The Long Winter: 18—"Merry Christmas" and 19—"Where There's a Will"

Teacher's Guide Author: Marilyn Cherry, 5th Grade, John F. Mendoza Elementary School,Clark County School District.


This teachers' guide is one of a series including activities for all chapters of The Long Winter. Additional teacher's guides are available for other Little House books as well as other books addressing the topic of U.S. westward migration.


Chapter Overviews: Chapter 18, Merry Christmas, and Chapter 19, Where There's A Will, tell the story of the cold, snowy Christmas the Ingalls family experienced. Pa hadn't had any work for a long time, so there was no money for festive food or presents. The little house was cold, but the price of coal was so high, Pa couldn't afford to buy any. But, with Laura's help, he found a way to bring warmth into the cabin. Although the much anticipated train did not get through with its promise of a Christmas barrel from friends, the family prevailed. Laura made sure everyone had a present, and Pa bought the last two cans of oysters for oyster soup. Ma, reading stories by a makeshift candle, and oyster soup made for a very enjoyable Christmas day.

Chapters' Themes: Perseverance, Courage, Flexibility, Family Values, Survival

Suggested Activities

  • Language Arts
    • [Creative Writing]
      • The Ingalls family saved their newspapers to read on Christmas day. During that time and place, reading was the biggest form of entertainment, especially in winter. Choose a topic of your own, and write a two-page story that you would have like to have read to your family on a cold and snowy Christmas. Focus on voice and make sure you use figurative language (simile, metaphor). For extra credit, draw a scene from your story. Make sure your story include the narrative elements. Use a tree map to organize these elements.
    • You may shorten this assignment for ELL students or those students who are having difficulties with the narrative elements. Provide a dictionary and thesaurus.
      • Standards Addressed
        • CEF(5)5.2: Write multiple paragraph, narrative/descriptive papers appropriate to audience and purpose with a logical sequence, characters, setting, plot, dialogue, figurative language and sensory details.
        • CEF(5)5.4: Edit for correct use of mechanics (punctuation, spelling, capitalization, word usage)
        • CEF(5)5.7: Prepare a legible final draft to display or show.
    • [Character Analysis]
      • Laura made sure that everyone had a present on Christmas morning. She had gotten upset because she didn't want to wait until Christmas to read the newspapers, but she decided it would be best because there would be something to look forward to. After reading Chapters 18 and 19, use a Bubble Map to describe Laura's character traits. Remember to use only adjectives. In your Reading Response journal write a paragraph of your description. If her character changed, how did it change? When your paragraph is complete, have a peer edit it for you. Post a Bubble Map and have students draw their own. If they draw it, they will own it. You may provide some students with an applicable list of adjectives, if needed. Computer Lab - During your computer time, have students follow the link to ReadWriteThink. There they will be able to make their own character trading card.
      • Standards Addressed
        • CEF(5) Write responses to literary text that demonstrates an understanding of character development, motivation and plot, summarize literary information.
        • CEF(5)5.1 Use pre-writing strategies to plan written work.
  • Mathematics
    • [Problem Solving Strategies]
      • Laura made hay sticks with Pa to warm the little house during the blizzard. Houses had coal burning stoves, but there was no coal available. (a) if it took 10 hay stalks to make a hay stick, how many hay stalks would be needed to make 5 hay sticks? Solve, and then show your answer in exponential form. (b) If Laura made 5 hay sticks every 15 minutes, how many did she make in 2 hours with 2-15 minute intervals to get warm? Some students may use manipulatives and Judy clocks to help with solving their problems. Have these students work in pairs or with a peer tutor. Enrichment: Have students write an algebraic expression for each problem. Students should remember to use a number, operation and variable. When complete ask a peer to solve.
      • Standards Addressed
        • CEF(5) 2.4 Solve equations with whole numbers, using a variety of methods, including inverse operations, mental math, and guess and check [NS/PS 2.5.2]
        • CEF(5)3.8 - Determine equivalent periods of time, including relationships between and among seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years. [NS/PS 3.5.6]
    • [Measurement Conversion]
      • The train could not get through the Tracy cut on Christmas day because of the snow on the tracks. The train was the main transportation used for getting supplies to the settlers. The snow on the tracks was as tall as the snow drifts on the side of the tracks. If the snow drifts were 75 inches tall, how tall (in feet) was the snow on the tracks? Allow some students to use a customary measurement conversion chart.
      • Standards Addressed
        • (CEF(5) 3.1-compare and convert length/height to the closest fractional part (1/4 and 1/2) of inches, feet, yards and miles.
        • NS3.5.1. - Convert unit of measurement within the same measurement system(customary and metric)
  • Social Studies
    • [Pioneer Inventions]
      • Pa thought the times were too progressive. He said that railroads, telegraphs, and kerosene and coal burning stoves were good things - but folks were too dependent on these things. What do you think he means? Is there anything in today's society that you think we are too dependent upon? Tell us why you think so. Use a circle map to brainstorm your ideas. Some students may not be familiar with telegraphs and kerosene and coal burning stoves. Have a class discussion and show pictures of these items.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [[NS 7.0]1860-1920 - Students understand the importance of political, economic, and social ideas.
        • [NS 10.0) New Challenges; 1999 - Present - Students understand the political, economic, social and technological issues challenging the world.
    • [Compare/Contrast)
      • During The Long Winter, the town' people depended on the train to get the things they needed. Before the train, a more rugged form of transportation carried goods from state to state - The Conestoga Wagon. Using an encyclopedia or the Internet research the history of the wagon and the role it played in American history. Use a Double Bubble map to compare/contrast these two forms of transportation. Be prepared to present your findings to the class. You may include posters in your presentation. Some students may prefer to work in groups; some in pairs.
      • Standards Addressed
        • CEF(4)4.4 - Organize history information from a variety of sources.
        • CEF(5)4.1 - Use technologies as an educational tool in all content all content areas,
        • CEF(5) 8.5.3-Use public speaking to deliver presentations, communicate information by maintaining a clear focus, following s logical sequence and illustrating information.
  • Science
    • [Tracking The Weather]
      • When the blizzard came, the little house was alone again. The town was hidden by the blowing snow. There was no form of communication like we have now (phone, cell phone). What is a Blizzard? Are there other names for the same type of storms found in other parts of the country? If so, what are they? What conditions have to be in place for a blizzard to occur? In your science notebook, draw and label the water cycle and tell how it relates to changes in the weather. Before this activity,you may need to review or introduce the water cycle. To help, find some pictures depicting different anomalies of weather.
      • Standards Addressed
        • E.5.A.4 - Describe various meteorological phenomena (flooding, snowstorms, thunderstorms and drought)
        • CEF(5)1.1-Use evidence recorded in a science notebook to develop descriptions, models, explanations and predictions [N5.A1)
    • [Plant/Animal Adaptions]
      • Research the kinds of pants and animals that live on the prairie. Choose one plant and one animal. Describe the adaptions ( if any) your plant and animal would have to make in order to survive when their ecosystem changes.
      • Standards Addressed
        • CEF(5) Investigate and describe how plants and animals have adaptions allowing them to survive in specific ecosystems. [L5C5; L5C3]
        • CEF(5) Investigate and describe how environmental changes allow some plant and animals to survive and reproduce, but others die [L5C5], L5C3]

Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

Weather on the Prairie:

The settlers who moved west during the expansion period faced back-breaking work to settle their land. They did not know that one of their biggest enemies would be the harsh weather conditions on the prairie, and that they would constantly have to fight weather to survive.


The winters were long and harsh. Settlers write that at times they had to burrow into the ground like prairie dogs just to keep warm. Settlers had to wear snow shoes, if they had them, just to get around their little farms. They could not get into town, if one was nearby, because wagons got stuck in the snow. During the winter of 1886, horses and cattle died when their breath froze over the ends of their noses, making it impossible for them to breathe. It was hard to find food during the winter blizzards, and because it was almost impossible for trains and wagons to get through the storm, settlers had to prepare for the winter by stocking up on food and supplies. Even with the best preparation, some settlers did not make it through the harsh winter. The little houses were drafty against the howling wind and snow; settlers would sometimes use mud to fill in cracks. Some families would move into town if they could.


The summers were just as harsh. At times, the ground temperature would reach 120 degrees. The heat would cause droughts. Droughts destroyed crops and dried up water supplies. When water dried up, sometimes settlers had to travel a long way to haul water for themselves and their animals. Before 1930, the US government did not have a drought plan, and help was not available to those drought-stricken settlers. But because droughts happened so frequently, that had to change. But at the time, those settlers experiencing a drought had to depend on their neighbors, who were in the same shape, while hoping for rain.


When the rains did come, it sometimes rained too long. Then it caused flooding. Crops were buried under water, and animals drowned. The rain also moved the earth. Dirt became mud - Landslides! The mud also buried crops. Both of these conditions caused settlers hardships. No crops, often meant starvation.

Prairie Fires

The hot summer also caused prairie fires. The hot temperatures caused the grass to dry out. Dry grass was fodder to these fires. They mostly came in autumn when the winds began to blow. The wind could blow relentless so the fires moved very quickly. If the settlers did not get out in time, they could lose their lives. Many lost their homes and animals to these fires. Some settlers climbed into their wells to escape a moving prairie fire. After these fires had swept through a prairie, there nothing left.

Despite these hardships, most of these pioneers remained on their land. Vowing to survive, they continued to settle the west

Additional Resources


Note: This teacher's guide was developed as part of one of the Clark County School District's Teaching American History grants. In this grant module, teachers focused on using children's historical literature to teach cross-curricular concepts relating to 19th century westward movement. For more information about this blog, related teacher's guides, or the grant module, please contact Dr. Christy Keeler.


Diana Cohen said...

I like the use of a bubble map to describe Laura's character traits. By drawing it themselves they do take on ownership of the assignment.
I also liked the idea of describing to the students the things that Pa thought were too progressive. Students today have no idea how tough it was back then just to keep a house warm. By showing them images and maybe providing them with opportunities to talk to a grandparent, they can see how times are different today.

Christy G. Keeler, Ph.D. said...

I really like that you have students consider Pa's frustrations with inventions with student thoughts about current inventions. I'm not sure, though, how you will make a bubble map of the childrens' brainstorming pursuits. Wouldn't a simple brainstormed list be a better format? If not, why not? Also, it may be helpful to prompt students with ideas of possible inventions that complicate our lives. You could have a lively discussion by playing the "devil's advocate" suggesting the Internet is too progressive and makes us dependent. Another good example would be cell phones. Be careful, though to not prejudice students against less progressive attitudes. Bringing in "On Golden Pond" by Thoreau ( would be a good way to counter-balance the argument.

Your "Compare/Contrast" activity may be too tangential for the book study. Instead of detailed research on Conestoga Wagons, have students engage in this activity when studying westward migration. Then, you could use Venn diagrams to compare and contrast trains and COnestoga wagons during a single lesson.

I really like your "Measurement Conversion" activity. It would be nice to have students see how tall 75" really is as a follow-up activity. They could make measurements on the classroom wall to show how high the snow actually was.