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The Polar Express

The Polar Express A Mini Unit

Here is a unit study to go along with the popular holiday book The Polar Express!

Book Summary:

On Christmas Eve a boy is taken on a mysterious train to the North Pole. The trip to the pole is a glorious experience through dark forests and high mountains. When he arrives, Santa chooses him to be the child that receives the first gift of Christmas. He asks for an receives one bell from the harness of the reindeer. It is with great sadness that he discovers he has lost the bell on the way home. At home he finds the bell again, and learns a special secret about it.

Activity Ideas for Younger Children:
  1. Line chairs up like a train and sit in this format while reading the story aloud.

  2. Hand out blank 'train tickets' for each child to complete and decorate.

  3. Give each listener a jingle bell to ring whenever the bell is mentioned in the story!

Questions for Discussion:

What would you do if a steam locomotive pulled up outside your house? How would you feel?

Why do you think the boy chose the bell as his gift? What would you have chosen if you were in his place?

What special objects do you have that are as important to you as the boy's bell was to him? Why is it important? Older children can write about their object, explaining why they cherish it. Note that it is often not the object itself which is important as much as the person or memory attached to it.

What does the bell represent in the story? Why can't the boy's parents hear it?

Language Arts:

Find instances of metaphors and similes in the story. (“wrapped in an apron of steam,” “as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars,” “the lights of an ocean liner sailing on a frozen sea,” “like a car on a roller coaster,”“the train thundered through the quiet wilderness,” “nougat centers as white as snow” ) Notice how these descriptions help the story come to life in your imagination.

Change some ordinary language into more colorful descriptions. Make the phrases more interesting like the author does in the book: It's cold. – ex.; The air gripped my lungs with fingers of ice. The car drove down the street. – ex.; The car screamed down the street like a fighter jet.

Retell the story in your own words.


Railroad talk - Learn different terms used in railroading and what they mean:

Try out these railroad whistle signals:

Sound length (=-long, o-short)


Succession of short sounds

The whistle is sounded in an attempt to attract attention to the train. It is used when persons or livestock are on the track at other-than-road crossings at grade.


When train is stopped. The air brakes are applied and pressure is equalized.

= =

Train releases brakes and proceeds.

o o

Acknowledgment of any signal not otherwise provided for.

o o o

When train is stopped: means backing up, or acknowledgment of a hand signal to back up.

o o o o

A request for a signal to be given or repeated if not understood.

= o o o

Instruction for flagman to protect rear of train.

= = = =

The flagman may return from west or south.

= = = = =

The flagman may return from east or north.

= = o =

Train is approaching public crossings at grade with engine in front. Signal starts not less than 15 seconds but not more than 20 seconds before reaching the crossing. If movement is 45 mph or greater, signal starts at or about the crossing sign, but not more than 1/4 mile before the crossing if there is no sign. Signal is prolonged or repeated until the engine completely occupies the crossing(s).

In addition, this signal is used when approaching private crossings if pedestrians or motor vehicles are at or near the crossing. (In the states of California, Idaho and Montana, the whistle is sounded at all crossings, public and private.)

o =

Inspect the brake system for leaks or sticking brakes.

= o

Train is approaching men or equipment on or near the track, regardless of any whistle prohibitions.

After this initial warning, "o o" sounds intermittently until the head end of train has passed the men or equipment.

(source: http://www.uprr.com/aboutup/funfacts/signals.shtml)

North Pole:

Find the North Pole on a globe or in an atlas. Research facts about the North Pole. What is the average temperature? Compare and contrast the North Pole and the South Pole. Try to figure out how you would reach the North Pole if you were to travel there from your house.

Read about Robert Peary, first man to reach the North Pole:


Learn basic facts about reindeer here:

Can you name Santa's 8 reindeer as listed in the poem 'Twas the Night before Christmas?

Northern Lights:

What were the strange lights that "looked like the lights of a strange ocean liner sailing on a frozen sea?" Perhaps the Northern Lights? Learn more about the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) here:

Watch a beautiful time lapse video of the lights here:

Find recipes, activities, and games related to The Polar Express at the book's official website:


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