Friday, January 10, 2020

It's Possible to Have an Entire Nutcracker-Themed Homeschool Semester (Ask Me How I Know This...)

Because #nutcrackerlife, amiright?

Seriously, all fall and into the winter, when the kid wasn't doing this--

--she was thinking about it.

How do you get a homeschooling kid to think about something that's not her right-this-minute passion?

Friends, you don't. Instead you just... lean into it. That's the phrase we're using these days for just giving into what you've gotta do instead of griping about it, right?

Fortunately, there are lots of ways to sneakily sneak real-world study skills, handwork, knowledge-building, and practical life activities into a kid's Nutcracker obsession, whether she's a tiny angel bringing light back into the world, a tin soldier hardened from a lifetime of fighting in the mouse wars, a deadly assassin/Baroque-costumed child of the Creature Known Only as Mother Ginger, or a young party guest/spy attending a Christmas party and low-key planning to steal a certain magical nutcracker that turns into a real person and controls an army of ensorceled children and fights giant mice for you.

First step: read the book:

It's plenty weird, and there's a LOT to talk about. There's a ton of plot that's completely different from any staging of the ballet that you've ever seen, so you can use it as a reference to compare to all of the further picture book and theatrical productions that you feel like watching.

Because you should read and watch as many different versions of the Nutcracker as your kid can stand! Syd has gotten progressively more interested in this as she's gotten older, and this year I swear we watched the first act and at least the overture and Mother Ginger scenes from the second act in every Nutcracker ballet available on YouTube--even the desperately amateur productions, bless their hearts. There are a lot of interesting aspects of how different productions are choreographed and staged, and once you've seen a few so that you've got a baseline of a typical Nutcracker production, the ones that have made atypical choices are really fun to find! Did you know that the Bolshoi Ballet casts an actual kid as the Nutcracker doll? There's also a production somewhere in which the mouse soldiers are small children, and some of them get killed during the battle, fall over dead onto their backs on stage, and are then dragged off stage by their fellow mice! It's BONKERS!!!

There's also a production in which the soldiers, including Fritz, LOSE THE BATTLE and are carted off stage in an actual cage. Later during the second act, when the Arabian dance begins, the dancing couple come on stage dragging Fritz by a chain that's attached to a collar around his neck! Because apparently the child soldiers who were captured were SOLD INTO SLAVERY?!?!?!?!?

See? Fascinating stuff!

I also really like these other retellings of the Nutcracker story or the Nutcracker ballet:

Most of those are picture books with beautiful art, and wonderful inspiration to draw your own  magical Nutcracker scenes--or perhaps create your own picture book/stop-motion film/shoebox diorama/puppet show/live reenactment?

There are also a ton of backstage, behind-the-scenes resources that can fascinate kids. Syd's absolute favorite ballet book is this one--

--about a kid cast as Clara in the NYC production of The Nutcracker. If your kid actually dances ballet, though, you do NOT want to feed her only on books about the kids who are cast as the lead roles, because only a couple of kids a year get those roles and it's already going to suck bad enough when it's not your kid. Therefore, MY favorite backstage Nutcracker book is this one:

It's about a kid who gets the lousiest part in the whole production, feels lousy about it forever, and then doubles-down into it and learns to find its magic. It's a far more realistic version of what it's like to dance in the Nutcracker, with a healthy, wholesome message.

That being said, it is really fun to watch backstage documentaries. Most do follow the kids cast as Clara, but documentaries often give a more well-rounded picture of the production, so they're not as focused on how great it is to get the great roles. Syd and I watch all of the Royal Ballet videos:

Boston has some crazy sets, so this one is fun!

Here's a video all about the Mouse King, who should obviously be everyone's favorite character!

We also liked this series focused on Nutcracker auditions:

It's related to a bunch of other audition and ballet school and rehearsal videos that Syd also likes. There are a lot of interesting Russian ballet behind-the-scenes videos!

So you've got the story to study, you've got the dance to study... and you've got the music! If you think that the Nutcracker is not playing constantly in our house from October through December, then you... well, you are wrong, because it is playing constantly in our house from October through December. Honestly, it's playing for a good portion of August and September, too, if you count audition prep.

Syd sometimes lets me jazz it up by playing Duke Ellington's version, instead:

Kid-friendly composer studies can actually be challenging to find, because most children's studies don't include classical music. Charlotte Mason DOES, fortunately, so there are some resources around. Here's a good template for a composer study, complete with lots of free handouts, that includes Tchaikovsky.

This video is also interesting, because it takes one song and shows you the main instrument playing at each moment:

This CD doesn't tell you a ton ABOUT Tchaikovsky, but it includes a lot of his music and it's really fun!

So now your kid has studied the story, the dance, the music... but what's the weirdest part of the Nutcracker?


Seriously, it's a ballet about a NUTCRACKER. My kid doesn't even like nuts, and yet she owns something like sixteen nutcrackers by now.

Mind you, none of them are functional, but there you go.

We like this How It's Made video about the traditional nutcracker form:

And this is an interesting video on the history of the nutcracker and how it all got wrapped up in Christmas, anyway:

And, of course, you know that this would not be a kid-friendly unit in MY homeschool if it did not include a very impractical video of something over-the-top. We are NOT going to be building this giant nutcracker that can crack coconuts for us:

Instead, here are some nutcracker crafts that you CAN build while watching ballet videos or listening to Tchaikovsky!

  • stenciled banner. I like the idea of a nutcracker banner as holiday decor, and I'm thinking that felt (which I have a ton of) would be just as nice of a penant material as the burlap that the tutorial calls for. You can find lots of nutcracker-related stencils online (I think one that featured a timeline of Syd's participation would be really cute!), but a good art project would be teaching the kids how to make stencils and then getting them to freehand some for this banner.
  • real nutcracker. We do not have the equipment for this, but if I can ever access it, this is going to be one of the first projects that the kids and I make together!
  • popsicle stick nutcracker. If you don't have the miniature popsicle sticks that this project calls for, you can cut the larger ones to size. 
  • nutcracker cube critter. These little dudes remind me of the LEGO brickheads, but you cut and assemble them from cardstock. 
  • clay nutcracker and angel. This is a very accessible tutorial, but if you're an able crafter and want to use polymer clay, you can search for some very intricate and elaborate tutorials on YouTube. Or just wing it!
  • clothespin soldiers. You can reenact the entire battle scene!
  • guided drawing with nutcrackers. I love this art activity! You can make it as simple or as in-depth as suits you.
If you're attending the ballet, I like a lot of the activities from this educator's guide to the Nutcracker. This one, though, has activities that you can print-out--maybe you can use it to keep a kid entertained before the show starts?

It's strange to think of what a small part of Syd's entire life these childhood Nutcracker seasons will be, considering what a large part of her life they take up right now. Ballet isn't really one of my own big interests, but I never regret the time that it takes, or how deeply I have to dive, myself, to help a kid dive deeper into her passions.

Anyway, now that Nutcracker is over for a few months, it's time for Syd to immerse herself into her designs for our town's big Trashion/Refashion Show. No regrets on this project, either, but just between us, I like Nutcracker more than I like fashion design!

P.S. If you like study resources and weird videos of people making giant nutcrackers and cracking coconuts with them, you'd like my Craft Knife Facebook page!

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