December in an elementary school is cRaZy busy! Every day it seems we have a new event happening...chorus concert, Santa pictures, holiday breakfast, and on and on. I had been really looking forward to sharing holiday stories with students and had the idea of doing a passport for a "Christmas around the world" event, but my calendar got the best of me. As it turns out, I only get one week during the entire month of December to have regular library classes. Only one.
I debated over doing STEM challenges or holidays around the world, but I ended up at The Nutcracker. The ballet has been one of my personal holiday favorites for a very long time. I even did a nutcracker themed Christmas in my own home, when my boys were younger, where I put a different themed tree in every room of our house! I had the Dance of the Candy Canes in my youngest son's room, the nutcrackers in the mud room, the Arabian Coffee dance in the kitchen....you get the picture. It was over the top, but the best thing about Christmas that year was dressing our boys up and taking them to the Chattanooga Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker. The boys behaved very well, enjoyed the show, and were exposed to a little "culture," as my momma would say.
Most of my students have not had cultural experiences like these. So, I set upon finding a storybook to share and figuring out a lesson. And, even though you probably don't have time to implement it this year, maybe sharing it here will inspire you to think about personal stories and experiences that you had growing up that you could turn into library lessons for your students!
I found a lovely picture book at Barnes & Noble that is a re-telling of the ballet as performed by the New York City Ballet Company and beautifully illustrated by Valeria Docampo. The text is quite lengthy, but worth it. It does a great job of telling a very complex story, but in language that students can follow with the added bonus of a few vocabulary words you can introduce to them.
I started my lesson by showing students two of my own nutcrackers and talking a bit about what a nutcracker is, why we use them as decoration this time of year, and introducing Tchaichovsky's writing of the music. I then read aloud the book.
After reading, I had a few links to scenes from the ballet placed in a Google slide show. I introduced each scene briefly and connected to our story. The possibilities are endless here, but these are the scenes I chose and the reasons why. I have also inserted the videos so that you can see them.
1. Act 1. Tableau 1. Scene 7. The Battle between The Nutcracker and The Mouse King. I felt like the battle was important to highlight for the boys. Many young boys feel that ballet is for girls. We talked about this and I shared with the boys that many strong men perform ballet. I was pleasantly surprised by how the boys were really engaged watching the video! They noted how strong the nutcracker's legs looked and they laughed at the antics of the mice and the "bang" of the cannon. I did fast-forward into the clip to about 2:10 or so, just to save time and to get to the actual dual of the nutcracker and mouse king.
2. Act 2. Scene 12. Divertissement. Trepak. (Also known as the Dance of the Russian Candy Canes.) This was obviously a choice because of the music. I knew students would recognize the tune and I wanted them to make the connection to Tchaikovsky and the ballet. It was fun to see their faces light up when they heard the music and exclaim, "I know this!" They also loved the jumping and leaping of these dancers! And this scene is only about one minute long, so quick and easy. The only thing here is that the dancers are not dressed as candy canes and that was a little confusing to the children. In the future, I might look for a version that has the candy cane costumes rather than the traditional Russian costumes.
3. Act 2. Scene 14. Variation 2. Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. We talked about the principal ballerina and why the role of the Sugarplum Fairy is so coveted. I also asked students to listen for the music to see if they recognized it...which, of course, they did. I also told students about the wooden toe blocks placed inside of a ballerina's toe shoes for pointe work and they were fascinated! Even the boys were really into this...they watched her feet very closely, looking for the blocks of wood! Watching their faces was the highlight of my week!!! So fun...and this particular ballerina, Nina Kaptsova is such a delight to watch. She seems to be having fun, so that makes the video clip so much more interesting. The students also commented on how different the sets look in each clip. This opened the door for some conversation about productions, costumers, set designers and so on. Lots of STEM ideas there!
After watching each of the clips, we moved on to the final portion of the lesson. I had coloring sheets that I purchased HERE and I also provided a Nutcracker word search for those who didn't want to color. As students worked on these, I played more of Tchaikovsky's music. They loved it.
As students lined up to leave the library, I handed them a scratch-n-sniff bookmark that was either a gingerbread scent or peppermint candy cane scent. These went over with RAVE reviews!!!
Most of my students had never been to see The Nutcracker. Only about two students in each group admitted to having been and most of those had only been to local productions by student ballet companies and not professional companies. I would really like to find videos that feature dancers with more ethnic diversity and I also think it would be really neat to find variations on the story of The Nutcracker...maybe something by the Alvin Ailey Dancers that is more contemporary would be fun.
I did this lesson with all third through fifth graders and I would say that 3rd and 4th graders were the most engaged. I think that involving a STEM aspect to the lesson, or getting more technical with the ballet or music portions of this lesson would be more appealing to the older students, but overall I think everyone enjoyed the lesson. And teachers were appreciative...they commented that they were so glad I was exposing students to this production, noting that most of these kids have never been to a live performance outside of a school concert. I think I need to find a way to change that.
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