Assignment Ideas for the Week Before Christmas Break

You know it’s coming. That dreaded “week before Christmas break.” It’s a time when it’s every teacher for himself, and most educators believe that just for a few days, entire schools should be crop-dusted with ADHD meds.

What do you do? Half of your class has checked-out mentally and the other half have checked-out physically. If you are on a block schedule, then odds are that you have a few days sandwiched between end-of-course tests and Christmas break. If you only have a day or two, by all means, give your kids a break and watch a movie. You all deserve it. But don’t check out and just show something with zero educational value like Elf. Make sure it is a movie with historical content, and write a few class discussion questions on the board while you’re at it.

Sidenote: I recently was somewhat horrified to hear that some teachers the local area had students watch movies for the last TWO WEEKS of the semester because testing was over. I know that it’s hard to keep kids focused after testing, but if you automatically show movies to kill time you are telling your students several things:

  • School is about testing, not learning
  • Learning for learning’s sake is not valuable
  • It’s ok to take the easy way out

Movies in the classroom are ok as an occasional reward (be careful with this one) or to reinforce content, but they should NEVER take the place of instruction just because you don’t feel like teaching. Rant over.

What if your administrators won’t allow movies or you have more than just a day or two to kill? What then? Well, the thing to keep in mind is that you want assignments that meet the following criteria:

  • Creative (Kids are burned out from test or distracted by the coming break.)
  • Adaptable (Kids will be sporadically absent. Do something that can work with any subject matter and any amount of students.)

So just what can you do when things are crazy? Here are my assignment ideas to help get you through the pre-Christmas craziness. (Keep in mind that these can be used at the end of the year in May/June as well.)

  • Have students design a commemorative Christmas ornament about a historical figure. I just posted a very detailed version of this assignment on Teachers Pay Teachers. It will be free for a limited time. Get it while you can, and if you like it, please leave me a good review!
  • Put students in groups and have them act out historical events for the class to guess. (Each group must provide 3 clues within their skit and must give you a hard copy of the clues before they perform.)
  • Have students create a song in which they replace traditional Christmas lyrics with those about a historical event. Click here to download my stellar creation about Valley Forge called Deck the Tents…sure to be a blockbuster hit! 😉 If your students choose this option, take a picture of the lyrics and project them on the board. Have the class sing it together! Get into it and make it fun and silly.
  • Have student write poetry, create raps, or make acrostic poems about historical figures.
  • Have students plan a very brief presentation answering one of the following questions: What historical figure (that we have studied) would you like to meet and why? What historical event (that we have studied) would you like to have witnessed and why? Students should give 3-5 solid reasons for their feelings. Require students to make a bulleted list that they must eventually turn in to you, which will help them solidify/organize their thoughts. (You could make them write an essay, but the whole point of these activities is that they are low-stress for students. If you think your kids can handle it, go for it.) Then have students get in small groups and share their presentations.

The common thing about all of these activities is that they can be adapted to almost any subject, they allow kids to get creative, and they require very little planning on your part!

Good luck! You’re almost there!

*Image copyrighted and used in accordance with license agreement at

Eli Whitney Videos and Cotton Gin Craft

Eli Whitney.  You’ve all heard of him.  You know, he’s that guy that indirectly led to an increase in slavery and all of that horrible stuff.  He was just trying to help make life easier (and make a little cash in the process), but his ideas made a HUGE impact on America.

I taught a lesson on Eli Whitney this week.  In my opinion, you need to make sure your students know 2 things about Eli Whitney:

1- He invented the cotton gin

2- He came up with the idea of using interchangeable parts in manufacturing

It can be hard to visualize how the cotton gin works without seeing one (or at least a diagram of one).  I found the BEST video I have ever seen showing the operation of a cotton gin.  Now granted, this video is in black and white and is probably older than me, but there is no better video that I have found which has clear shots of the teeth in the wheels.  When you show this to your students, just let them know ahead of time that it is an older black and white video and that there is a cheesy guy in a wig pretending to be Eli Whitney.

(Side note:  I have often found that students tend to dismiss something they see as old or in black and white IF they haven’t been prepped for it.  Before I show an older video, I always explain that the video explains or illustrates something so much better than other videos that it still has relevance and is worth showing.  Once I acknowledge any obviously cheesy moments or outdated phrases or clothing, it takes away much of the novelty of it, and the students can move past it and just absorb what the video is showing.)


Another “decent” video (although NOT the History Channel’s best production) is this one.  You may want to use this in between your discussion of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts.

Now, here’s what I’m REALLY proud of!  I decided that I wanted to have my students make some kind of crafty-type thing to help them remember how the cotton gin worked.  So I enlarged and printed the picture below on cardstock (you could use regular paper too if you had to).

I then gave my students some glue, cotton balls, and unpopped popcorn kernels (to represent cotton seeds).  They had to glue the stuff on the diagram in such a way as to represent what the cotton gin did.  Use liquid glue if you do this.  None of this will stick if you use a glue stick.  Also, tell your students to tear apart the cotton balls into smaller chunks.  The balls will last longer, and it just looks better.


Now, this will seriously take less than 5 minutes, so why should you do it?  Because sometimes your students need to do something hands-on.  Because sometimes your students need to do something other than take notes.  Because sometimes you need to do something different.  And if you think this craft may be too “childish” for your kids, I think you underestimate how refreshing a change of pace is when you are sitting in class and listening to people talk all day long.  Did I mention that it would be GREAT reinforcement for tactile learners…or really anyone?

If this idea is too simple for your “high-minded classroom ways,” (haha) try this:  Divide your students into small groups and give them a poster board, cotton balls, popcorn, and glue and say…”Make me a diagram of a cotton gin.” or “Make a poster demonstrating how a cotton gin works.”

Before you get your students pasting and crafting, you need to reinforce the impact of the cotton gin.  It is pointless for your students to know how the cotton gin works if they don’t know the impact it had on the South (and really the world).  I used a table to show the students the difference the cotton gin made.  Have them cut out each box and put it in the correct spot in the chart.  (See link at the bottom of the article.)

One thing that you need to discuss when covering the effects of the cotton gin is the positive and negative effects of the invention.  Have a brief discussion about the good and bad that has resulted from various inventions (start off discussing the cell phone).  Have students do some deep thinking about consequences and cause and effect (maybe a short free-write).  Many people talk about the fact that the cotton gin led to an increase in slavery but often overlook the fact that the cotton gin also provided a way for poor farmers living in the South (who didn’t own slaves) to better support their family.  Also, cotton provided the raw materials necessary for textile mills to expand which provided more jobs.

Once you cover the cotton gin and move on to interchangeable parts, there’s more fun stuff to do.  After explaining interchangeable parts and their importance, may sure you show them that they are surrounded by hundreds of examples of them.  You can use your board markers as a handy example.  If you lose the top to one, you can replace it with another.

Have your students go on a scavenger hunt around the room for examples of interchangeable parts.  You can divide them into groups and have them race.  Whoever gets done first is the winner and gets candy or extra points on a quiz.  I would make them find about 30 different examples within the classroom.  Or, you could also set a timer and see which group can come up with the most examples of items with interchangeable parts in the time allotted.  Pretty much anything with a screw has interchangeable parts.  In fact, a screw is an interchangeable part!  Students are probably wearing examples of items with interchangeable parts as well:  watches, zippers, buttons, earrings, etc.

A word of warning, apparently there is a theory out there called the Mandela effect, where a group of people collectively remembers something wrong.  There’s a bunch of articles devoted to this.  Well, some crazy people claim that Eli Whitney was black and that he invented the cotton gin to reduce the work of slaves.  It’s a crazy Internet theory with no reliable evidence, but there’s always that ONE kid in class who’s read stuff like that and brings it up.  Haha!  The point is, the cotton gin changed the course of American history, regardless of the physical characteristics of the inventor!

Here’s a link to my cotton gin table.  It’s pretty simple.  You can add more stuff to it if you would like (specific statistics about cotton production and slavery).  The fonts may look weird if you don’t have them on your computer.


Featured image courtesy of Dsdugan – Own work, CC0,

Biography Book Cover Assignment

If a book was written about your life what would it look like? What picture would be on the cover? What tag line would be used? What would the summary on the back say?

While working on my lesson for Benjamin Franklin, I decided to have my students create a book cover for a biography about him. This would be a great idea to use with any historical figure that you wanted your students to know a lot about.


You could use this book cover idea to reinforce the importance of people such as:
  • Christopher Columbus
  • George Washington
  • Thomas Jefferson
  • Andrew Jackson
  • Civil War generals
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Teddy Roosevelt
  • Franklin Roosevelt
  • Dwight Eisenhower
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.
My students have to include the following things:
  • A catchy title that reflects the life of the person
  • A picture that represents that person’s life
  • A tag line under the title that gives a little more information (A phrase or one-line summary of this person)
  • A paragraph on the back of the book that gives a summary of the book, which includes some details of this person’s life/interests/importance.  (You may want to give a specific number of details required if you think your students might skimp on the information.)
  • You could also include an optional book endorsement quote by someone who would have known the person. (If the book was about Ben Franklin, you could have something like this… “A great book about a great man.” – Thomas Jefferson)
I whipped up a quick book cover template that I thought I’d share with you.  It would be a good idea to also show your students several copies of real book covers, so they get an idea of what you want.  (Just run down to the media center before class and grab a few.)

Visual Syllabus – A Fun Way to Deliver the Boring Stuff…and More!

While prepping for my American Inventors class (I’m teaching one for my local homeschool co-op), I decided that I wanted to spice up my syllabus.  I stumbled across this simple but neat looking visual syllabus.  It’s only $1.75 on TPT. I’ve never used one before, but I decided to try it.  It was very easy to edit, and it looked pretty cool afterwards.  I did make a few changes and tweaks to fit my needs.  It’s much more visually appealing than a regular old syllabus.  I will say, however, that while you can give the basics on this syllabus, you STILL need to make sure you give out a copy of your procedures (which definitely won’t fit on this).

You could also use this syllabus for notes.  Change out some of the clip art and you can add note content instead of syllabus content.  It wouldn’t need to be anything fancy, but sometimes delivering content in a different manner helps break the monotony.  You could use it to create a broad overview of a war.  Have the dates in one box, the good and bad guys in another, important battles in another, and important people in another.  Oooooh, even better, give the blank template to your students and (as a review) have THEM create a “cheat-sheet” about the war!  That would be a great way to review the basics about a war or other large topic.

Here’s my syllabus that I created for my class.  I blacked out some top secret stuff that I didn’t think you needed to know…stuff I could let you read, but then I’d have to kill you!  This syllabus is doesn’t include all of the stuff that I would put in if I were teaching a large class full of 30 students, but it still has the basics.  Oh, and by the way, I wasn’t paid or anything like that to write about that syllabus product.  I just like sharing neat and useful things I find!



I’m Back! Benjamin Franklin Video and Activities

So, I’ve decided to start the blog up again. I don’t have plans to resume the podcast any time soon though, because it is too time-consuming. After stepping away for a while and working on some other projects, I think I can carve out a chunk of time here and there to write a post. I don’t know how often I’ll write. Originally, when I stared the podcast, I tried to make sure I posted every ____ days. I didn’t like that, though, because it felt forced. So, now I’m doing it more for fun, and when I get inspired. The good news is that inspiration has been steadily creeping back in over the last few weeks. I’m preparing to teach a class called American Inventors for my homeschool co-op and I’ve come across some fun resources that get me excited and make me want to share with someone. And to save my non-history-loving mom friends from my rantings about history, I will share my thoughts here.

Speaking of which, the video below from the History Channel is a good one to show when you are studying Benjamin Franklin. You know, that time when Benjamin Franklin stood out in a thunderstorm with a kite and got struck by lightning? Oh yeah, that didn’t happen! At least, it didn’t happen the way so many people think it did. This is a good video for clearing up the myths surrounding his famous lightning experiment.  (Don’t forget to look below the video for classroom uses!)

Classroom Uses:

  • You could do a quick K-W-L before the video to see what your students know. (If you don’t know what a K-W-L is, this sheet gives the basic idea.)  A K-W-L is good to use with a topic that your students already know about or have misconceptions about.
  • Watch the video and create a two-column chart comparing the myth vs. the reality of the experiment.
  • Use the video to reinforce the importance of Franklin as an Enlightenment figure.
  • Use the video at the beginning of class to get your students interested in Franklin before a lesson on the Enlightenment in the US.

Another great activity to use when studying Franklin is a word web.  Word webs are great to use with people who are multi-faceted and/or have many different roles in US history.  After you have discussed Franklin, divide students into groups and have them create word webs about him.  (Make sure you show them an example of what a word web is.  Here’s an easy Halloween word web that your students would easily understand.)  You may need to prompt them or give hints as to how to divide up his life.  Here’s a very quick example of how a word web about Franklin might be structured.  Also, a simple word web could also be used as an exit ticket to reinforce content at the end of class.

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