Christmas School–The Nutcracker

No school for us this week, because we’re on Christmas vacation, but I thought I’d share some ideas for using the Nutcracker in school or at home. In the last 10 years, we’ve done anything from a “Nutcracker Day” to stretching our studies out over a full week. In that time, we’ve learned the story of the Nutcracker, listened through the entire score, compared and contrasted many different productions, seen a live performance, learned a bit about Tchaikovsky, made some fun crafts, and read about how the Nutcracker came to be a Christmas tradition in America. It’s one of my favorite things about Christmas School!

Nutcracker Stories (It’s up to you whether you choose to teach the story before introducing the ballet. I think there can be value in both approaches, because being unfamiliar with the story before seeing the dance can really encourage students to “read” the ballet, but knowing the story first prepares children and lets to know them what to expect.)

Other Nutcracker Books

Music

Ballet Productions (Of course, seeing the ballet live is the best option, and we’ve been fortunate enough to get to do that twice. But since it’s not always an option, I also like watching recordings of various productions, which also provides a great opportunity for comparing and contrasting how different companies interpret the story differently)

Crafts

  • Nutcracker Prince–We done two different ornaments of the Nutcracker Prince over the years…one made of laminated paper and jointed, and one from a kit, which gave us a chance to paint our own.
  • Waltz of the Snowflakes–Snowflake crafts are so much fun, whether you’re making paper snowflakes or ornaments!
  • The Land of Sweets–We haven’t done this craft yet, but you could do all kinds of fun candy and treat themed crafts to go along with the Nutcracker Prince’s magical kingdom.

What kinds of fun Nutcracker activities do you like to do?

2017-18 School Year–Week Fifteen

As is usually the case in December, this has been a crazy week!

In addition to our regular religion studies this week (everyone is still in the Old Testament, although Chickadee is getting close to the New Testament, which is very appropriate for Advent!), we spent some time learning about Nicholas of Myra and Ambrose of Milan, since we observed both of their commemoration days this week. The fact that they lived around the same time, and dealt with the same heresies in the church, makes them very interesting to study together!

In math, Turkey and Bunny found the volume of rectangular prisms and cylinders. They are both continuing to excel in this area of math! Ladybug has been working more with time, in addition to always practicing her long division skills. Chickadee has been practicing her addition skills!

Science was a little overwhelming. Turkey and Bunny learned about aerobic cellular respiration, which left me wanting a nap! Ladybug finished learning about rodents, and rodent-like animals, which included the platypus and echidna, which are always fun to study!

In history, Ladybug learned about some of the things Turkey and Bunny were studying last week…Homer, the Greek alphabet, and the ancient Olympic Games. Turkey and Bunny moved on to Assyria and Babylon, where they studied Tiglath-Pileser III, or as they call him, “TP3.”

In addition to Beowulf and Heidi, we added in our annual December literature study of A Christmas Carol. I always look forward to reading that book with the children! We’re also nearing the end of Ramona Quimby, Age 8. I hadn’t intended to read that whole series out loud this year, but it certainly has gone by fast…just a few more books after this one!

We also had our annual “Nutcracker Day” this week, which is a fairly recent re-addition to our December school days. Once we had more than two productions to watch, I used to stretch our Nutcracker watching out for a week or more (we’re up to six different versions from ballet companies all over the world!), but in recent years, with how busy we’ve been, I’ve needed a weekday in December to bake cookies for our church’s cookie walk. So, after a few easy subjects yesterday morning, we went back to the way we used to do it…we read a few Nutcracker tales, including my favorite picture book edition, The Nutcracker Comes to America, and The Day Before Christmas, and then settled in to watch the ballet, and take notes on the differences between the various productions. We only made it through three, which surprised me, but at least we saw our three favorites: The San Francisco Ballet, the Dutch National Ballet, and the Royal Ballet performances. Hopefully we’ll find time in the next month or so to watch the rest of them!

Just one full week of school left (hopefully) before our Christmas break…I hope I make it!

Chickadee Thursday

Today is Nutcracker Day! We used to stretch our ballet viewing out across a whole week in December, but for the last few years, we’ve taken a day to watch as many versions (we’re up to six, I think), as we can, back-to-back, usually while I bake cookies for the church Cookie Walk. Chickadee was very excited to not only watch, but read along with one of our Nutcracker picture books!

2014-15 School Year–Week Fifteen

This was our last week of school in 2014!

It was a light week. In the mornings, I had the children work on religion, math, very limited language arts, crafts (more on that in a bit), and reading. We also finished A Christmas Carol, and did a poetry study of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

The afternoons were all about fun. I decided that this would be “Nutcracker Week,” which worked out well, because we own recordings of five different productions. We started with the Bolshoi Ballet on Monday, which enabled us to both recognize the Nutcracker’s Russian roots, and continued our study of Christmas in Russia. On Tuesday, we watched our new production for the year–the Vienna State Ballet. Wednesday I was feeling British, so we watched the Royal Ballet performance. We watched what I think is probably our most unique version on Thursday, the Dutch National Ballet’s production. And I saved the best for last…today we watched my all-time favorite, the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker. I had Turkey and Bunny take notes on what they really liked in each performance (or what they found unusual), and then had them attempt to rank them when we were done, which is no easy feat! (For the record, my ranking goes 1.) San Francisco Ballet; 2.) Dutch National Ballet; 3.) Royal Ballet; 4.) Bolshoi Ballet; and 5.) Vienna State Ballet.)

To go along with my favorite part of the Nutcracker in both music and dance, “The Waltz of the Snowflakes,” we spent some time a few mornings making snowflakes to hang in the schoolroom. Turkey, in particular, enjoyed seeing what patterns he could make, and even I made a few snowflakes. We weren’t happy until we had a full-on blizzard going!

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The snowflakes were craft one. We also made our ornament for the year–a cute clothespin donkey. We had quite the assembly line going to get them finished!

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And, for a fun end-of-the-week activity, I got the new Lego: The Hobbit Lake Town set to go with the sets the children and I built after we finished the book earlier this fall. It’s a small building, but it was fun to build, and added some new minifigs to our Lake Town setup.

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I’m looking forward to taking a break and just having fun for a few weeks, but we’ll be back in 2015, ready for more learning (and fun!).

2013-14 School Year–Week Sixteen

I gave up trying to do our regular school work plus Christmas School. With everything else I needed to do this week (including some shopping and baking 15 dozen cookies for the church cookie walk), and an illness that just wont go away, it just wasn’t happening. So, we did religion and math as usual, and the rest of our days were filled with Christmas School. I can’t say that anyone minded too much!

This week, we learned about Christmas in Russia/Ukraine and Sweden. We had one craft (ornaments telling the Ukrainian legend of tinsel), and a special baked good (Lussekattes, in honor of Santa Lucia Day today). We also read some short stories from both Russia and Scandinavia, as well as the story of Lucia, and learned about the different traditions of those countries. Next week, we’ll finish up with a little more on Christmas in Germany, as well as in France.

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We also spent the week on the Nutcracker. In the past, we’ve had a Nutcracker day, where we watched one or two productions of the ballet, and read the story. This year, however, I’ve expanded our collection to four different productions, so we watched one each day, and then read the story on the fifth day. It’s endlessly fascinating comparing and contrasting the different interpretations of the story. I still have a favorite–the San Francisco Ballet–but I’ve come to appreciate elements from the Bolshoi, Dutch National, and Royal Ballets, as well.

Looking forward to only having one more week of school before our Christmas vacation…between sickness and busyness, I need a mental break!

2012-13 School Year–Week Sixteen

We only had three days of school this week. We couldn’t be normal and do school Monday-Wednesday, though. We had school Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. I know, we’re weird. Monday was a regular day of Christmas school, because I had six days worth of lessons for Christmas in England, so we couldn’t cram everything into one week. That day’s theme was Christmas in present-day England. We read The Jolly Christmas Postman and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, as well as looked through Christmas in England, to compare a modern English Christmas to our own (they’re very similar!). We had math and writing assignments, as well.

Tuesday was our annual “Nutcracker Day.” We read what is now my favorite picture book of the Nutcracker…I’m so glad I borrowed it from the library! We already had one very short picture book that is also short on details (but does have nice illustrations), and one full version of both Nutcracker stories, which is a bit ponderous to read in one sitting, but is very detailed, and lacks illustrations. I’ve looked at many other versions in bookstores, and never found one I really liked, but I grabbed this one at the library, and it’s just what I wanted. The length of the story is just right…it took about a half-hour to read, which meant I still had everyone’s attention at the end, but it was full of good detail. And the illustrations were wonderful! I’ll be adding this to our permanent collection before next Christmas, I’m sure. We also read The Day Before Christmas, which is a bittersweet story about a little girl and her grandfather, who go to see a performance of the ballet together, just as the grandfather used to do with his daughter, the girl’s mother, before she died. The story perfectly captures the excitement of going to the ballet, especially for the first time.

This year, we watched two productions of the Nutcracker, instead of our usual one. Of course, we had to see our standard (and favorite!), version…the San Fransisco Ballet’s interpretation of the classic story. To go along with Christmas School this year, we also watched the Royal Ballet production, which isn’t quite as captivating as the San Francisco Ballet, but comes close.

Today we had our much-anticipated Christmas tea party:

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We also did our first day of winter activities, which included reading several winter-themed books (I love the copy of Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening we got this year!), and doing a fun craft:

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Now we’re on vacation for a few weeks…I’m really looking forward to the break! I love Christmas and homeschooling, but when you put them together, it’s exhausting!

What We’re Reading–Christmas

Last year, I posted a list of books we read for our “Christmas in American History” unit. I decided to re-organize that list of books, removing some that we don’t normally read, and adding a few new ones for this year. Later, I’ll be creating a seperate list, which will contain the books we’re using this year for “Christmas in England,” but won’t necessarily use on a yearly basis.

Biblical/Religious Storybooks

Christmas in America

Nutcracker Read-Alouds

Book Basket Books–(These are any Christmas books we happened to have in the house, some from past “Christmas Around the World” units, and some from previous curriculum, or just for fun!)

Winter Books (As long as winter begins during the Christmas season, I’ll include the books we always read on the first day of winter)

Why I’m Watching “The Nutcracker” in July

I do have a reason for why I put on the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker last night. Really. And not because I’m celebrating Christmas in July, or because I’m trying to counteract the hot summer weather with thoughts of winter, (at least not entirely), or because I love Christmas so much that I want to celebrate it all year. No, it’s really much simpler than any of that.

You see, the Nutcracker is one of my favorite pieces of music. Not because it reminds me of Christmas. I just really like it. It’s just so beautiful; The Waltz of the Snowflakes–that’s what a snow shower sounds like! It also makes me happy, and relaxes me.

So, why didn’t I just put in the CD you might wonder? Because I do have it on CD. Well, the beautiful recording I have, (and it really is fantastically beautiful), is so long, that it’s split between two discs. So, my choice is to get up and change the disc if I want to hear the end, or miss out on the wonderful last part of the ballet. But the DVD has all of the music in one convenient disc. No decisions, no changing discs, just beautiful music, and, as a bonus, beautiful dancing.

So, you see, it really has nothing to do with the beautiful Christmas sets, or even the costumes. It’s a matter of practicality, really. Perfectly normal.

Review–St. Louis Ballet Nutcracker

I’ve been to about a half-dozen live performances of the Nutcracker in my lifetime, and seen many more on television. Now, I don’t think that makes me a ballet expert or anything, but it does mean I have some pretty strong opinions about the ballet and how it’s performed, and so I was very curious to see how the St. Louis Ballet’s version would measure up. In general, my main comparison is to the San Fransisco Ballet Nutcracker, which, even though I’ve never seen it performed live, is my favorite.

I will say that of all the live performances I *have* seen, I think the St. Louis Ballet has been my favorite. I will have to admit that the first time I saw the Nutcracker was over 20 years ago in downtown Chicago, so while it was most likely the highest quality production I’ve seen, it is also the fuzziest in my memory. But compared to the more recent performances I’ve seen live, the Saint Louis Ballet definitely gets my vote.

I loved the costuming of the Saint Louis Ballet. I’m guessing their budget isn’t as great as, say, the San Fransisco Ballet, and I think they did an excellent job with what they had. The snowflakes had my favorite costumes, especially the queen, whose white dress was accented with blue gems, and I also liked the purple Sugar Plum Fairy costume. I will say, I was not a fan of the Arabians costumes, particularly the man’s, as he was shirtless, and that seemed really out of place in a family performance.

I did not care for the narration that accompanied the performance. I don’t know if that’s a standard for the St. Louis Ballet, of it was something they added because it was a school performance, but I really don’t think it had any place in the ballet. The dancing should tell the story without using words, and I think even children can figure out what’s happening in the Nutcracker, without someone having to give a play-by-play. I found this especially disappointing because, if this was many of the children’s first introduction to the ballet, as is kind of the point of having the school performance, they totally missed the concept of letting the dancers tell the story through their movements.

My favorite part of this performance was the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” In general, this is always one of my favorite parts of the Nutcracker, and the St. Louis Ballet was no exception. Between the beautiful costumes, and the dancing, I thought this was the highlight of the ballet.

The sets of the St. Louis Ballet were nothing spectacular, and were actually rather bland. Again, I realize the budget is probably pretty small, but they almost felt like something you would expect to see at a high school or college production, not the sets of a professional company. I found them to be pretty uninspiring, and they certainly didn’t add to my enjoyment of the performance.

I had mixed feelings about the Russian dance. They did a hoop dance, which may actually be more traditional to the Nutcracker than the Cossack dance, but I really prefer the Russian Cossack dance. This change of dance styles affected the costuming, which I also had mixed feelings about. The candy cane costumes were kind of charming, but they were covered in bells, which I found kind of fun and distracting at the same time. I never realized how much noise so many small bells could make when they’re all ringing together!

I did prefer the polinchelles in the St. Louis Ballet, even to those in the San Fransisco Ballet. Again, the costumes were charming–very colorful and fun. And the dance was also very playful and entertaining to watch. But, best of all, there was no Mother Ginger in this dance. For some reason, that’s the one, (and only!), thing in the San Fransisco Ballet Nutcracker that I don’t like. I much prefer the polinchelles on their own than accompanied by the giant circus tent skirted Mother Ginger.

I will say that the overall dancing in the ballet was a bit sloppy. The timing appeared to be off in many instances, and the quality of the dancing was second-rate compared to the San Fransisco Ballet. I guess I’m really comparing apples and oranges, but San Fransisco will always be what I use to measure other ballets, and in the end, as much as I enjoyed the St. Louis Ballet, it will never be as magical as the San Fransisco Ballet Nutcracker.

Christmas School–Day Fourteen

Today was probably the highlight of our Christmas School experience–we went on a field trip to see the St. Louis Ballet perform the Nutcracker!

At the beginning of November, I learned that the ballet company offers a special performance for schools the day before their regular shows begin (I’m thinking it’s a glorified dress rehearsal). As part of this promotion, the tickets were only six dollars each, when normally they start around $25! I found out just in time to apply–registration ended the week I learned about it.

We were worried that the performance would be cancelled because of all the ice we had last night–and we got even more worried when most of the schools around here called off today. But, as they say, the show must go on, and it did. Even better, as Moose’s school was among the closed, I was able to let go of the guilt I was feeling over pulling him out of school for the day, even though his teacher had encouraged me to do so, saying she thought it would be a good experience for him.

All four children loved it. They were literally on the edges of their seats. Even though they have seen the performance on DVD, there’s just something different about seeing it in person–and this was their first ballet on top of it. It was also a good experience in theater etiquette, which all four children observed amazingly well. It was a fantastic experience, and I’m so happy I learned that this opportunity exists, even for homeschoolers. I’m hoping that it may become a new yearly tradition!

Although that was the bulk of our schooling for the day, we also had a few other Nutcracker related activities (again). We broke out The Kingfisher Book of Classic Christmas Stories yet again, this time to read a different version of “The Nutcracker.” We were not disappointed, as this story was very different from the one we read yesterday, and in some ways, different from both of the ballets we’ve seen.

Turkey and Bunny also each selected a picture from the Dover Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book–this time to reflect their favorite part from today’s performance. It was, as always, interesting to see what they chose. Bunny picked the Sugar Plum Fairy (again–big surprise!), but Turkey picked the Spanish dancers. I had no idea.

This was a very memorable day of Christmas School!