4 Awesome Holiday Culture Lessons and Activities for the ESL Classroom
Ah, November and December.
The weather changes, clothing adjusts to match the new season and attention drifts from the classrooms to the holidays – for both teachers and students.
Regardless of the country, this period from late November to early January is peppered with holidays and festivals of all types.
And these holidays make a perfect topic for some fun ESL cultural lessons!
Why Teach Holiday Culture Lessons in the ESL Classroom?
In Japan where I’ve taught ESL, starting November 23 there is Labor Thanksgiving Day, the Emperor’s Birthday and New Year’s holidays, all of which are official governmental holidays. In addition, Christmas has become an unofficial holiday as well. There are also many other minor holidays, with Wikipedia currently listing about 40 different December holidays across the globe, ranging from the historical to tongue-in-cheek (A Festivus for the Rest of Us!).
With all of the celebrations however, many students do not know anything about the meaning behind the festivals, or how they are celebrated in other countries. I have heard many Japanese students state that Christmas is on December 24, and that it is a secular holiday akin to Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Children’s Day all wrapped up into one – and celebrated with fried chicken and cake! Needless to say, this has led to quite a few cultural misunderstandings.
With these areas of ignorance, and the fact that many students are already focused on their winter holiday break, December provides a great opportunity for teachers to break away from the typical classes and have a little fun. No, we’re not just going to suggest popping in a movie; these are some interactive activities we have for you to try!
By combining cultural lessons with English, you can have an enjoyable time for everyone, while expanding students’ worldly awareness at the same time.
So here are four awesome holiday lessons to get you started teaching culture in your ESL classroom!
4 Awesome Holiday Culture Lessons and Activities for the ESL Classroom
1. World Christmas Celebrations Matching Games
While Christmas is celebrated in many regions of the world, it is not celebrated the same way – or even on the same day – in all areas. This ESL activity takes advantage of this fact, resulting an interesting and fun lesson that can be capped off with numerous games.
To prepare, you need to make either a PowerPoint slide show or card slides that have numerous countries, their flags and pictures of unique cultural ways the country celebrates Christmas. Classics include Australia with a surfing Santa Clause, the Netherlands with wooden shoes left out for presents and the fact that Russia celebrates Christmas on January 7. Other good ideas include various Christmas foods and regional treats from around the world. For elementary students, about eight countries are best to use, while middle and high school students can handle up to 12.
Once your slides are made, you’ll then need to make playing cards for country names, flags and Christmas celebrations to be used for various games. The best setup is to use images only, although if you are working with adolescents and up, text for country names is also useful. You can either make your card sets using a printer and blank business cards, or stickers on plastic playing cards for durability. For older students who can read, worksheets that match countries with written hints is also popular. Depending on the size of your class and number of slides, you will want to create anywhere from 10-20 sets of these cards, which can be broken down into smaller decks later for the games.
After presenting the countries and taking the time to point out hints, it’s game time. For elementary students, one great game is team matching. Divide your card set in half, keeping for yourself all of the country flag cards. Then distribute hint cards to each team, and arrange the flag cards along the chalkboard or on a table at the front of the room. The first team to match up all of their hints to the various countries wins. You can play this game for multiple rounds, or by using multiple sets of hint cards you can stretch on for as long as you like.
Another card variation that’s great for both elementary and middle school is “Go Fish.” In small groups, students play Go Fish using the standard rules, with the goal of matching the country sets. A simple version could allow for matching flag with flag or hint with hint (assuming you are playing with multiple sets in your deck), while an advanced version would allow you to only match hint with flag. This game can feature a lot of speaking as well, with the practice of “Do you have…..?” as its key point.
Finally, a third popular card game would be Concentration or Memory. Again played by classic rules, children will quickly understand the idea and get into it.
2. Ornament Making and Design
A great activity for just about any age, decorating Christmas ornaments can range from quite simple to very complex. This is a great capstone activity to a multi-week mini unit incorporating the previous activity. So for the first one to two weeks, games and activities using the card sets above is very easy, while ornament making (or cookie making, the third activity) in the third week makes a great last impression right before the winter holidays.
The cost of materials also can vary wildly, although spending even a little bit of money has always felt worthwhile to me. For example, one school I taught at had plenty of sparkle glue and other art supplies, so we used those to decorate individual blank CDs that I purchased in a 100 spindle pack. The total cost came to about $45 for around 90 fifth grade students. The students loved their ornaments, and proudly showed them off to their parents the first chance they had. It also gave the students to express their individuality, as the blank CD gave them a very open canvas for their own expression.
For a more economical approach, felt and construction paper are also good options. Both allow the students to express themselves creatively, while still staying within a low budget. For construction paper ornaments, it’s best to laminate the paper after any drawing and cutting is completed, to lend durability to your ornaments. After they are laminated, the construction paper ornaments can be then decorated with things like sparkle glue, beads or other three dimensional items.
While there are plenty of templates online for Christmas ornaments (such as reindeer, Santas, bells, angels and what-not), it’s often best to let students design and make their own hand-drawn or formed ornaments if you go with paper. This allows for the maximum amount of creativity from your students, and saves you time. If you are working with preschoolers, however, I recommend having an array of downloaded images from the internet. Let Google be your friend in that case; there are lots of free images available.
3. Make Holiday Cookies
Perhaps no other constant stretches across cultures and holidays like cookies. Whether it is Hanukkah, Christmas, Bodhi’s Day or even Festivus, cookies are a consistent way to celebrate the winter holidays. However, just as there are many different festivals, there are just as many different cookies available. This activity involves a bit of preparation and some cost, but the end result is a wonderful last class before winter break.
To prepare, again make a short (10 slides or less) slide show featuring different types of holiday cookies. Try to show cookies and sweets from various cultures, and if there is a special meaning behind the shape or ingredients of the treat, be ready to give a short explanation.
Despite all of the options, a simple sugar cookie is perhaps the best way to go for actual cookie baking itself, for those that have access to an oven at school (there are dozens of recipes available on the web for free). This is because sugar cookie dough is not only simple and quick (a plus when working with students who may not be super adept in the kitchen yet), but also because there are numerous alternatives that account for allergies, dietary laws or other restrictions. In addition, sugar cookies can be shaped and decorated in infinite different ways, allowing the students to make and enjoy their own product by their own design.
Preparation is the name of the game when it comes to actually making the cookies. Before your class, make sure you have enough (plus a little extra) of every ingredient on your list. When you’re at home, try out the recipe to make sure it works, and to be sure you can complete it in your allotted class time. Make sure you can talk and demonstrate your way through the entire recipe as well. And of course, don’t forget to reserve your school’s home economics room or wherever it is that you’ll be baking.
On the day of the cookie making, take the time to lay out the required hardware at each station before the class arrives. While your students are certainly able to get the bowls, spoons, measuring cups, cookie sheets and other materials on their own, this time saving gesture means that you can spend more time making cookies.
When it comes to teaching the activity, a simple “see and do” technique is often the easiest and fastest. Break the students into appropriate group sizes, one at each station. Then, have the students copy as you demonstrate the recipe at your front station. In this instance, the use of your native language partner is very helpful if you have one, as he or she can go around spot checking as you demonstrate. This native teacher can also help translate any difficult ideas back and forth. With that, keep your language clear and simple to give students the best chance to follow what you’re saying.
Also try to find time to let students decorate and personalize their cookies. They can press dried fruits, nuts and chocolate chips into dough before it’s baked, while frosting, sprinkles and other decorations can add flair to the cookies after baking. In any case, let students enjoy and have fun.
4. Use Winter Holiday Videos on FluentU
There’s one more option – you can have your students watch videos on FluentU.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities. You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Sometimes as ESL teachers, a balance needs to be struck. Not only are we supposed to help in teaching the actual language of English, but we also need to share and teach our culture. Take the time to think about these three potential winter holiday activities, and have fun with your students!