepper and pineapple
and rolled in pecans, making the best holiday cheeseball to spread on crackers.
Both pair nicely with hot chocolate, stirred with peppermint sticks.

On the radio, carols stream 24/7
from Thanksgiving to the 25th.
Yo-yo Ma’s Dona-Nobis-Pacem instrumental
reminds me of singing this song as a three-part round
during my Catholic Elementary School Carol Night
40+ years ago.
I can see the church lights turned low
and the tinsel sparkling on the altar.
And feel the student body and myself
transformed to angelic beings,
at least for the hour performance.

On a brisk morning, the search for the tree begins
walking the lot on a farm, hours from the city.
Gloves used as spotters for the ones liked best.
Then a decision and a signal to the farmer.
His ax cuts the trunk
and the tree is secured to the car roof
and home it goes.

This year, an asphalt lot is walked
just ten minutes from my home.
The tree fills the living room corner
and a scent of pine fills the air.
White, blue, and green strings of light
Weave throughout the tree.
Some twinkle.
Then balls are added and ribbon, too.
And the angel is placed on top.

Now I am ready.
Ready to plug in my porch lights.
Ready to hang my wreath on the door.
Ready to share cookies and cheeseball snacks.
Ready for gifts to cover the tree skirt.
Ready for family and friends to gather.

So that’s my list of everything
I love about Christmastime.



My Holiday Traditions

On Wednesday, December 21st, five classes of 3rd graders will rotate through my classroom during our grade-level Holiday Celebration. My room mom found this video to share that gives a glimpse of the many different ways religions and cultures celebrate during the winter months. It got me to think more about my family traditions.

I grew up doing to Catholic School and Mass each Sunday. At this time of year, I’d help my mom cut evergreen from the tree outside and lay it on the lazy susan that now held the round wire candle holder for the 3 purple and 1 pink candles. Before dinner, we read the Advent prayer and each week took turns to light the candles. During the first week, the one purple, then two purple, then the pink and 2 purple and finally all 4 candles. As that first purple candle got littler, I knew Christmas Day was closer. Once the pink was lit, I knew I had to wait only one more week!

During this whole time at school, we weekly walked over to the church for Winter Concert practice. The whole school, Grades 1-8, sat quietly wearing our school uniforms for what seemed like hours, practicing our songs. I still have memorized Dona Nobis Pacem, Away in the Manger and Do You Hear What I Hear. On the night of the concert, we dressed in our finest Christmas outfit and paraded into a packed church. Extra flowers and candles and spotlights were used to transform the church into a grand theater. Then the first song was sung and the story of the first Christmas began. It was acted out on the altar while, class by class, we sang a song to further tell this story.

Looking back on these memories, no wonder I still love holiday music and candles and lights!  How about you? How are YOU celebrating during December?

March 14 – A Memory from my Catholic Upbringing

Growing up, I went to St. James Catholic school for K-8th grade. I wore a grey and maroon plaid jumper with a Peter Pan collared white shirt and maroon sweater. I had some nuns for teachers and some regular ladies as teachers. I sat in rows, learned to read using Dick and Jane, and an SRA kit and went to school Mass once a month and on Sundays with my mom and siblings. I was taught to be dutiful and I worked hard at being good, following the rules imposed by the priests. nuns and teachers. I didn’t question why, I just did what I was told to do.

During Advent (the four weeks leading up to Christmas), we gradually lit the three purple and one pink candle each week awaiting the Christmas holiday. Just before Christmas break, the whole student body gathered for Carol Night in the church. Each grade took turns singing a carol as the story of Christmas was retold for the parents and parishioners. Thinking back, Dona Nobis Pacem (Latin for Grant Us Peace), immediately comes to mind. I can still sing it by heart as a round. When googling to spell the title of this song correctly, I fould this video:
Chorus singing Dona Nobis Pacem in round .
Listening to the video, it is exactly what I recall my class sounding like. Yet, my class was dressed in our best Christmas outfits sitting in a large, beautiful Gothic-looking church.

I participated in Carol Night all nine years while being a student at St. James. Yet, this is the only song I recall singing. Why? Maybe because it was the first time I got to sing in another language. Maybe because it was such a challenge to sing it in a round. I do remember being yelled at as a class by Sr. Maria George. She had us practice it over and over and over again. It seemed that the 4th graders were being singled out and had to practice this more than any other grade had to practice their song. But then, on the night, at our time, the practice paid off. We sounded beautiful and our timing for the round was perfected.

At the moment, I am part of a teacher inquiry group studying how we might guide our students to have a growth mindset over a fixed mindset (based on work by Carol Dwek). Thinking about this song, I wonder if it was also a time I experienced a growth mindset. At first, as a class, we failed to sing well. But then, through practice and practice and practice, we finally got it! And now 40 years later, I can still sing it correctly.

I wonder if I am helping my students to practice their writing or reading enough so that 40 years from now, they will recall a school memory where their hard work related to literacy paid off??!!