Appreciating the past is classy. That sentence was worded carefully. Being stuck in the past is not classy. In fact being stuck in general is not classy. Glorifying the past is not classy, either; It says, “Those times were far better than today.” With advances in medicine, technology, and transportation, no time in history can compare to modern times.
To appreciate something is to recognize its worth.
The opposite of “Appreciating the Past” is when a person thinks that things are the way they are because of his or her efforts alone. If you make a scientific breakthrough, that is great, but I guarantee that there were hundreds, if not thousands of scientists and scientific works, not to mention your teachers, parents, and even environmental situation that all lended to you being able to perform your accomplishment.
On the other hand, while age isn’t everything, the older the wine or cheese, the more expensive the bottle or package. There is value in something maintaining its importance, if not even growing its influence, over time.
A lesson that I have been doing for years explores this hypothesis. Every year, after Thanksgiving, an army of nutcrackers marches into the American commercial and decorative landscape. They are everywhere, decorated in every imaginable theme. There are Philadelphia Eagles nutcrackers, stormtrooper nutcrackers, teddybears, ninjas, knights, historical figures, bright pink Breast Cancer Awareness nutcrackers, etc. There is no limit. Where does this army come from? There is a famous, seasonal ballet with a terrific Tchaikovsky score. There are mountains of books. Where did it all begin, and why is it so popular?
In 2012 I dug up the original novel by ETA Hoffman and gave it a read. The 1816 text (translated to English from German) was difficult to comprehend and full of robust vocabulary, so, naturally, I decided to share it with my students. (Challenge is classy; future blog.)
Before beginning, however, I came up with what has proved to be a clever way to record our findings. I projected an image of a nutcracker onto the wall. Using different pieces of paper (eight in all), I traced the outline of the nutcracker. I photocopied and stapled the pages into packets. Students were instructed to write their notes within the outlines, but “Do not go ahead”. In the same way the mysterious nutcracker comes to life within the tale and eventually is set free from his spell by Marie, our paper packets start to reveal themselves once the students get to the image of a face, one of the last pages.
My friend and co-teacher Lori Merrill combined her class with mine, and we would take turns reading the original text to the class. We came across a copy that Maurice Sendak penned and illustrated. It is slightly easier to read than the Dover edition, published 1967. Plus, the Sendak pictures are amazing. This year we had the advantage of a school Youtube channel, “Willow Lane Read Alouds” that allowed us to videotape the read alouds and publish them to the web for kids who missed a chapter to catch up. They could share with family members, as well.
Throughout the read aloud, students record vocabulary, write down key events, and draw illustrations inside the outlines of their soon to be nutcrackers. After finishing the story, students complete their notes, drawing visualizations of the toy-mouse war, the Mouse Queen placing a spell on Princess Pirlipat, Marie giving up her toys and sweets to save Nutcracker, and of course the trek through The Land of the Dolls. Then the students lightly color in all of the sections, cut them out, and assemble their very own nutcrackers. We tape them together, and get them laminated, usually and hopefully just in time to bring home for the holidays.
Now, these third grade students have a tool that they can use to retell the real story (or at least, the original story) of The Nutcracker. They are also beautiful decorations!
If you look at reviews of the original “Nutcracker”, you will find Fritzes scolding the text for inconsistencies, flaws, and poor quality. There are Madame Mouserinks waiting to bite the Nutcracker’s head off with criticisms. There is no end to the naysayers who demean the text. So, again, why has “The Nutcracker” remained and even grown in popularity?
Perhaps, it is because the characters are so unique. Nutcracker is not just a toy that comes to life. He is the Superman of toys. Judge Drosselmeier is a lawyer, tinkerer, seeming villain, and finally patriarch. Fritz displays the same militaristic attitude that his stiff soldiers show when he sentences Nutcracker’s fait. And, the noble, sweet Marie is about to sacrifice her most precious possession to save the Nutcracker. And, is there a more sadistic nemesis in literature than the seven-headed Mouse King?
The Nutcracker might maintain its popularity because of its foreignness. Winter swoops in, bringing cold and snow and holidays. Initially, it is fun and exciting because it is so different from summer and fall. Similarly, Nutcrackers take over the turkey, Pilgrim, and Native American displays. They often have an Eastern European aura to them. Also, the ballet was produced by Russians; The story written by a German.
Maybe The Nutcracker is popular because he is a symbol of olden times; simpler times. Who cracks nuts, nowadays? What kid treasures wooden toys that have one moving part?
I don’t know why our culture is so fascinated with The Nutcracker, but visiting its conception is one of the highlights of the school year. I feel like a textual anthropologist when I lead students into reading, learning, and studying the first writings of this cultural icon. I hope that not only do they develop a deeper appreciation for this classic, but that they learn the importance of appreciating the past.
PDFs of Scanned Nutcracker Papers: