The Gingerbread House Story Project: A Brave Teacher's Guide
I’ve got to be honest, I’m way into holidays. I’m that girl. The one who cut a hundred snowflakes to hang from her living room ceiling when she was eleven. The one who hand-dipped hundreds of chocolate pretzels and sprinkled them in red and green for her school friends. The one who - yes, it’s true - starts listening to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” in early November if the gray drizzly yuck just becomes a little too much.
How about you? Are you already eyeing your Christmas sweater? Already buying gelt for intense games of dreidel?
Whether or not you’re a holiday person, I think you’ll agree that teaching regular content starts to get very difficult right around mid-December. Winter break looms large in the imagination of every kid in the room, and suddenly The Odyssey and Hamlet lose their appeal.
It’s the perfect time for a holiday writing project. Something that mixes a little magic in with the skills you want your students to be practicing anyway. Something the elf on your shelf will be able to report back to your department chair actually kept students on task right before break.
For the last couple of years, I’ve been fascinated by Angela Stockman’s work with writing makerspaces. She is in the trenches of schools around the country, helping teachers figure out how to inspire reluctant writers with maker space methods.
One of her ideas is to use making as a prewriting activity for creative writing. You help students to create/make/design something that they can then incorporate into their creative work. For example, they might design puppets and then write a play script featuring those puppets as the characters. Mix together a song in Garageband and then make it the theme for a screenplay. Create play doh figures and then make them heroes in an epic short story.
Can you see where we’re headed?
It’s time to build a setting out of cookie. Sweet sweet gingerbread cookie (or graham crackers, as the case may be). Students can design their own sugary space, then set a story, play, screenplay, or novel chapter inside it.
Sound impossible? Afraid of what will happen if you turn your classroom into a holiday dessert kitchen? Imagining sprinkles running under the door and crunching under your principal’s feet?
Sure, making projects can be messy. So many wonderful things are. But let me guide you through the logistics a bit, because it really doesn’t have to be too hard.
There are many ways to make a gingerbread house. Consider the following options:
Bring in graham crackers, frosting, sprinkles, candy, plastic knives, and paper plates as construction bases. Cover desks with garbage bags or cheap plastic tablecloths. Have students work in partners or groups so you don’t need as many materials.
Announce the project in advance, and invite students to bring in materials to share. Say you will bring all the basics, but if they’d like to pick up some holiday M & Ms, gumdrops, candy canes, etc. to share that will add to the fun.
Bake actual cookies, but have the class work together on the house so you only have to make enough for one. Let students come in paired turns to put together parts of it and add details, while others are doing independent reading, making vocabulary one-pagers, etc.
If you just don't think you can make cookie construction work, let students draw/paint/sketch their gingerbread houses, or design gingerbread houses on iPads or laptops.
Project in Action
On the day of gingerbread house creation, let students help you prep the room. They can put plastic over desks, create a materials station, pass out paper plates, provide a holiday-themed playlist, etc.
Talk about the purpose of the project. Let them know their house will serve as inspiration for their writing, and invite them to create lots of fun details in their construction to make it unique. Will their house have a secret fort for the kids who live there? A hidden vault for the money the owner hides inside from the mafia? A magic door that leads to another world?
Have students take a photo of their houses when they are complete, so you can continue the writing even once the houses have been eaten the crumbs tossed.
Make cleaning up well in just five minutes a class grade of five free points. Spotless room equals a free little A for everyone. Let them know if they want to do amazing and fun projects like this, now’s the time to show you all the work won’t land on you.
Either while your students are creating their houses, or after they’re done, project your writing prompt for them. (Hint, feel free to save the image below and project that!)
Depending on the length of your class, you may not have time to write much on the day of your gingerbread house construction. Let students at least get started writing, then let them eat their gingerbread houses and ask them to continue writing at home and perhaps the next day in class, using their photos (or drawings or digital creations).
It’s up to you at this point how far to take it. You can do a round of peer-edits and polish these creative pieces into something magical. Or let it stand alone as a very fun short workshop right before break.
When all the gingerbread stories are done, be sure to have a final display and celebration. Let students share their printed gingerbread house photos and stories with each other in a gallery walk, then showcase the stories alongside the printed photos (or artistic pieces) somewhere. ELA Maker projects have outstanding visual appeal.
Spotlight Resource: ELA Maker Space Short Story Project
If you love the Gingerbread house project, you might want to experiment with the ELA maker space beyond the holidays. Try the Short Story Writing Project, in which students use any artistic materials they wish to create characters, then write stories based on their art. Find it here.
About the Author: Betsy Potash
After almost a decade of teaching across all the high school levels and grades, in both the United States and abroad, Betsy now spends her time helping high school English teachers escape the podium and teach creatively.
Hang with Betsy in her Facebook group, Creative High School English, or tune in to her show, The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast. Or of course, there's always Instagram, Pinterest, or her actual website.