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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. II

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit


by Christine Pearsall Villano
Fairbanks North Star Borough School District


The changes taking place in language arts education are not just a fad. The integration of reading, writing, speaking, listening and other curriculum areas is not mere passing fancy but manifestation of a paradigm shift in education and society. More and more, researchers in every discipline are acknowledging the incredible complexities and interrelationships among aspects of the physical and cultural universe. No longer can we confidently say that students learn best when fed individual bits of knowledge. Brain research has shown that the whole brain and thus the whole child should be involved to make learning more viable. 

Whole Language helps educators integrate the language acquisition process with other curriculum areas. It is process- oriented. According to the psycholinguistic theories of Ken Goodman and Frank Smith, language development occurs naturally through the process of meaning creation. Therefore, language arts education should focus on meaningful texts rather than meaningless exercises. Reading instruction should begin with whole texts, whole works of literature experienced by students, before any attempts are made to analyze language in small parts or skills. Writing inswuction should begin with students' own attempts to use language to communicate rather than with decontextualized phonics or grammar exercises. In the process of composing meaning in either reading or writing, oral language is an important factor. Children need to hear the patterns and rhythms of their language, and they need to be given opportunities to speak the language in a secure environment that allows them to take risks and make mistakes. Oral language is a rehearsal and reinforcement for reading and writing. In Whole Language classrooms the teachers participate as co-learners to construct meaning together with the children. Students learn within a community of learners that encourages cooperative learning.

Thus, my unit based on the book King Island Christmas by Jean Rogers is intended to facilitate a Whole Language environment. I plan to integrate reading, writing and speaking with science, social studies, math, art and music in the lessons and activities. Because the process approach is child-centered and developmental, my unit is geared to individual strengths rather than skill dittos. I tried to include a diversity of techniques, styles, and student involvement to reflect the philosophy presented in our Whole Language workshop.


Materials and Centers for Independent Activity Time

Listening Center - students can listen to taped books, our reader's theater pieces, music, or make their own tapes.

Alaskan Center - books, maps, photographs, Alaskan art pieces to look at and use for independent projects.

Art Center - water colors, crayons, markers, felt, yarn, glue, paper, old socks, fur scraps, ivory soap bars to work on Alaskan art (puppets, dolls, carvings).

Reading Center - filled with children's Christmas books.

Writing Center - all sorts of paper, writing utensils, stationery, old cards, old typewriter, word processor, etc.


Unit Theme for Second Grade: King Island Christmas

Part of the second grade curriculum is the study of people and their cultures. Into this theme I would like to integrate literature, music, poetry, and arts as they relate to a special part of Eskimo culture. The unit will also have physical science, social studies and math segments. The central text would be King Island Christmas by Jean Rogers. I would read aloud to the class and we would discuss key elements of the story. Students would have a chance to reread the book independently or with partners.

The class would break into smaller groups and each group would be responsible for brainstorming a list of food, shelter, clothing, tools, etc. characteristic of the people of King Island. (They could use illustrations as clues.) Each group would include a recorder/spokesperson as part of their team. The spokesperson would share the groups ideas with the class. We would pool all our ideas on a class chart and compare and contrast King Island life with life in Fairbanks.


Math/Social Studies

During math time our cooperative learning groups would locate Alaska, the Bering Sea, King Island and Fairbanks on a map. Using the map key and a compass, they would calculate with rulers the distance from King Island to Fairbanks, Nome, Anchorage and Juneau. Groups would share their information. They would also have to find another place on the map that was the same distance from Fairbanks as King Island.



I would give a presentation on northern lights (present in the story), what they are and how they originate. We would watch a video tape about northern lights. During oral reading time, I would read Eskimo and Indian legends about how the northern lights came to be. We would touch upon the purposes of legends and folk tales. On the blackboard we would begin a list of possible legend topics that we could write about (e.g. why windows get frosty, why the sun disappears in December, etc.). The legends could be about natural phenomena or on a Christmas theme. The class would have the option to write their own legend of the northern lights or create another one from our class list. Each student would be responsible to do rough drafts and a finished product. After the rough draft the students work in small groups (perhaps in pairs) to respond to each other's papers and then work on mechanics. All final drafts would be bound into a class book of legends.


Music/Social Studies

Inuit dancing could be introduced here as part of Eskimo Celebrations and storytelling. The students could view a videotape of the King Island Dancers. With a guest speaker we could learn the meaning of the dances, see a drum and other Eskimo artifacts, and learn a basic dance or song in Inuit.

In social studies we would go back to our maps and talk about islands. Each group would have to come up with four facts about islands and what makes them different from our environment. Using the story and our maps, we would see how our facts pertained to King Island. We would add these facts to our compare/contrast charts.

We could also sing traditional Christmas carols with the class and have the class change the words of a popular carol to give it an Alaskan theme.



Another science lesson would focus on how and why water freezes. Each student measures an amount of water, puts it outside, records how long it takes to freeze, measures the frozen water and records any changes. They would record how long it takes to thaw and then measure the volume again. We would talk about what happens to waterways in Alaska. How does this affect the way people live and do things? How did ice affect King Island? What was the problem in the story? We would write Haiku or acrostic poems about cold, ice or winter and share them with the class.


Language Study

For spelling and phonics we could take words from our book, from our compare/contrast chart, and from our study of the culture of the King Island Eskimos. Thus the learning of sounds and spellings of the words would be presented in the context of our unit rather than as an isolated spelling list or phonics worksheet.

Integrating math with language study, we would learn to count from one to ten in Inuit. Children could do basic math problems orally in Inuit together. We would keep a list of the number names and compare them to other languages we study during the year. We would also learn to say "hello," "goodbye" and "thank you" in Inuit and keep our new words as part of our on-going language bank.



The class could write letters to the Catholic diocese of Fairbanks to find out more about Father Carroll, who is a person in the book. If Father is still alive, we could invite him to class to tell his story of King Island Christmas or have someone who knew Father tell us the background of the story.

Another worthwhile writing/speaking activity would be to have the students help rewrite King Island Christmas into a readers' theater piece. The students could assume different villagers speaking parts and divide the narrator's part. This is an excellent way to incorporate repeated reading of the book. The steps for this activity are as follows: 1) provide some consumable copies of the text; 2) students come up with characters and abbreviations for each character; 3) discuss concept of narrator; 4) begin marking the text together and discuss dialogue and why you don't need words like "said the elder" in a readers' theater production; 5) after students get the hang of marking their parts, they can proceed individually or with a partner to mark the rest of the story, and groups could be designated to add dialogue for characters; 6) type up the completed version of the play. The class can figure out who will play each part. The play can be taped to take home to share, or it can be performed for parents or other students in the school. 


Life Skills

As a cultural cooking project the class can learn about Eskimo foods either by reading simple recipes or from resource people in our community. I have had children make Eskimo pan bread and akqutak. Cooking projects are great because they involve reading skills (directions), math skills (measuring) and a valuable life skill.



A combined book sharing and art activity would be to make King Island Christmas tree ornaments. Students would be divided into small groups to work on ornaments that will share King Island Christmas in a unique way while serving to decorate the classroom. Each group makes six construction paper circles that are six inches in diameter. Have them measure the diameters with rulers. These circles will form the ornament. Each student in the group takes a circle (or two, depending on group size) and works on one (or more) of the following activities to decorate each circle on the group ornament:

1. write the title and author of the book on a circle

2. draw a picture of a main character and add a caption

3. draw a picture of a most exciting part and a caption

4. write a note to a character in the book 

5. write a poem about King Island

6. write an opinion about the book.

Construction of the ornament goes as follows: 1) after each circle has been decorated, fold the circle in half; 2) glue or tape the blank sides of the circles together one half at a time until you have five and a half sides down; 3) before the last half is glued, put a piece of yarn down the center of the ball and glue it in place; 4) tie a loop and glue the final half circles together. The ornament is now ready to hang on a Christmas book tree. After the experience of working on the book ornament in the group, students could make their own individual ornaments. Additional ideas could come from reading other Christmas or seasonal books that could be made available to them in the class reading center.

We could write to Rie Munoz, the illustrator of King Island Christmas, and look at other prints of Rie Munoz in children's books and in her art book collection. The class could talk about things they liked about her work, how it makes them feel, how Rie must have felt painting the various pictures. The class could try their own water color illustrations for our class book of legends.

With scrap fur pieces the class could make Eskimo dolls or finger puppets to act out parts of the book, their own legends or spontaneous improvised plays.


Science/Social Studies

We could take a trip to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Museum to see tools, art and artifacts that ancient and modern Eskimos have used. The class could divide into groups and do a no-touch scavenger hunt of animals indigenous to the King Island area. They could gather facts about one of the animals to share with the class.


Social Studies

I could present contemporary pictures and stories of the Eskimo/Russian Orthodox celebration of Slavik during January as an example of another religion's celebration of Christmas. Our class could start a Slavik celebration with other classes in the primary grades or even the whole school. A "starboy" could carry a huge star from class to class with everyone in the procession behind the star bearer. At each classroom the hosts would share something with the followers and then join the procession to another room. 

This unit could be used as a whole, or it could be abbreviated and/or used as a lead-in to other pieces of seasonal literature, songs or customs from around the world. I have also tried an international day of customs and legends of the holiday season in which students are broken into small groups and are scheduled into stations which represent a culture. They can learn about a custom, craft, song, or legend at a particular station which is manned by parents, specialists, etc. at the school. The length of time at the station depends on the group and complexity of the projects. This unit could also lead into a larger unit on Native Alaskan cultures, animals, geography, etc.



Assessment in a Whole Language classroom is based more on teacher observation and record keeping of individuals than on testing. The students' teamwork in their cooperative learning groups would be observed and successes/failures would be noted to determine whether the group was functioning together. The students' creativity, spelling, use of language, mechanics, would be checked in their various writing assignments: legends, letter, book-share ornaments, facts sheets, original Christmas carols, etc.. Writing assessment would follow the analytical assessment model, which assesses the content, organization, voice, word choice, syntax and mechanics of writing on a one to five scale. Math skills would be evaluated by how individuals figured out recipes, map point mileages, measuring craft projects and experiments.

If children were having trouble reading the material, individual conferences would be done with them and mini-lessons on skills such as phonics, use of dialogue, etc. would be given to individuals or groups as the need arose. Each student would, of course, keep a folder of dated work samples so that progress could be assessed over time. Each student would also keep a learning log of daily accomplishments and concerns. I would have a reading conference with each student once a week. Audio or video cassettes of each child's oral reading that include samples of a child reading a favorite selection and a selection slightly above level chosen by the teacher could be used as an evaluation tool. In this way I could observe the literacy strategies used to deal with print. In conjunction with the tape, my notes of the reading would serve as a record. Skill checklists used to mark observed student competencies in a variety of areas can be used to record student progress on designated criteria.


Ray Barnhardt

Part I * Rural School Ideals

"My Goodness, People Come and Go So Quickly Around Here"
Lance C. Blackwood

Parental Involvement in a Cross-Cultural Environment
Monte Boston

Teachers and Administrators for Rural Alaska
Claudia Caffee

The Mentor Teacher Program
Judy Charles

Building Networks
Helen Eckelman

Ideal Curriculum and Teaching Approaches for a School in Rural Alaska
Teresa McConnell

Some Observations Concerning Excellent Rural Alaskan Schools
Bob Moore

The Ideal Rural Alaska Village School
Samuel Moses

From Then To Now: The Value of Experiential Learning
Clara Carol Potterville

The Ideal School
Jane Seaton

Toward an Integrated, Nonlinear, Community-Oriented Curriculum Unit
Mary Short

A Letter from Idealogak, Alaska
Timothy Stathis

Preparing Rural Students for the Future
Michael Stockburger

The Ideal Rural School
Dawn Weyiouanna

Alternative Approaches to the High School Curriculum
Mark J. Zintek

Part II * Rural Curriculum Ideas

"Masking" the Curriculum
Irene Bowie

On Punks and Culture
Louise J. Britton

Literature to Meet the Needs of Rural Students
Debra Buchanan

Reaching the Gifted Student Via the Regular Classroom
Patricia S. Caldwell

Early Childhood Special Education in Rural Alaska
Colleen Chinn

Technically Speaking
Wayne Day

Process Learning Through the School Newspaper 
Marilyn Harmon

Glacier Bay History: A Unit in Cultural Education
David Jaynes

Principals of Technology
Brian Marsh

Here's Looking at You and Whole Language
Susan Nugent

Inside, Outside and all-Around: Learning to Read and Write
Mary L. Olsen

Science Across the Curriculum
Alice Porter

Here's Looking at You 2000 Workshop
Cheryl Severns

School-Based Enterprises
Gerald Sheehan

King Island Christmas: A Language Arts Unit
Christine Pearsall Villano

Using Student-Produced Dialogues
Michael A. Wilson

We-Search and Curriculum Integration in the Community
Sally Young

Artist's Credits



Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.


Alaska Native Knowledge Network
University of Alaska Fairbanks
PO Box 756730
Fairbanks  AK 99775-6730
Phone (907) 474.1902
Fax (907) 474.1957
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Last modified August 14, 2006