Third-graders at Oakhurst Elementary School have been on their own kind of real-life "Magic School Bus" voyage of discovery around the globe for the past four weeks.
Equipped with handmade passports stamped with stickers and decorated travel briefcases made of paper, third graders in Jeannie Harsha's class have been utilizing their very own imaginary class airplane (and sometimes, a special "super sonic transport," says one student, for stragglers who may have missed the plane) to learn about Christmas and holiday traditions around the world.
Oakhurst Elementary's third graders have already toured the streets of Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Israel, Sweden, France and Mexico without ever leaving Room 901.
"We have books about each country and we study their traditions and we talk about their culture and their land as well, along with how they celebrate Christmas," Harsha said. "And it's funny, I'll show my class a picture of a kid from Italy and it's like, 'Wow, they look just like us!' It's like they expected them to be aliens."
Harsha got the idea to start teaching Christmas and holiday traditions around the world five years ago, when she realized many of her students knew very little about geography.
"They didn't know where things were around the world," Harsha said. "I really think with all the (state education) standards, we focus so much on math and language arts, so we are trying to incorporate geography and science with the other subjects so they don't get left out."
Oakhurst Elementary third grade teachers Megan Chisum and Jeannine Heitman also liked Harsha's "Christmas Around the World" idea, and started doing it with their classes too.
"It broadens the horizon on what's going on in the world," Chisum said. "Some students don't even realize Mexico is a different country."
The Christmas learning includes guest visits from speakers to help teach about each country, craft and cooking projects, reading, foreign language, geography lessons and class discussions.
"It's been really fun for them because they find out things like we get our Christmas tree idea from Germany and tiramisu is from Italy," Harsha said. "It's great for them to see that America is a melting pot or tossed salad where we have a blending of different traditions."
One mother helped with the Sweden unit by dressing up as St. Lucia and handing out sweet buns from a basket to celebrate.
"We've been meeting people from around the world and I think it's really neat to meet people from around other places in the world," said 9-year-old Jacoby. "They come and tell about what they do in that place."
The Sweden lesson also included learning about one of their beloved Christmas traditions -- leaving a present for a magical "Farm Elf" who does children's farm chores for them on Christmas if they leave him a present, attached with a riddle about what the gift is.
"It's fun to learn how they talk and what they do," said 8-year-old Alexis Reeve. "I think it's important because maybe, when we grow up, we'll know the language and what to say and what to do."
"It definitely enriches their understanding of Christmas because they realize where we get our traditions -- they are actually from somewhere else. People immigrating here have brought their traditions," Harsha said. "The children learn where places are in the world and have respect for the way other people celebrate, and develop an understanding of how they celebrate. For example in Germany, the children put out shoes instead of stockings. It just makes Christmas richer for them also, and then they learn where some of the food that we love comes from."
For the France trip on Tuesday, students made croissants in class, filled with melted chocolate.
This week, Harsha's class is working on a Christmas play in honor of how people celebrate in Mexico. The play is called "Las Posadas" and is about how Mary and Joseph sought shelter to bring baby Jesus into the world.
"You get to learn different languages and their traditions for Christmas," said 8-year-old Paige Ferbche. "I also like doing it because when we start, it feels like we are flying. It's fun and it's interesting to learn new languages and new traditions."
Learning different languages and traditions also helps us be better friends, some students said.
"Last year, I learned a little Spanish from my best friend Citlali and she learned a little English," said 8-year-old Emma Fries.
On a Israel trip, Harsha's class celebrated Hanukkah with a dreidel game and Menora candle burning.
Chisum said teaching about different Christmas traditions has been wonderful in showing children that "different" doesn't mean "weird."
"Everyone celebrates differently."
"As a teacher, my main focus at first was the geography lesson," Harsha said. "But moving along with it, to see my students understand more -- becoming more compassionate, understanding and tolerant of people that are different than them -- that's what it turned out to be, a lot more than just a geography lesson."