The Long Winter: 32—"The Christmas Barrel" and 33—"Christmas in May"

Teacher's Guide Author: Madeline Hughes, fifth grade teacher, E.W. Staton 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: [The Christmas Barrel and Christmas in May are a wonderful concluding chapters depicting hard work, determination, and gratefulness as one family moves through the obstacles of pioneer life. After the Ingalls's family endures a horrid 7 months of blistering winter effects, they receive a barrel or a package of Christmas cheer from family and friends in Minnesota. They can hardly believe that the Christmas barrel arrived in tact since it was originally to be received by December. They were just beginning to thaw themselves out from a winter that brought hunger and feelings of desperation from the town. However, everyone pulled together with hard work, generosity, and the spirit of life. The Christmas barrel capped off their trials and tribulations by rewarding them with untold gifts that they never expected, yet were so thankful to received.

After receiving the Christmas barrel some 5 months later, they opened it and to their amazement found wonderful gifts for their family. The Ingalls's family along hadn't seen meat, dried fruits, flour, sugar , and a turkey for some time. They had been grinding oats to make a simple bread for months. Their fortitude and a family's ingenuity proved to be the best gifts that they good give to each other. They gathered around with family and friends to celebrate Christmas in May based on the generous donations of others.

Chapters' Themes: [ingenuity, survival, determination, hard work, joy ]
Suggested Activities

  • Language Arts
    • [Sketch to Stretch]
      • Read a chapter or excerpt to the students. They can not look upon the text in the story. Students then sketch how the scene appears to them visually. View all sketches with the class and hold a discussion on what each student was able to pull from prior knowledge, connections, and inferencing to build comprehension.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [N S 2.5.2 The use of reading strategies to make inferences, identify main idea, and supporting details]
        • [N S 2.5.3 The use of making connections, organizing information, and draw conclusion from inferencing]
    • [Plot Structure Flip Chart with 8 Foldable flip sections ]
      • Students will make a flip chart with 8 sections. Each student will take 4 white sheets of paper. One sheet is place down flat and the next one is laid on top of that sheet but 1 inch off from the tip of the first sheet. Each sheet thereafter is laid 1 inch lower from the next. After you have laid out 4 white sheets, you pick them up and fold them over. You will then turn it around to see that you have 8 flip sections. Place one staple at the ends in middle crease to secure the flip chart. The labels of the flaps include: characters, setting, main problem, sequence of events (rising action), climax/and or turning point, falling action, and resolution. Students will then fill in each flap with information and pictures.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [PS/NS 3.5.1 Students learn the "how-to" of the author's plot structure and literary devices to build text.]
        • [NS 3.5.1 Students will describe physical and personality traits, character actions, motivations to identify elements of plot development]
  • Mathematics
    • [Measuring Area and Perimeter Partner Game]
      • Students measure the area and perimeter of several items found in their classroom/school that might be found in the classroom or Ingalls's house. Students pair up and make a list of items that might be found in a home similar to the Ingalls's. They develop questions and the answers as to what the perimeter and area are of each item. They can also exclude the name of the item and list only a description and one type of measurement as a clue. After they have finished, they switch with another group and work on their area and perimeter problems. This gets the kids up and provides an active learning environment even if they are stuck inside like the Ingall's who missed much of their schooling that winter.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [1.5.8 Generate ans solve addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems using whole numbers and decimals in practical situations.]
        • [3.5.0 Describe and determine the perimeter and area of polygons]
    • [Plotting Temperature Using Integers]
      • Students will chart temperatures of given areas using the newspaper, news programs, or the Internet. Each student will pick a city both in the northern and southern hemisphere where temperatures can either be negative or positive,then plot their temperatures. After the chart the daily temperature, they will also make another chart showing the difference between daily temperatures. Overlapping choices of cities are allowed. The will be given chart paper and will have one full week to complete the project. They can use Fahrenheit degrees or Celsius degrees. They must cite their source for each day's temperature.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [1.5.3 Read, write, compare, and order integers in mathematical and practical situations]
        • [1.5.7 Use of basic addition, subtraction with speed and accuracy in computation and problem solving]
  • Social Studies
    • [Research the Geography of North Dakota Including Physical, Political, Population and Climate Maps in the from 1850's to 1900's. ]
      • Students will work in small groups. Each group will be given an information book regarding North Dakota, use of appropriate Internet student sites. Students can present their information via power point, large butcher paper, TV news program, or travel brochure. They must present to the class and be given at least 4 classroom periods to complete the project. They will be graded on a rubric discussed with class in areas including: group participation, accuracy information found on all four areas, neatness, color, and organization.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [N S 2.3.1 Use of charts, graphs, and tables to interpret historical information]
        • [4.7 recognize the ongoing nature of history (e.g. migration, human settlement, demographic]
    • [May Christmas Barrels]
      • Students will discuss and research the relevance of donations to those who are less fortunate as part of their civic and community responsibility. Students will be in groups at the beginning of April. Their main goals are: pick a local organization that helps out the community, write a an action plan of how to fill their container with necessary items, fill the containers, and drop them off in May to their chosen local organization.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [(5) 1.22 Demonstrate concern and respect for the rights of self and others
        • [(5) 2.29 Describe the advantages and disadvantages or a specific occupation]
  • Science
    • [Melting of Snow/Ice Using the Scientific Method]
      • Students are put into groups of 4-5. Each group receives a quantity of ice or snow depending on your climate/season. Groups will review the scientific method and hypothesize, observe, analyze, etc. and chart the melting of ice. Each group will receive several different containers (sand pail, Tupperware, or other] and use of a scale. They will first weigh their ice/snow. They will next determine the following: How long it will take for it to turn into water?, How much water will they get after melting? How long will it take for the water to transform back into a solid? Will they have the same weight as a solid the second time as they had in the beginning. Students can also position their ice by different locations within the classroom if they think that they ice will melt faster in that location. There location must be in their hypothesis.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [P.5.A.3 Classify materials by their observable physical and chemical properties (density and solubility)]
        • [N.5.A.1-7. Use evidence for models, compare results of student investigations, draw conclusions, make predictions, use models, and make observations to determine f and investigations is a fair test.]
    • [Compare and Contrast One Day's Caloric Intake of Food ]
      • Students will individually journal what they have eaten on an average day and find their nutritional/caloric intake. Second, they will do the same for one of the day experienced by the Ingalls's in the book. They will place the information in a double bubble map and then write one paragraph regarding the negatives and positives of diets then and now.
      • Standards Addressed
        • [L.5.C.3 Describe how some environmental conditions are more favorable that others to living things.

        • Historical Overview of Chapter Themes

During the period where the US government was looking to obtain lands in the west controlled by Spain, it was in their best interest to promote the ownership of land out west, so that they could have more clout and generate a way of providing the U.S. with an income (taxes). The land was open to anyone who could gather the necessary funding and a move their families out west. This was an equal opportunity offer, so many families who were poor or those who wanted more space packed up their family and joined a wagon train moving west.

The trip was long and rugged if you went all the way to California. Some pioneers settled in the plains instead of moving so far west. If you made it and had some ingenuity, you could make a successful living. Hard work, determination, and a strong sense of survival were the main themes that grew out of the west to what it is today. Families endure harsh winters, destruction to crops, disease, loneliness, and economic hardships before they could see a return on their initial investment. Families pulled together and shared what they had in order to survive. Creative thinking and a healthy dose of self-sufficiency proved to alleviate some of the hardships including: energy resources, food preparation, activities for the kids, and gift giving. Pioneers used every possible resources they could obtain to endure such hardships for land ownership.

Hard work and determination also resonated with single or widowed individuals. As many men went out west in search of gold and silver, many women followed suit. They saw their fortunes in sewing, boarding houses, school teachers and many other professions. You can hear a audio regarding Women in Mining Towns given by Dr. DeAnna Beachley on visiting iTunes podcast: "Exploring American and Children's Literature."

Additional Resources

  • Scher, L. (2006) Pioneers. Kids Discover Magazine : This book provides historical examples of the determination of pioneers through many hardships including weather, starvation, and everyday life on the American western frontier.
  • Joy, M. (2003). American Expansionism, 1783-1860. Pearson/Longman New York, NY.
  • Turner, A. (1985). Dakota dugout. Aladdin Paperbacks: A brief personal account of life in a dugout, farming the land, loneliness, and economic issues as they pertained to surviving the great plains.
  • Kamma, A (2003). If You Were a Pioneer on the Prairie. Scholastic: New York, NY.: A complete description of life on the plains for both adults and children and the movement westward general from 1835-1900
  • [ ] : This is a fun site for kids to research information of the west from trappers, pioneers, gold rush, and famous historical figures of that time period.


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.


ahm said...

I was delighted to see the May Christmas Barrels Activity. Students need to realize that they can be part of the solution of the problems of the world. Having them give to others is such a wonderful idea and it ties so well into the story. I plan to use many of your activities when I use this book. Thank you for all of your hard work and willingness to share!

Lisa Martin said...

I really loved your ideas for lessons using this book. The Plot Structure Flip Chart is an excellent way for children to organize the narrative elements of the story. By providing pictures as well it helps to create a clear visual to support student's recall of important details. It also provides an excellent assessment of their comprehension of the story.

As an extension activity in social studies for your 'Compare and Contrast' activity the students might also compare and contrast the daily physical activity of Laura & Mary Ingalls with their own. I think such a comparison would be extremely revealing!! This also lends itself to comparing/contrasting clothing, home life,and schooling.

The Sketch to Stretch activity could be extended by showing the students photographic images of pioneer life and having the students create short stories or captions for each image. This would allow them to use their prior and learned knowledge to create a realistic fictional story/caption.

annecrumm said...

What great ideas! I especially liked the compare and contrast of the daily caloric intake. It would be great to extend this lesson and calculate the energy use of the Ingalls children doing chores etc. versus the average child today.

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

"Sketch to Stretch" is a great activity for differentiation. Many of your tactile learners will excel in this exercise even if they tend to have trouble with writing assignments addressing comprehension questions.

Your "Measuring the Perimeter Partner Game" sounds like lots of fun. You are having students practice what could be a mundane skill in a way that makes them want to practice the skill. I especially like the second part of the activity when students have to determine the objects the previous groups measured. I recommend you also use tape to plot the size of the Ingalls' home. You could determine the square footage per person and then compare this square footage to average home size in the United States and other countries such as Russia.

Would you please add the recommended websites for the North Dakota geography activity? Also, how will you share these websites with students? Social bookmarking (e.g., A school-bsed website (e.g.,

I lve service learning! Perhaps you could provide students a little more leeway on choosing their project using the Christmas barrels as an example. You could then use the Project Citizen ( curriculum and have your students compete in the local Project Citizen contest. I also really like Target and the Tiger Woods Foundation's "Start Something," renamed "Tiger's Action Plan," curriculum (