“The Emperor’s Nightingale” is a story by Hans Christian Andersen, a Danish author, set in China. In the story, the Emperor of China discovers a nightingale, a bird which sings so beautifully that its song restores the ailing Emperor’s health. The Emperor of Japan sends a mechanical singing bird to the Emperor of China, and his court prefers the artificial bird to the real bird — until the Emperor of China falls ill again. The nightingale come back, sings the Emperor back to health, and asks the Emperor to keep it secret. When the servants arrive in the morning, they are amazed to find the Emperor well.
There are several online versions of the story:
There are some excellent picture books of the story as well:
- The Nightingaleby Pikko Vainio
- The Nightingale by Jerry Pinkney out of print, but check your library or buy used — great illustrations)
- The Nightingale by Stephen Mitchell
Once you’ve read the story, choose some of the worksheetsand activities linked below in online resources to make sure students have completely understood the story.
- Hear a simplified version of the story read and illustrated at Speakaboos, along with discussion questions and worksheets.
- Watch parts of the opera at the PBS website.
- Listen to some of Stravinsky’s music for the ballet inspired by the story:
- The Barnum Museum has a PDF of activities to go with their play based on The Nightingale. It includes map work for the continent of Asia and particularly for China.
- The Midland Art Center has a collection of worksheets for their production of “The Emporer and the Nightingale.”
- Rag & Bone theater also has a study guide. It looks at concepts of leadership, as well as the puppets the theater uses.
- Usborne has a worksheet suitable for ESL as well as for elementary students.
- Penguin has a reproducible guide as well, designed to go with The Emperor and the Nightingale (Penguin Young Readers, Level 4).
- Nightingales from the BBC gives excellent background on the birds.
Continue with one or more of the lesson plans below.
Write a poem.
Malvina Reynolds wrote a song based on the story. Have students read the lyrics and discuss how the verses connect with the story. Is Reynolds retelling the story or using the story to make a different point?
Ask students to think about the points that come up in reading and thinking about “The Emperor’s Nightingale.” Divide students into groups and have each group choose a point to write about. Challenge students to write their own verses.
Create a mechanical bird.
The mechanical nightingale was a sort of robot. Use our Robot Lesson Plans to explore the idea of robots further.
In the story, the artificial bird sings only one song, while the real bird sang many, and a fisherman muses that the artificial bird’s song is missing something. Discuss whether there are times when an artifical version of something is not as good as a real one.
The Emperor likes the fact that the artificial bird can sing the same song over and over without getting tired, and also that the artificial bird was covered with jewels. The real bird said that she would rather stay in the forest, so the arrival of the artificial bird gave her the chance to return to her home. Discuss times when an artificial version of something might be better.
Have students design a mechanical bird (a robot bird?) by drawing or creating a model. Will the students choose to make their bird a golden, jewelled bird?This is, for the Emporer, an advantage to the artificial bird, and the students may agree. Ask students to decorate their birds and label the parts to show how they would work, if the bird were in fact mechanical.
Of course, now it would be very easy to make an artifical singing bird. Just add a recordable sound chip to student models to get the full effect.
Andersen was Danish, and didn’t visit China or Japan. Why did he choose to set this story in Asia? Many 19th century European artists, including writers, were fascinated by Asia, seeing it as the embodiment of mystery and wonder. Andersen might have chosen China as the setting for his story in order to make it more romantic. The practice of creating works of art emphasizing the mysteriousness of the East came to be known as “Orientalism.”
Older students might find it interesting to study the controversy surrounding Orientalism and whether it is a racist approach to Asia, but younger students might be comfortable with the idea that people enjoy thinking about far away places.
Have students prepare a Venn diagram comparing China and Japan during the 19th century. Try some of these resources:
- BBC photos of China
- Harvard photos of China
- Xianfeng Emperor of China (other emperors of China are also included)
- an essay comparing China and Japan
- Columbia University Asian history resources
- stereoviews of 19th century Japan
19th century China
19th century Japan
Another example students might enjoy is Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado, a British light opera from the same time period which has the Emperor of Japan as a character.
Challenge students to illustrate the story as realistically as possible.
Russia had quite a few years during which Christmas was forbidden, but the Russian Christmas has still had a profound influence on our celebration of Christmas in America, and it has some great teaching points. Study math, geography, literature, and art with our Christmas in Russia lesson plans.
Books for this study:
- Christmas in Russia
- The Tale of Baboushka
- Baboushka and the Three Kings
- The Miracle of St. Nicholas
- The Miraculous Child: a Folktale from Old Russia
- Mary Engelbreit’s Nutcracker has none of the darkness of the original.
- The Nutcracker by Susan Jeffers is a pretty, traditional retelling.
- The Story of the Nutcracker Ballet by Diane Goode, a small and simple telling of the story.
- Alison Jay’s version takes place in a snow globe.
- The Pacific Northwest Ballet Presents the Nutcracker is about the ballet in particular, with photos from the production using Maurice Sendak’s wonderful sets.
- Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book
- The Berenstain Bears and the Nutcracker
- The Nutcracker with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland is hard to beat for quality of dancing.
- San Francisco Ballet has a beautiful version set at the 1915 World’s Fair.
- The Royal Ballet did a new one this year.
- Macaulay Culkin‘s production is popular with kids, and it is filmed as a movie, not as a performance, which may make it more accessible to students with less experience with performing arts. The motion picture The Nutcracker with Sendak’s wonderful set designs is, we think, too creepy and scary for children.
- Matroyshka dolls are nesting dolls: wooden dolls with smaller dolls inside them. They make a perfect lesson for size.
- Make matryoshka dolls from plastic bottles. This will only work if the sizes are carefully planned, so it’s an opportunity for real-world practice.
- Make paper ones instead. A simple pattern from the Matroyshka Store can be used to create manipulatives, or have kids make their own. Measure the dolls, calculate percentages and ratios — whatever fits best into your curriculum at this point.
- Another size lesson can come from the Nutcracker. At the beginning of the dream, the Christmas tree grows larger and Clara grows smaller — down to the size of the Nutcracker, the toy soldiers, and the Mouse King. Have students imagine that they are the set designers for the ballet. How big will the big tree have to be, in order to make people appear to be the size of a toy and a mouse? Have students create drawings with measurement labels to clarify the plan for the set builders.
- Russia is so big that it has sixteen time zones. Imagine that a virtual party is planned for 6:00 p.m. in St. Petersburg. Have students find the times in six other cities in different parts of the country, using the time zone map linked above.
Get medieval for inspiring lessons on social studies, science, and art. The Middle Ages lasted from the sack of Rome in 400 AD to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 15th century, so there’s plenty to work with. Let us share our favorite lesson plans for working on this time period with all grade levels.
First, online resources to get your room set up:
- Dragons Classroom Theme and Fairy Tale Classroom Theme ideas give you resources and inspiration for classroom decoration during your medieval unit.
- History.com has a good overview of the thousand years of the Middle Ages.
- The Web Chronology Project is a project of Then Again, and has a lot of interesting resources.
- Physics lessons from medieval warfare
- Don’t forget the Vikings!
- An interactive exploration of medieval women will make a fun computer center.
Books for the class library or reading table:
- Design Your Own Coat of Arms: An Introduction to Heraldry gives insight into the social order of the time, as well as a thought-provoking art project.
- Days of Knights and Damsels: An Activity Guide has lots of hands-on ideas, including costumes and recipes for a medieval feast to culminate the unit.
- A Medieval Feast by Aliki is a fun introduction for younger students, and has lots of detail to help older students prepare their art projects.
- The Making of a Knight: How Sir James Earned His Armor is full of information, and a comfortable read for middle school.
- The Door in the Wall is a Caldecott Award winning novel set in the Middle Ages.
- Adam of the Road is another classic novel of a child in 13th century England.
- Medieval Times Thematic Unit from TCR uses the two previous novels to study the Middle Ages.
Now you’re ready to jump in.
Most traditional fairy tales take place in the Middle Ages, though some more properly belong in the Renaissance. For the youngest students, fairy tales are the best possible introduction to medieval times. Older students will also find fairy tales an accessible way to approach the Middle Ages.
Begin by reading or retelling some favorite fairy tales. Our fairy tale lesson plans give summaries, online sources, and activities for all the best known tales, from Rapunzel to Snow White, and they will give you plenty for your younger students. Just add the stories to your classroom timeline around the 14th century.
Have older students retell the stories in modern settings. Put students into groups and have them create tableaux or brief reader’s theater retellings of various fairy tales in their own time and place. Have each group present its story (and perhaps create a video) to the class.
Use Venn diagrams to identify the differences between the original story and the retelling — what makes the original story medieval. Students may notice differences in the position of women, in family dynamics, in available technology (Rapunzel couldn’t use her cell phone to solve her problems), and in the food and clothing and other elements of daily life.
Have each small group choose one of the listed elements and conduct research online and in the library to understand their chosen aspect of medieval life. Then, using the fairy tale the group had rewritten earlier, each group can create a poster board display, PowerPoint, or other visual product showing the impact of their chosen element on their chosen story.
Some fairy tales are clearly not medieval, and this may show up in the research process if a later story has been chosen. For example, the French version of Cinderella which was the basis for Disney’s Cinderella includes a clock which strikes the hours — a late Renaissance invention. If students find items like this which prove that their story could not have been from the Middle Ages, that proof will make an interesting report as well.
You can easily imagine Rapunzel in the tower at the beginning of this post. Snow White, an Italian princess, would also have been at home there, since this is a medieval castle in Italy. The town is Ninfa, and we visited the ruins during our trip to Rome. There we also saw the cottage below, which is the sort of place where Snow White would have lived with the seven little men.
Here are some excellent resources for castle study:
- Castle Web has photos and information about lots of castles.
- Google Earth Castles and Palaces Tour shows 3-D models of a nice variety of castles and palaces. You can watch at the website, or download the tour to watch on Google Earth in your class. Be sure to click the 3-D buildings layer on if you watch it in Google Earth!
- SketchUp castles Also check out this video, especially if you plan to have students create castles of their own:
- Castles.org is an old website, with the common problems of old websites, including slow loading and counter intuitive navigation. However, there’s lots of good stuff there, including a section on parts of a castle. Check it out when you’re feeling patient.
- Castle by David MacAulay is probably the best single resource on the subject.
Once your class has done some exploration of castle information, have them list the characteristics of medieval castles (as distinct from later ones) and then build one. There are lots of great ways to build a castle:
- SketchUp Here’s an assignment handout for such a project.
- Build a model with paper or cardboard. Download a printable castle , use the book Cut & Assemble a Medieval Castle: A Full-Color Model of Caernarvon Castle in Wales or Castles to Cut Out and Put Together, or let your students plan and create their own. Here’s a nice assignment sheet for such a project.
- Use recyclables such as milk cartons, oatmeal drums, and other boxes and cartons to create a castle. This is much easier and requires less geometry, but still allows younger students to enjoy building their own castles.
- Go 2-D with paper shapes or your computer graphics program. You can make your 2-D paper castle big and put it on the walls of the classroom to create your own castle to study in.
Mapping Medieval Movement
When we use modern maps to study Medieval Europe, we get a false idea. The world didn’t consist of nations at that time, and there was a lot of movement from one place to another. The Vikings went to North America, Spain was part of the Arab World for quite a while, and the Golden Horde followed the Ostrogoths to the Mediterranean.
Medieval Map is a wonderful interactive map that shows the movements of the various groups from the dominance of Ancient Rome to the rise of the Ottoman Empire. This map doesn’t neglect the Asian and Arab populations, both of which were very important influences and yet often overlooked in our studies.
Divide students into pairs and have each pair follow a single group throughout the Middle Ages. There’s a lot of information at that website, so students should be able to follow up and continue research on their own.
- Columbia has a collection of more detailed maps from different time depths during the period.
- A map of European languages shows a more complex current situation than a political map of Europe.
- An unlabeled map of Europe with modern boundaries could be a good starting point for creating maps.
Have students create maps that show what they’ve learned. This is a good time for students to learn that different kinds of information need to be presented in different ways. Some groups moved from one area to another; some saw their sphere of influence grow and shrink around a central point; some stayed in place as other groups moved through them.
Some of the approaches students might consider:
- a PowerPoint with multiple maps showing the borders of their group’s influence as they change through time
- a paper map with overlays showing changes
- a map with drawings (if on paper) or popups (if in Google Earth) showing significant events
- a map with a timeline of events
- a map showing the progress of the group through space with arrows
Create a display of the maps.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a fun ghost story by early American writer Washington Irving. Read the whole story online with photos at the website of the Sleepy Hollow cemetery. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad includes Disney’s terrific cartoon version, voiced by Bing Crosby. It makes a great choice for Hallowe’en party entertainment, or to follow up a reading of the story.
In The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, schoolmaster Ichabod Crane seeks the hand of a wealthy landowner’s daughter. His rival, Brom Bones, is a local hero, a rough sportsman with a gang of friends who join him in bullying Ichabod Crane. At the end of a lavish harvest festival, Ichabod takes the chance of speaking to the girl he admires, is rejected, and leaves the party in a bad mood. He is chased by a headless horseman carrying a Jack o’ Lantern in place of a head, and disappears forever.
Washington Irving was also the author of Rip Van Winkle and an important contributor to the American image of Santa Claus.
Lesson plans and resources available online:
- Edsitement’s Sleepy Hollow lesson plan asks the question, “How did Washington Irving write a story that still captures audiences hundreds of years later?”
- Identify subjects and predicates from the book’s sentences in an online grammar quiz.
- A PDF file from Theater IV has a variety of worksheets and activity pages.
- A lengthy history-oriented unit plan from Core Knowledge includes information about auctions, the Revolutionary War, and a broad range of related topics.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a wonderful read aloud, filled with marvelous descriptions and humor. Once you’ve read it, choose from these cross-curricular connections to extend the learning and the fun.
- The important characters of this story are described in lively language, with lots of detail. Katrina van Tassel, the girl whom both Ichabod and Brom are courting, is described only in terms of her appearance, with a passage later about her parents suggesting that she might be spoiled. Have students flesh out the character of Katrina in a character sketch.
- Many people have made plays from this story — your class can do it, too! Write and stage the play for your school, or film it for your class website.
- While this story is accessible to younger readers, the vocabulary can really be challenging. Collect words from the story in a pocket chart or on chart paper and see how many new ones you can learn while you’re reading the story.
- Sleepy Hollow is a real place, and the character of the place is important to the story. Irving says that the people of Sleepy Hollow are inclined to see ghosts, and says of visitors to the area, ” However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative, to dream dreams, and see apparitions.” There is no Google Earth Tour online yet for this story, so here’s your chance! Check out our Google Earth writing assignment for how to make a tour.
- The life of a teacher during Colonial times (and after, in many areas) was difficult. Ichabod Crane, like most teachers, earned very little and was given a place to live by parents of his students. Things were different for students, too — not least because of the use of corporal punishment, which is described in the story. Use a Venn diagram to compare school in Irving’s day to your modern school.
- Sleepy Hollow had lots of local ghost stories, the most exciting one being the story of the Headless Horseman. Have students research local ghost stories. If there are no local ghost stories where you live, discuss why that should be. Is Irving right in thinking that some places encourage superstitious attitudes? Is your town too new to have developed any ghost stories? This is a good opportunity for surveys and oral history projects.
The Sea King’s Daughter is a lesser-known fairy tale from a Russian ballad. In the story, a young musician descends to the home of the Sea King and plays for a wild party — which, he learns, sets the seas raging and endangers the ships above. He marries the Sea King’s daughter, but doesn’t live happily ever after. His mother in law tells him that if he kisses his bride, he will never return to his home on land, so the musician resists the mermaid’s charms and wakes in his own bed. The story does have a happy ending, since the musician marries a new bride and has children and lives happily ever after, but he does sometimes think of the mermaid. He even thinks he sometimes sees her yearning sadly after him.
Aaron Shepard’s The Sea King’s Daughter: A Russian Legend is a fine picture book version. Hear the author pronouncing the names at the link, so you can read it aloud with confidence. You might also like Shepard’s reader’s theater script for this story.
- Enjoy a couple of illustrations from Aaron Shepard’s retelling of this story:
- The illustrator is Gennady Spirin. The links above are PDF files, and could be printed out for use in your classroom.
- Have students illustrate the story themselves, spending some time researching sea creatures so they can draw them accurately.
- Make mermaid puppets, with patterns and cut outs from Phee McFaddle or Marilyn Scott Waters. Students might prefer to design their own!
- Compare this story with that of The Little Mermaid. The idea of having to choose between the sea and the land and the sad yearning of the mermaid are similarities, but there are many differences.
- You might also like to compare this story with the tale of The Selkie Wife. The story is available in a printable version with activities in The Arctic Triptych, or read Mara Freeman’s retelling.
- Having examined some love stories involving sea creatures and land creatures, ask students to write their own. You can read another version at Storybird. Students might like to proofread it for the author, and also to create their own Storybird collaborative stories.
- This is a Russian story — see part of a puppet show version in Russian below. Sur la Lune has a longer version called Sadko from Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome. The story is also the basis of Rimsky-Korsokov’s opera Sadko. Given that this is clearly a popular Russian story, why might it be so little known in the United States, compared with other Russian stories such as Peter and the Wolf?
- Storynory has another version of the story of Sadko, complete with the sound of Sadko’s instrument, the gusli. This instrument is reminiscent of the harp, the zither, or the dulcimer. Have students research these instruments and compare them.
- Learn about Russia. Here are some great online resources:
- National Geographic Kids Russia
- A PDF about Peter the Great, from the wonderful Time Warp Trio
- A Core Knowledge lesson on Russia for 5th grade
- A pattern for a felt matryoshka (nesting) doll would also make a great bulletin board in paper. Zakka Life has a template and instructions for a matryoshka card which we think would make a terrific shape book. Have students cut it from construction paper and write facts about Russia as they learn them.
- Make some ponchiki, Russian doughnuts, if you’re brave. Get help from the lunch ladies or use a closed electric fryer and make sure kids don’t get near the hot oil.
- Compare mermaid stories from different countries.