Saturday, December 30, 2017

Christmas Gifts to Make

You don't have to break the bank to show someone that you love and appreciate them. Gifts of the heart are far more meaningful than gift cards.  Here are some ideas I've used in years past.

Paper Ornaments

I made a jar of paper Moravian Stars for a friend when I was in high school. I'd used a kit, which was just strips of paper and instructions. After I had grown and had dozens of nieces and nephews, I created kits for them to learn. Of course a finished star was included and could be a little gift on their own.  Four 1"X16" strips of paper makes a 4" star.

The paper 3D snowflakes require 6 squares of paper. I used 4 inch squares, which means that it takes 1 1/2 pieces of card stock per star. Scissors and glue are the the only other materials needed for this project, which means my kids could make gifts for their teachers for about 10 cents each. Middle School teachers know that each student has half a dozen teachers so they don't expect expensive gifts, and something homemade to use in their room or house is a nice reminder of the student.

One inch strips of paper stapled in the center, bent back and glued at the bottom make beautiful paper flower ornaments.


I grew up using a mug that my Aunt Janet had made me. She made one for each member of our family. Anything with a name on it makes it extra personal. I decided to make personalized mugs for the next generation. This ended up costing almost nothing (clay can be dirt cheap) as I had access to the college ceramics studio, but it was very time consuming project, and for awhile I thought of it as a part time job. 

Sign Posts

One year I cut wooden 1X4s into arrows, painted them with white latex, and then painted the city names of loved ones and the miles from my house to theirs. I did this for each of my siblings who owned a home and added the city of my parents as well as my in-law's parents. I included the hardware, but not the poles (for obvious reasons). 

 Here is mine, in the backyard, with my folks, brother, and two of my sisters, all of who have home towns listed on my sign post. Wish they lived closer, but at least I can find the way to them.

Name Paintings
This is my favorite thing to give at baby showers, and kid birthdays, but I've given more than a few away at Christmas too. This is another gift of time and talent, as the frames are $10-$20, but if they were to have their own name painted it would cost about $40-$50.

Graham Cracker Houses

My family made graham cracker houses every year when I was growing up. I probably only missed one year in the last 35 from this tradition (when I was in Japan and couldn't find graham crackers). Each of my kids make their own and then we have carried on the tradition of Christmas caroling and delivering either a house or cookies to our neighbors.  Here I am, building 25 houses in advanced for my daughter's kindergarten class to decorate. The icing is made from 1 lb of powdered sugar and 2 egg whites (or pasteurized egg whites), mixed 20 minutes on a mixer. I place a scoop into zip lock plastic snack bags for kids to use pipe.


Homemade cookies and candy are a treat for everyone who isn't diabetic. I have used inexpensive boxes, tins, paper plates and paper bags with ribbon to keep costs down and let me share with more people. Small loaves of pumpkin bread or banana bread look adorable with a ribbon and small card, and fit nicely into teacher's boxes. Consumables are the best gifts for people who already have everything they need and who want to avoid clutter in their lives.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Mexican Culture and Art Lesson for Kids

As my high school students were making paper mache totem poles, I had my younger students paper mache balloons to make piñatas. They used tissue paper to decorate the dried spheres.  Piñata are though to originate in China as part of a Chinese new year celebration in which a ceramic ox full of seeds is broken in hopes of bringing good crops.  But the Aztecs had a similar ceremony in which a clay pot was broken to release things like nuts and colorful feathers as an offering to one of their gods. Once Christianity came to Mexico, the piñata tradition was continued, but as an object lesson. Seven cones on the piñata represented the seven deadly sins, and the blindfolded person with a stick represented the faith needed to overcome sin, and eventually release the blessings (prizes inside the piñata).

Our fun continued in a lesson about traditional Mexican toys including wooden tops, noise makers, and boleros, or the cup and ball games.  I hadstudents tie a jingle bell to one end of a string, and the end of a popsicle stick to the other. (A wooden bead is great too, but my students are all visually impaired so the sound of the bell is helpful). They used a little piece of tape to put a Dixie cup to the top of the string end of the stick. Then they used more tape to strengthen and decorate the stick and cup.  The goal of the game is to try to swing the ball/ bell out and catch it in the cup. One of my blind students had to work at it for about five minutes before getting it the first time, but he was so thrilled when he did.

One group had an extra class period with me and so we played mariachi music, which they interpreted visually. One student made a representational image of a horn, maraca, sunshine and flowers.

But most students took a more abstract approach, and used color and shape to convey the feel of the sounds.

Then they used the same types of cups, tape, and popsicle sticks that they used to make their ball and cup toys, to design their own maracas, filled with rice or dried beans of their choice.  These instruments were then used to play along to "Feliz Navidad."  I gave a brief language lesson so they ended up with some important phrases, making this a Social Studies, Foreign Language, Music and Art lesson. Four subjects in a couple of fun hours.  Yo soy una maestra feliz.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Paper Mache Totem Pole

"Lowest man on the totem pole" is a phrase that implies that the most important symbols are placed at the top of the totem pole, but this is not always the case. In fact, if you have a tall totem pole (which can be 30 feet tall) than the "lowest man" may get the most attention as it is at eye level and may be wider to support what's on top.

Nine of my high school students made an couple of equal opportunity totem poles out of paper mache a few weeks ago.

They had completed their ceramic totem poles using several  different animals the previous week, so they were familiar with the symbols. This assignment required them each to choose an animal to represent him or herself.

We started by building 6'-7' poles of cardboard, taping cereal boxes, pie tins and parts of bottles to form beaks, eyes, noses and fins.

Paper mache was added to the under structure. We dipped strips of newspaper into a bowl of fabric starch to layer onto the surface. I taught my students to pull the paper strips through two straight fingers to "squeegee" the excess liquid.

At least five layers (probably 6-7 large bottles of starch) later, we were ready to paint the surface with black latex.  Students used chalk to draw the designs on their animal on the dry underpainting. Then the poles came to life as colors were added. We stayed with the primary colors plus white and brown to keep it traditional and visually unified.
It was well worth the two weeks to turn reusable "trash" into large collaborate art pieces, which will last for years.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Ceramic Totem Poles (Part 2)

Totem poles are not idols nor objects to ward off evil spirits. They are stories told with symbols. They may honor a family, commemorate a life, or,  they are may be used to shame someone (say a CEO or ambassador) for wrong doing.  The poles are carved from tall cedar trees from the Oregon and Washington all the way through British Columbia to Alaska.

To read a totem pole, one must know the meaning behind each animal.  A wolf is a symbol of loyalty and intelligence, a frog represents wealth and good health. Salmon symbolize determination and perseverance. Killer whales are powerful and can offer food and help to tribe leaders. An owl is wise and may symbolize a deceased family member. A bear is strong and was believed to teach people how to fish and gather berries.

My high school students used slabs of clay to wrap around cardboard rolls and create their own totem poles. I encouraged a lot wiggle room for the shrinkage that comes from drying, so the tube could be removed. After a bisque firing, they each glazed their animals.  For the students who did every animal separately, we hot glued the pieces together afterwards, and it seemed to work pretty well. (Time will tell how long it will hold).  These ended up being a little over a foot in height, which was about twice as tall as the mini poles that the younger students made. We were so excited to pull them out of the kiln yesterday it was fun to see them standing side by side.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

mini totem poles

 November became the month of the totem pole in my art room. Thanksgiving doesn't have much to do with the indigenous people of North-Western U.S., but it is a nice time to remember that there were people living in this country before Europeans settled here. Plus it's an important part of the 3rd grade school social studies curriculum.

We discussed the purposes and types of totem poles and the people who made/make them. Then each elementary school student made his or her own, by making small animals and shapes and poking a pencil through them.  Dick Blick has a lesson plan with air dry clay and dowels which I'm sure would have worked better, but we had a lot of regular clay and so that's what we used. The problem is to remember that clay shrinks and when the hole shrinks it will be nearly impossible to get it off your dowel or pencil before firing in the kiln. So we removed the pieces before they hardened (after having let a few dry and breaking them off), but then it was a matter of finding a small enough dowel to stack them on after the kiln firing.  It was a pain trying to get each student their own pieces (hundreds of tiny animals in the kiln), but it helped that there was a name on each one and that I took a picture of each finished pole before disassembling it for the drying and firing. Again, the air dry clay on dowels would have been much easier, but I think they still learned what I'd hoped they would learn, and the products turned out to be pretty cute.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sock Puppets

Sometimes, as teachers and parents, we are so busy searching for new ideas to keep our kids engaged that we forget the old standbys, like making sock puppets.

For our sock puppet project, each student created a character, complete with gender, age, name, and personality traits. They chose from stacks of felt, feathers, plastic eyes, foam shapes, pompoms, and pipe cleaners to make the face and hair of their character. I stood by with a hot glue gun awaiting their orders on what to glue where.

Then they wrote short skits with a dialogue between two characters, which they later performed for the class. We made a quick theater by cutting a hole in a cardboard box and taping fabric to the top of the hole. My classroom became a safe place for students to be silly while learning about puppetry arts, character development, dialogue and script writing. Play is the work of childhood after all.