Dyan Branstetter | December 2019

Researching the Magic
of The Nutcracker

So how do you know, as a teacher, when students are using inquiry skills? When you try to start class, and you’re bombarded by 9 year-olds with comments such as these:

“Mrs. Branstetter, did you know that Tchaikovsky smuggled the celesta from Russia to France? I just read it! Why would he do that?”

“And I just found out that everyone hated the Nutcracker at the beginning!”

“I don’t think Tchaikovsky even knew that his Nutcracker Suite became a huge success!”

“Did you know that the original story of The Nutcracker was pretty creepy?”

“I read that Clara is based on the memory of Tchaikovsky’s sister? He died and he was really sad.”

“Why do they still say the choreography is by Petipa when Ivanov actually did most of it?”

Nutcracker Nostalgia

I’m not sure what it is about the Nutcracker Ballet that draws me in. You would think that seeing the same choreography and music year after year would grow old. Yet, every season, whenever I hear a strain of music from the ballet, it is still magical. Partly because it holds personal memories. But mostly because of the tremendous backstory in how it came to exist. The more history I learn about this classic ballet, music, and story, the more interesting it becomes. Additionally, it can pull in almost every content area — art, music, dance, history, writing, reading, and more!

Researching The Nutcracker Ballet

This month is the perfect time to harness the energy of our students through an inquiry-based, arts history project. The project centers on The Nutcracker Ballet. From there, it breaks down into smaller categories that can tap into each student’s interests. 

I pair this research project with a study of the literary work by E.T.A. Hoffman The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. (If you’re interested in adding that component, check out my unit here.) To begin research on the history of the ballet, it is helpful for students to know the story. There are infinite versions of this story, and it is beneficial for students to be aware of that. I begin by sharing a read-aloud of The Nutcracker picture book. Susan Jeffers’s version matches the version of the ballet, but any book that tells the story will do.

As with all research, it is best when it is inquiry-based and student-led. Since the big idea was a teacher pick, I broke it into subcategories so that students could select their specific research topic. This input also helped me form research groups with students of similar interests. Warning: once students begin to research the transformation and collaborative aspects of this timeless work of art, they become Nutcracker obsessed.

Breakdown of Student-Selected Research Topics: 

  1. The History of the Nutcracker Ballet
  2. Tchaikovsky (And his involvement with the Nutcracker Ballet)
  3. ETA Hoffman (as related to the Nutcracker)
  4. The History of Nutcrackers 
  5. This varies according to my group of students each year and sometimes I eliminate it. Possible choices are: Russia, George Balanchine, The History of Ballet, Theater Etiquette, How a Ballet is Different from Other Theater Performances

Guiding Students Through Their Research

Once students complete an icebreaker with their group, they dive into the work. They begin by brainstorming what they “Know” and what they “Wonder” about their topic. Each student uses an oversized document to record his or her thoughts. This document then guides their research, as they strive to explore the questions they have. As they discover more about their topic, they can add more questions, cross off “knows” that were not accurate, or record new findings.

Find our KWL placemat here

I add the guiding question for each group at the top of this document. This ensures that students are going in the right direction. When they start to become overwhelmed with information, we look at the question and determine if the new information falls into their research category. If it does, we take notes, and if it does not, we move on.

Students Resources

To help students see a big idea that connects the topic, I also provide a QR code for students to scan to access the music of The Nutcracker Suite and another for them to access a video of The Nutcracker Ballet. I encourage them to read multiple versions of the picture book.

The Nutcracker Suite: https://padlet.com/branstdy/NutcrackerMusic

The Nutcracker Ballet: https://youtu.be/WO2SxXcffyI 

Because this is a rather unique research project, I have spent years curating research sources for my students. This way, they can sink their teeth into the actual readings and determine what information they need out of the resources provided instead of spending time searching for something related to the topic. Most are not on their grade level, so the readings can be a team effort as students work together to clarify the needed information.

I wanted to share these curated resources with you to eliminate this prep work. In addition to a few books on each topic, I provide each group with a copy of a resource Padlet. It contains articles, videos, and music that will help students explore each topic. 

Padlets with Curated Resources for Each Topic

  1. The History of the Nutcracker Ballet (Research Padlet #1)
  2. Tchaikovsky (Research Padlet #2)
  3. ETA Hoffmann (Research Padlet #3)
  4. The History of Nutcrackers (Research Padlet #4)

Note- To use each Padlet with students:

  1. Click on the link.
  2. Next, click on “remake” in the top right corner.
  3. Then, click on “share” and change permissions so that viewers may “write”
  4. Share the QR code or weblink with students so they can access it on their devices.

The Culminating Task

After working through the research process with each group, my students are tasked with writing a collaborative book, which became the program for our school Nutcracker performance. Each group contributed at least a paragraph about their topic. Being an ELA teacher, I guided students to determine what text structure best matched their topic. I asked students to include text features to help the reader comprehend their topic. Of course, it also lends itself well to paragraph structure, conventions, and other writing skills.

When the book is complete, students enjoy reading the information provided by the other groups. Not only does it extend their topic, but it overlaps. Sometimes, it even provides more answers to students’ inquiry questions as they piece together the overarching theme. 

If you would like students to research without a major writing component such as a book, there are many other alternatives. Sharing their information through a group presentation would work effectively. FlipGrid or other digital sharing platforms would also be a great way to showcase their learning and make sure classmates heard it as well. 

Whatever the product, make sure to reach out to your local ballet company, theater, or symphony. They may be able to feature your students’ work or include them as part of their educational resources. Talk about an authentic audience!

Standards Addressed

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.3

Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.5.9

Integrate information from several texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7

Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

National Arts Standards

Anchor Standard #11. Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

PA Standards for Arts and Humanities

9.2. Historical and Cultural Contexts 

  1. Explain the historical, cultural and social context of an individual work in the arts. 
  2. Relate works in the arts chronologically to historical events (e.g., 10,000 B.C. to present).

About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.