The Polar Express

Here are some ways to include "The Polar Express" into your holiday curriculum

By Greg Harrison


polar express

"The Polar Express" has become a holiday classic. The book, written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg, became a Caldecott Medal Winner soon after it was published. After the movie version came out, this beautiful tale achieved even higher status in our culture. The book is a feast for the eyes and the imagination, and the story has many wonderful themes that run through it. The themes include kindness, tolerance, friendship, determination, and acceptance of those who are different or less fortunate than ourselves.

In recent years, some schools have decided not to celebrate various holidays, such as Christmas. This is a shame, because holiday celebrations provide an excellent opportunity to learn more about each other, and to embrace the amazing variety of cultural and religious traditions that we come from. It is my sincere hope that you can find a way to include this wonderful story somewhere in your curriculum in the days that lead up to the holiday recess. Here are some ideas for ways to include "The Polar Express" in your teaching. 

It all started with the book, so let's begin there. For younger students, you can invite them and members of their family to come to school dressed in their pajamas (like the characters in the book.) You should be in your pajamas/bathrobe too! Sit together in the reading circle section of the class and read the book to them. Include some guided questions as you progress through the story, making sure that the children understand what is taking place. Some examples: "Why do you think the boy's friend doesn't believe in Santa Claus?," or, "Why did the boy choose the bell when he could have asked for anything at all?" Be sure to have a silver bell that you can ring for the students when you finish reading the story. Can they hear it ring? Do they believe? After the reading, have a hot cocoa party, then invite your students to bring in something from home that holds special, or magical meaning for them to share on another day.

For upper elementary students, "The Polar Express" offers an excellent opportunity for them to identify how the use of simile and metaphor add such vivid imagery to writing. There are many examples in the book in which Van Allsburg uses these techniques with great success. For example, he describes the hot chocolate as "Hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars." When describing how the train is traveling, he writes "The train cars were rolling over peaks and valleys like a car on a roller coaster." There are many examples of simile and metaphor in the book. I would suggest that you read the story to your students, and ask your students to raise their hands every time they hear an example of simile or metaphor being used. After the story, have your students write a short story from the perspective of being in a dream. Have them describe a journey of their own - what method of transportation they are taking, the landscape they travel through to get there, and what place they arrive in - using simile and metaphor whenever they can. Students can share their stories at the end of the session, or the next day.

These are just two of many ways to incorporate "The Polar Express" in your teaching. I haven't even begun to get into exploring the themes in the book, studying trains and the railroad system in our country, or creating artwork in the Van Allsburg style. Below, you will find some excellent lesson plans that will give you ideas on the many ways you can utilize "The Polar Express." And don't forget . . . the "grand finale" of this all is to select a day when you and your class can close the curtains, turn off the lights, and enjoy the movie version of "The Polar Express" together. These will be experiences in school that your students will never forget.

The Polar Express Lesson Plans:

The Polar Express:

This wonderful, and simple lesson is designed for very young students. They take an imaginary train ride while you read them "The Polar Express." Seats are arranged as they would be in a train car, and each student has a ticket to "get on board" and find their seat on the train. You are dressed as an engineer, have a train whistle, and enough bells to pass out to the children after the story is read. Delightful!

The Equator and The Poles:

This terrific lesson is geared toward middle-elementary students, and is an excellent example of how to weave different curricular areas around a piece of literature. Students become familiar with important places on the globe, practice identifying key geographic vocabulary, and construct their own globes. All of this is done after students listen to you read "The Polar Express."

Happy Holidays:

This ambitious lesson is geared toward middle school students! After listening to "The Polar Express," and discussing how the story is constructed, students are put into a cooperative group setting. Each group composes an original story about a winter holiday of their choice. They could write about Hannukah, Kwanza, Christmas . . . it's their group's choice. Each member of the group contributes a portion of the story, or an illustration. This is a great example of how incorporating the holidays into your teaching can be a rewarding learning experience for everyone.

Christmas Around the World:

This is a FABULOUS three-week unit of study that can be used in many grade levels. The emphasis here is on weaving technology into your teaching, having the students produce excellent pieces of writing, and being exposed to fantastic literature from around the world. Check out this unit! You will find a cornucopia (I love that word!) of terrific ideas.