Winter Celebrations!

Human beings love to celebrate–in fact, it’s critical to our well-being and good for our brains. From the very beginning of civilization, we humans have found cause to celebrate around the time of the winter solstice. Indeed, between the end of October/beginning of November, all the way through the end of January (in the northern hemisphere; June-July in the southern hemisphere), there is a high concentration of celebrations, holidays and religious observations from most of the world’s religions and cultures.  Many of these involve families, friends and communities coming together around food, light, and love. We’ve generally heard of some big ones, like Christmas and Hanukkah–what other celebrations are observed around the world?


Muhammad’s Birthday, or Eid Milad ul-Nabiis celebrated by many Muslims.  Because the Islamic calendar is lunar and days are measured from sunset to sunset, dates vary from year to year. In 2015, the Prophet’s Birthday was celebrated on January 3rd, and in 2016 it will fall on December 12th. Observances of this holiday range from quiet meditation and prayer to exuberant parades and parties. Some Muslims choose not to celebrate this holiday at all, and in some countries it’s a national holiday.


Kwanzaa was established in 1966 by Dr. Maulana Karenga, a professor at California State University.  It has roots “…in the first harvest celebrations of Africa from which it takes its name. The name Kwanzaa is derived from the phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’ which means ‘first fruits’ in Swahili, a Pan-African language which is the most widely spoken African language.” Kwanzaa is a cultural holiday celebrated by African-Americans and Africans worldwide from December 26th through January 1st, and often involves family gatherings, home-made food, and meaningful gift exchanges. It was created to reinforce and celebrate the traditional African values of:  Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).


Soyal (or Soyalangwul) is a major winter solstice celebration and feast observed by the Native American Hopi and Zuni people of the Southwest. It starts on the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, which is usually between December 20th-22nd, and is marked by nine days of kiva rituals, communal meals, dances, and festivities. A major aspect of Soyal is the return of the Katsinam, or Kachinas, who “…remain with the people for the first half of the Wheel of the Year until the summer solstice, when they return to their home in the mountains. The kachinas are benevolent anthropomorphic beings, who can be male or female, and represent a host of animals, plants and natural phenomena. They are greatly celebrated and revered and their presence is associated with rain, crops and healing the sick.” In some traditions, the Kachinas arrive with gifts for the children in the community.


Omisoka is the Japanese New Year celebration.  It is observed starting on December 31st with thorough house cleaning and cooking traditional foods, followed by 3 days of resting and welcoming the brand new year. Families and friends gather to clean, eat and party together, usually enjoying soba buckwheat noodles to represent longevity and decorated mochi rice cakes for luck.  As midnight approaches on December 31st, Buddhist temples begin to ring their large brass bells 108 times.  According to Shinto tradition, each ring of the bell purifies the soul of one of the 108 worldly desires that humans must overcome to reach enlightenment.  During Omisoka, Japanese people literally ring in the new year!


Yule is an ancient winter solstice celebration with origins in northern Europe, and still celebrated by many people all over the world. The word “yule” translates from Celtic languages to mean “wheel,” and the observance of Yule celebrates the cycle of the sun and the seasons.  It traditionally involves lighting candles to represent the return of the sun, adorning evergreen trees, putting up red, green and gold decorations in the home, exchanging gifts among family members, and feasting on turkey or pork.  Special songs are often sung during the Yuletide, and a Yule log is ceremonially burned to welcome the sun back to the northern hemisphere.

Intrigued by these global holidays and observances? AISD students Claudia Durand, Natalie Bennett, and Lily Harris of Austin High created a special Google Slides presentation about diverse winter holidays as a Anti-Defamation League No Place for Hate activity!  Check out even more information about worldwide celebrations (Bodhi Day! Boxing Day!), and share with your students and/or family! May your winter days be merry and bright!


Brain Break Wednesday- Change of State

Another term for a ‘Brain Break’ is a ‘Change of State.’ When you and/or your students are in a state where it is hard to learn such as bored, tired or disengaged; you can help them change their state to one of excitement, curiosity or intrigue!  You can change someone’s state with a new activity, a new environment, music, media, movement, etc..

A brain break is often a quick and easy way to get your students in a ‘ready to learn’ state! This brain break is integrated with the science concept of ‘changing states.’

  • Change of State! Ask your students stand up and move around the room as  water vapor or steam (gaseous state).
  • Change of State! Now tell you students to move around the room as water (liquid state).
  • Change of State! Tell you students to move around the room as if they are ice (solid state).

How could you adapt this for different ages? What other variations can you think of for this brain break? How can you tell when your students need a change of state?

Brain Break Wednesday – Activity Sticks!

Happy Wednesday!

This brain break idea was originally posted on the Austin ISD’s new Brain Break Pinterest Board.

The idea comes from the Keep Calm and Teach On blog. This teacher put quick activities, like jumping jacks and push ups, on popsicle sticks that she can pull from when her students need a movement brain break.

What a simple and effective resource to create! Read more about this idea in her original post.

You can also get a free download of this resource on her Teachers Pay Teachers site.

Have you used this idea before? What did you think?

A Compassionate Educator

As we begin to feel the pressures of the upcoming tests ahead, let us be reminded of this tip from our series:

“The emotional center of the brain is so powerful that negative emotions such as hostility, anger, fear and anxiety automatically downshift the brain to basic survival thinking.

Imagine the impact on student learning in an environment dominated by academic or social pressures, threats of punishment, or peer hostility.

In such an environment, the reasoning center of the brain shuts down and students automatically prepare to flee, fight, or freeze in our tracks. The brain is so thoroughly preoccupied with survival needs that students are literally unavailable for the complex activities of the mind that learning requires. Their curiosity, wonder, and ability to focus are usurped by a state of heightened vigilance and an immediate need for protection and security.

Look for instances of this happening in yourself and your students. Ask what you can do to enhance emotional safety in your learning environment.”

Survival Mode Brain

The Committee for Children uses a simple pie graph to illustrate the three ways educators can create a positive classroom environment:

Positive Classroom Climate