What we need at this time of year is a quick lesson that can be presented with little to no preparation — and which the kids haven’t already done too many times before! We have a suggestion: The Peterkins’ Christmas, a fun book which your library will probably have, but which is not as well known as … well, as the ones you’ve already read to the class.
The version we’re discussing here is adapted by Elizabeth Spurr and charmingly illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halpern, but the story is from Lucretia Hale’s beloved Peterkin Papers. You can find the episode of “The Peterkins Christmas Tree” by clicking on the title. This is the part of the Papers that has been made into a picture book by Spurr and Halpern, and it will make a good alternative read-aloud if you can’t find the picture book on such short notice.
The Peterkins family faces a common problem in this story: the Christmas tree they have chosen is too tall for the room they plan to put it in. The family always approaches problems like this with cheerful ingenuity, and they come up with several different solutions, including setting the tree up at a slant, before they decide to raise part of the ceiling to accommodate the tree.
This project turns out to be so complex that they have nothing much to trim the tree with when they put it up on Christmas Eve. Again, several possible solutions occur to them, but fortunately a package of trimmings arrives from their friend The Lady From Philadelphia.
The fun language of the original and of the adaptation make this story a wonderful read-aloud for all ages. Enjoy the story, have a classroom retelling with your pocket chart, and then bring in some cross-curricular connections.
- The obvious math connection here is measurement. Ask those students who have Christmas trees at home to estimate the heights of the trees in their houses, chart their data, and then have them go home and check. Chart the new data the next day and compare the estimates with the measured data. As always, we recommend that you use the types of calculations you need to practice. So, if you are looking at percentages, here’s your chance to calculate the percentage by which the estimates varied from the measured data. If you are working on graphic organizers, make a stem and leaf plot with the data. If you are counting, use tree diecuts to make a bar graph for all the heights and count the numbers at each footage point. If it’s fractions, measure meticulously and include all the fractions, then use them to calculate the average.
- Since the decorating of the tree is also a plot point, you can also calculate the number of lights needed for the tree, if the Peterkins had lived in the electric age. The current rule of thumb is 100 lights per foot of height.
- Use this formula to calculate the cost of the electricity: WATTS times HOURS divided by 1000 = KWH; KWH times RATE = cost.
100 watt string of lights times hours of monthly use (based on 8 hours a day for a month which would be 240 hours) =24000 watts divided by 1000 =24 kwhs. 24 kwhs X 7.5 cents = $1.80 per month.
- One part of the complicated solution the Peterkins come up with is the idea of making all the chairs in the house the same height. Practice measurement some more by measuring the seat heights of all the available chairs.
- Problem-solving is the natural connection for this book. List the problems encountered or foreseen by the family, and divide the class into groups to brainstorm solutions to the problems. This could be done as a pre-reading exercise, as well.
- The Peterkins family is inclined to have problems, and to come up with solutions that create more problems. They tend to reject simple, practical solutions to their problems. This is the running joke of The Peterkin Papers . Some of the Peterkins’ problems arise from their failure to plan ahead. Others come from their distractability. Others result from well-meaning but impractical ideas about being frugal or thoughtful. Challenge students to think of times when they have had problems resulting from these characteristics, or others they recognize in the story.
- The Peterkin Papers were written in 1880, and they give a good picture of the customs of the day. Use a Venn Diagram to compare the Peterkins’ holiday customs with those of your own modern community.
- In the United States, families’ holiday customs are often influenced by their ethnic heritage. For example, families of italian heritage may have the custom of having a seafood feast on Christmas Eve, or families with German ancestry may have a pickle-shaped ornament on their tree. Discuss and write about the various customs of the students in the class. Have students illustrate their descriptions of special holiday customs, whether Christmas, New Year, or another special day, and make a bulletin board display to finish up the year.