mr w xmas tree

Lessons with Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

Lessons with Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree is a charming children’s book about a too-tall Christmas tree that keeps getting whittled down, providing Christmas joy for a variety of humans and animals alike, from a wealthy man to a mouse.  I actually don’t remember how I learned about the book, but it has yielded a variety of ideas for Christmas from K-6.

I have used “O Christmas Tree” (the first two lines) as a musical tie-in with this story. Included here are two lesson plans: one for kindergarten and one for sixth grade. The kindergarten lesson plan is easily adapted for first grade and second grade. The sixth-grade lesson plan can be adapted accordingly for the other grades.

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree: Kindergarten

Kindergarten Targets Met: Vocal exploration, singing voice versus speaking voice, iconic rhythm notation reading, understanding and performance of short and long sounds, performance of ostinato, following the cues of the conductor, movement exploration (optional)

Materials Needed:

  • Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree. Written by Robert Barry. ISBN-10:0385327218
  • Power Point


  • Display the Power Point, (Slide 14) and ask the students what they notice about the Christmas trees. (They are all different sizes). Tell them they are all from the same tree. How could that be? (Allow them to discuss this).
  • Talk about the story briefly and how one tree is shared for many creatures to enjoy.
  • Display Power Point (page 15) and point out the trees on this activity. Ask them what they notice. (some big trees and some small trees).
  • Clap the rhythm and chant the words to the ostinato “Christmas tree, Christmas tree/Mr. Willowby’s Christmas tree” to determine if the students make the connection between the short/long sounds of the ostinato and the sizes of the trees (iconic rhythmic notation).
  • Continue to chant the ostinato until all the students are chanting it. One kinesthetic activity I like to do is ask students to get up and walk with me when they have learned the words to anything I am teaching them to sing or to chant. It is a quick assessment of who is participating and it also encourages participation.
  • Tell the students you are going to read the story. Describe the following cues:
    *One hand to chest, one up out to the side. Sing “O Christmas Tree” in the range you establish, followed by “Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree”.
    *Sad face “O, rats” (done when characters discover the tree doesn’t work for them)
    *Sweeping action in front of body with arm and snap, saying “O, snap”, when the tree is cut. *Sweeping action to the side with arm, saying “Whoosh” when the tree is thrown.
  • Read the story, utilizing the cues. Video if necessary for assessment purposes.

Assessment-Standard Based:

  • Vocal exploration. 3-student sings song in a variety of ranges. 2-student misses range change 2-4 times. 1-student does not change range
  • Iconic reading 3-student is able to clap rhythm by reading iconic rhythm notation. 2-student misses on iconic reading at least 2-4 times. 1-student does not clap iconic rhythm correctly.

Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree Lesson: 6th Grade

6th Grade Targets Met:

  • Improvising variations on a familiar tune
  • Reading and performing complex rhythms
  • Creating accompaniments

Materials Needed:

  • Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree. Written by Robert Barry. ISBN-10:0385327218
  • Power Point
  • Various pitched instruments and unpitched percussion


  • Teach “O Christmas Tree” by rote. For my students, I found it easier to teach recorder in the key of G. Alto recorders will do best in the key of C. Teach the first two lines. This can be done either with recorders or barred instruments.
    Process (key of C. Transpose as necessary)
    *If you like, sing various solfege patterns incorporated in the first phrase of “O Christmas Tree”. Focus on the low sol-do pattern of the beginning.
    *Tell the students to listen to you play the first pattern (G-C-C-C). Inform them to start on G and decode the rest.
    *Follow the same pattern on D-E-E-E.
    *Teach the rest of the phrase in 3 note segments.
  • Display Power Point, Page 2. This shows the actual notated pitch in two keys for “O Christmas Tree”, along with potential problem fingerings for both alto and soprano recorder.
  • Read the story to the students. Ask them to note, during the reading, where sound effects would be appropriate and how they could connect melody (pitched) instruments to the tree as it gets whittled down.
  • Show the Power Point, Page 3. This is an image map for the guidelines to be displayed later for the students.
  • Show the Power Point, Page 4. Leave this slide out of presentation mode so students can slide the text boxes of instrument ideas in between the character graphic and the corresponding tree (i.e., Mr. Willowby’s moustache is over the largest tree). As an option, upload the Power Point into Google slides and ask students to do this on their devices. You can then have students compare their choices. This Power Point is set so you can add your own pitched instruments as needed.
  • Show the Power Point, Page 5. For the first part, run out of presentation mode. Students can type in appropriate instruments for the following: When the characters find the tree won’t work, when the tree is chopped, and when the tree is tossed. Suggestions for the first sound: change a barred instrument in the key of G from a B to B-flat to turn G Aeolian or G harmonic minor (depending on whether you want F or F#), slide whistle descending, or digital piano set to choral, playing a chord cluster.
  • Run presentation for the second half of the Power Point. Clap and say the ostinato. “Christmas Tree, Christmas Tree, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree”. Ask various students to click on the rhythm pattern that corresponds with the rhythm of the ostinato. Again, this is an activity that can be done in Google slides. Also, note the bordun that is to be played during the reading.
  • Determine instrument parts accordingly. I usually use the Tool kit in Class Dojo or random selector in iDoceo and let the students pick instruments in the order they are selected.
  • Display Page 6 of the Power Point, and the subsequent pages briefly. These are the instrument “cue” pages. The students will follow the cues in the story to know when to play. The graphic in the upper left hand corner is the symbol for each character.
  • During the performance, students chant the ostinato while the story is read and the bordun is played, unless instruments are playing “O Christmas Tree” or the sound effects are played.

Assessment ideas: Students can journal their thoughts about their creations, describe their musicality, or do critical writings on the quality of their work or what they would have done differently.

Have fun!


Karen Stafford

Karen Stafford is an elementary music specialist and adjunct professor from Union, Missouri, currently working on her dissertation for her Ph.D. through the University of Kansas. She has all three levels of Orff Schulwerk, Masters level, and Level One Kodaly. Her professional affiliations include NAfME, the American Orff-Schulwerk Association (movement and recorder instructor and member of the AOSA advocacy subcommittee), The Organization for American Kodaly Educators, The American Recorder Society, and The National Education Association. Karen has presented clinics and workshops at the local, state, and national levels and has had several articles published in the Orff Echo.

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  1. Kim Zoeller on December 30, 2017 at 12:02 am

    One of my all time favorite books.

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