‘Twas the week before Christmas,
And all through the school,
Kids were chatting with Santa,
Now isn’t that cool!
As the holidays approach, it’s important to help foster the spirit of the season among your teachers and staff. In the Ft. Sam Houston School District, one way we do this is through our Santa Claus video conferences.
The idea arose from our involvement in Santa video conferences hosted by our area Education Service Center. They offered schools the opportunity to sign up for a two-way video chat with Santa or Mrs. Claus. While they did a fantastic job with the visits, we were limited on how many of our classes could sign up. Santa, after all, wanted to visit with kids from as many districts in the area as he could.
We decided last year that we could do it all ourselves and, in turn, give all our Pre-K through first grade classes an opportunity to meet with the jolly ol’ elf. Thus began our own Santa video conferences. So here’s a rundown of what’s needed to make the magic happen.
The Magic of Technology
To make video conferences happen, you need a video conference solution. We’re blessed to have high-end Tandberg video conference units at both our elementary school and our technology center (aka The North Pole), but you don’t need anything that sophisticated. With all the free video conference solutions out there, you’re bound to have something you can use already. You could simply schedule a Google Hangout (or use the new Google Meet). There are other free solutions too, like appear.in that would work equally well. We do suggest that if you use a web-based solution, you also use an external webcam that can be mounted on a tripod to assure you get a nice view of the kids and the North Pole.
The North Pole
Santa has to look like he’s “at home,” so be sure you get The North Pole and his workshop looking good. Our initial thought was to set up a Christmas tree in our VC room and decorate the walls to look more cozy and Santa-like. Then we found this backdrop online! It works great. The fireplace and tree look incredibly realistic on video. You can search any online retailer for “Christmas Backdrop” to find something that will work for you. We do suggest you do not get a backdrop with a chair in the image. You’ll want to use a real chair for Santa.
Santa Claus, His Elves, and His Props
You can’t have a Santa video conference without jolly old St. Nick! You’ll need a Santa suit and a volunteer (or volunteers). We had a suit readily available. (Why Dr. Rios owns his own Santa suit is still a mystery!) Next, we needed male adults that our elementary kids didn’t know as we didn’t want them seeing behind the magic. We enlisted our high school theater teacher, one of our high school social studies teachers, and the husband of our elementary school principal’s secretary. Our superintendent was kind enough to approve a “school business” day off for our Santas.
We are blessed to have “teacher aides” assigned to our tech department throughout the day. Our Family and Consumer science teacher made us a simple elf costume to use, and these “tech interns” took turns being our elves throughout the three days. They loved the experience and came up with a unique elf name (Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Sparkles, etc.) for each of them.
We didn’t have a Santa throne in our office, so we used a nice burgundy desk chair and set a small coffee table next to Santa to hold his cookies, milk, book, and nice list. Our administrative assistant created our nice list using old paper rolls and banner paper so it looks like a scroll. Then we tape each class list inside the scroll for each conference. All in all, our North Pole looks the real deal!
Scheduling and Scripting
To accommodate all our PreK, Kinder, and first grade classes, we scheduled our video conferences over three days. We chose the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday prior to our holiday break. Each class is scheduled for a thirty-minute session. This allows for enough time for the actual chat (about 20 minutes) and for the transition of classes.
All the visits with Santa follow this timeline:
- Santa greets the kids by class name and introduces his elf helper.
- Santa reads his favorite book “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the kids. (We truncated the book for quicker reading.)
- Students view the reindeer outside (read more about this in the next section).
- Santa reads individual student names off of the nice list (they all make the nice list).
- Santa answers student questions.
- Santa has to get back to work.
Making It Magical
In order to make the whole experience magical, we get as much information about the class and students as possible. Teachers are sent a Google Form prior to the conference so we’ll know if they have an elf on the shelf, if they are sending letters or pictures to Santa, and so we get all of their student names. Santa then works this information into the video conference. Students love hearing that Santa has been talking to their elf on a shelf or that their pictures made it all the way to the North Pole.
We also show the students Santa’s reindeer. We switch inputs on our video conferencing unit from the live camera on Santa, to a YouTube video of reindeer outside in the snow.
One final thing that we do that really brings out the magic is open direct lines of communication with the classroom teacher. The teacher exchanges phone numbers with Santa’s behind the scenes helper. During the conference, the teacher can text the helper with updates such as “This morning our class earned a PAW in the hallway for excellent behavior” or “Johnny is out sick today.” The helper then writes the note on a dry erase board and shows it to Santa. This is where it is super important that your Santa has the gift of thinking on his feet as he adds these notes into his conversation with the kids. They are shocked when Santa knows these details. It connects the kids to the conferences and puts the magical touch on the whole experience.
We hope that our experiences with Santa and the elves help you all create some holiday magic for your kids. Our Santas, our elves, the teachers, and especially our students love the video conferences! We’re sure yours will too!
Video link. (Note: In this video you can see the edges of our background. The actual live feed to the kids crops out the edges.)
This is a guest blog post by the holiday elves Dr. Roland Rios, Director of Technology, and Jeannine Freeman, District Instructional Technology Specialist, at Ft. Sam Houston ISD. All photos are courtesy of them.