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Holiday lesson: Giving, not getting



Are your students too focused on the "gimme" elements of the holiday season? Teach about the true meaning of the season by emphasizing the giving over the getting. Included: Ten classroom activities that focus on doing good things for other people!

Christmas trees spring up in shopping malls even before the trick-or-treaters have arrived at your doorstep.

The gifts -- even kids' toys -- grow more sophisticated and more expensive each year.

TV ads scream out buy, buy, buy! -- as they compete to out-scream one another...

Getting caught up in the commercialism of the holidays is easy -- but teachers are in a unique position to remind students that holiday time is as much about giving as it is about getting. Lessons in holiday-giving present models of good citizenship for a new generation; and giving unselfishly can generate good feelings that students will carry with them for a lifetime!

Education World editors have searched -- online and off -- for projects to help teachers focus some of their students' holiday excitement on helping others. Below we share a handful of ideas that can serve as a starting point for classroom or school-wide holiday activities that teach the true meaning of the season.

Nursing home visits spread the joy!

Many teachers plan special holiday visits to local nursing facilities. Students rehearse a holiday song or two, some poems, maybe a skit -- and perform in front of a grateful and adoring audience. At the end of the performance, the students wander into the audience to hand out candy canes, holiday wishes, and hugs!

"It is amazing the feeling in the classroom when we return from our annual trip to a local nursing home," said Beverly Mathias, a fourth-grade teacher at Eisenhower Elementary School in Warsaw, Indiana. "The kids come back so full of enthusiasm for what they have done."

"We have some very meaningful discussions following our visit," added Mathias. "I always feel that the class has just had a small taste of what Christmas is really about. That makes all the extra effort worthwhile."

"Memorizing the poems we recite takes a little bit of class time," noted Mathias, "but the students love it, and it's good for them to go before an audience. We also stress that there are people who have a very lonely Christmas without family -- and that the kids will provide some Christmas cheer for them."

During the weeks prior to the visit, students bring in small change. "We ask the nursing home administrators for the names of a man and a woman who would not receive any gift at Christmas, and we use the money students collect to buy presents," Mathias explained.

Positive "presents"

What about the students in your class who do not celebrate Christmas? What about those students who cannot afford a couple dollars for a "Secret Santa" gift? Those are two of the questions that drove Mike Millard, a math teacher at South Middle School in Liberal, Kansas, to create a special end-of-term activity. He does the activity with his advisory group, which comprises students of all abilities in grades 7 and 8. Instead of exchanging gifts, the students exchange compliments!

Each year, Millard prepares for this self-esteem-boosting activity by typing all the students' names on a sheet of paper. Two lines accompany each name. "I give students a day to come up with a positive comment about each person on the list," explained Millard. "Then I collect the papers and type up one page for each student, listing all the positive things their peers said about them."

Comments include sentiments such as, "You always have a smile," "You were nice to help me with my math homework," and other upbeat messages, Millard told Education World.

"Of course I add a positive comment of my own for each student," he said.

"I like this activity because it encourages students to focus on the most positive aspects of their peers," Millard said. Nobody feels left out because the end-of-term party doesn't focus on one holiday celebration or another, and the kids have no worries about whether or not their gifts will measure up.

"The activity gives students' self-confidence a huge boost," Millard added. "It's really great to see their faces brighten when they read the positive things their peers have to say about them."

Teachers see the need!

At O'Brien Elementary School in East Hartford, Connecticut, more than half the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Those students want to be able to buy something nice for a parent or guardian, but they do not usually have the means to do so.

Teacher Denise Pawelcyzk saw the need last year, so early in the school year she shared a "Holiday Extravaganza" idea with her O'Brien colleagues, according to a Hartford Courant report. Soon a box in her classroom began filling up with new and "gently used" products that staff members donated; by holiday time, Pawelcyzk was looking at boxes filled with nearly 1,000 items!

Soon Holiday Extravaganza day arrived and the procedure was explained to excited students. They would be called one class at a time to the school gym where they would be allowed to select one present for a special person in their lives.

Pawelcyzk turned the Holiday Extravaganza into a community service project by enlisting the support of students from the town middle school, where she had taught the previous year. The middle schoolers helped the O'Brien students make their selections and then wrapped the gifts the youngsters selected.

Food for thought about food drives

Food drives are another terrific way to build school spirit and contribute to the community. Most students take the food on their tables for granted. Collecting food for people more needy than themselves is an important reminder that members of every community need to help those who are less fortunate than themselves.

Many schools turn the annual food drive into a competition between grade levels or teams. Competitions can spur participation needed to reach a goal, however they also can get out of hand. School personnel must decide in advance how they will determine which class collects the most food. Does the class or team that brings in the most items win, or is the winner the class that collects the most food by weight?

Many schools establish point systems based on community needs. Points are tallied class by class on a predetermined scale, which is published in advance of the drive. For example, a package of gelatin mix might earn a point, while rice, pasta, or cans of soup earn 5 points each. If officials at the local food bank note a substantial demand for certain items, those items night earn more points 10 points for a quart of fruit juice or 15 points for a box of cereal, for example. Any food not on the published list earns a point.


Some schools even publish a calendar for food-drive week. The calendar emphasizes those items for which there is the greatest need. Students can earn double points if they bring in cereal on Monday, juice on Tuesday, pasta on Wednesday...


Other schools challenge students to stack goods that are brought in. The class that builds the tallest stack of canned goods wins a special prize!

Another popular approach is to give students a ticket for each item he or she contributes. All the tickets are entered into a drawing for prizes, often provided by fast-food restaurants, movie theaters, and other local businesses.

Schools also need to decide in advance whether or not their "food drive" will include non-food items -- such as soap, shampoo, toothbrushes, toilet paper, or disposable diapers -- that are needed to keep shelves fully stocked at local homeless shelters.

More great ideas

Following are some additional holiday activities that emphasize giving.

"Musical gifts" for all
Many teachers have kids drop their names in a hat. Each child draws the name of one of their classmates and purchases a gift of predetermined value for that person. An alternative idea might be to invite students to bring from home a wrapped gift that could be used by any child in the class. (Gift ideas might include balls, quiet games such as checkers, playground chalk, playing cards...) Students can open those gifts at holiday party time. Since most likely there will be fewer gifts than students, turn the gift opening into a game of "musical gifts." Gather students in a circle, start the music, and hand a gift to one child. Students will pass the gift around the circle until the music stops. The student left holding the gift when the music stops unwraps the gift for all to see. Repeat the game with the next gift...

Toys for needy kids
Plan a classroom or school-wide toy drive for the local Toys for Tots campaign or for another local organization. Award a prize -- perhaps a pizza lunch, an ice-cream sundae party, or an afternoon at the movies -- to the class or grade level that collects the most toys for needy kids.


One school in Baltimore expanded on the above activity. Every class that collected at least 15 toys was able to take part in a school-wide "Decorate a Door" competition. The kids voted for the best door decor, and prizes were awarded to the winners.


Parent appreciation journal
A Parent Appreciation Journal makes a great student-created gift for the adults in their lives. As holiday break approaches, provide a different writing prompt each day. Prompts might include "My Favorite Memory of a Holiday Past," "A Funny Thing Happened in Our Family," "What I Love Most About My Parents," or "A Lesson My Parents Taught Me." (Where appropriate, the word "Parents" could be replaced with the name of another role model in a child's life.) Gather students' journal entries into a gift book to wrap and give.

Decorate the mitten tree
Set up a holiday tree near the entrance to the school or the school office. Invite students and their families to donate a pair of new mittens or gloves for children who might be in need of warm clothing this holiday season. Turn the mittens over to the shelter or church that cares for needy children in your community or in a nearby city or town where the need is greater.

Doing good, doing right
Instead of giving students in your own class a holiday gift, donate a dollar for each student to a local organization that assists people in need. You might even involve students in making the decision about where the donation should go. Students can create a list of worthy organizations and vote for the one they would like their special holiday gift to go to. When the organization responds to your donation, frame and hang the letter as a year-long reminder to students of the good they did.


Students also might include in the list of organizations a group related to a topic of study. If you studied whales, for example, the children might choose to send their check to a "Save the Whales" group.


You might even make a curriculum project out of this class decision. Have students work together in small groups to create a presentation that makes a case for donating to the organization they choose (or are assigned) to "market." The presentations will assist students in making an informed and thoughtful choice.

One more idea: "White elephant" gift exchange

Every student can locate at home some items for which they and their families no longer have use. Those items, which might range from the useful to the unusual, would make great "white elephant gifts" for a special exchange that emphasizes fun.


Most students will have no idea what you mean when you introduce the idea of a "white elephant gift" gift exchange. To help them understand the origin of the term "white elephant," share with students the explanation at Phrase Finder: White Elephant or The Word Detective: White Elephant.


Once you have explained the origin of the term, talk about the kind of items that might be included in a "white elephant" exchange. You might even start a list of ideas to get students thinking along silly rather than practical lines. Start the list with bunny ears, a book of jokes, an In Sync bobble-head toy... and other silly things they might like to get or that would make them laugh. Ask students to share a few more ideas without giving away anything they might actually bring in from home.


Be sure students grasp that the emphasis of this activity is on fun, not giving or getting something of value! Older students will understand this. Middle-grade students will have fun, but might need to be reminded that the gift they get is bound to be more silly than practical. This activity might not be appropriate for younger students who won't "get it."

Once you are comfortable that students have a handle on the "white elephant" concept, ask every student to bring in one wrapped white-elephant gift. (The teacher might set aside a few extra gifts just in case some students forget.) Include the gift exchange as part of your end-of-year celebration party.

To add to the fun on party day, especially with older students, you could establish the white elephant gift exchange as a multi-level exchange. You might follow or adapt these guidelines:

  • Prepare in advance index cards (Cut in half is fine.) numbered from 1 to x, with x being the number of students in the class.
  • At the start of the game, have each student draw a number.
  • The student who holds number 1 picks the first gift and opens it for all to see.
  • The student who holds number 2 picks the second gift and opens it for all to see. Student 2 then can choose to keep the gift he or she opened or exchange gifts with Student 1. (Student 1 must give up his or her gift if Student 2 wants it.)
  • The student who holds number 3 picks the third gift and opens it for all to see. Student 3 can keep that gift or exchange it with Student 1 or Student 2.
  • Continue the game until every student has had a chance to open a gift.
  • As the game continues, however, explain to students that no gift can be taken by more than three people. The third person to hold a gift is the "owner" of that gift.
  • After the last gift is opened and that exchange made, Student 1 -- who has not yet had an opportunity to exchange a gift -- makes the very last play of the game. Student 1 can exchange his/her gift for any other gift in the circle, even a gift that has already had three owners. That way, Student 1 could end up with the gift he or she opened at the start of the activity!


Additional resources: Gifts to make for holiday giving

Five holiday keepsakes parents will love
Is the pressure on to come up with a creative gift-making idea that you haven't used before? Education World offers five ideas for gifts that will become treasured family mementos. Make keepsake ornaments to hang, snow globes to shake, or colorful candleholders to display.

Handmade holiday treasures: Student projects that make great gifts
Help your students make a memory this holiday season with a gift idea from the Web. These projects will put little, or big, hands to work on a masterpiece for a family member or friend.

A bundle of fun holiday craft activities
These ten fun activities for creating holiday crafts and gifts will put everyone in the holiday spirit! Make holiday stockings, picture frames, cards shaped like Christmas trees, and much more!


Updated 12/07/2015