Saturday, February 17, 2018

Sweet Victory!

Congratulations, teachers! Most of you are past the half way mark in your school year, with Valentine’s Day marking the sweet milestone as (typically) the last classroom holiday celebration. If you are familiar with classroom holiday parties, you are all too familiar with the rush of getting it all set up either on your lunch break or during a recess/prep time. The rush of explaining the party agenda to the parent volunteers (if you were lucky to get some), getting it all set up before your class returns, realizing that you have WAY too much food, and noticing the dull headache that is coming on because it is no small feat to put on a one-hour holiday party for 28+ students, which typically turns into a ½ day party because no one can really focus on classwork when everyone is just watching the clock tick in anticipation of party time. Cue up the games and holiday themed movie, and let’s get those plates prepped. Don’t forget to save the container for the fruit and veggies and send them home with the dear child that brought them in because who’s going to eat those when there’s cookies, cupcakes, candy, and chips? At least you asked for fruit and veggies and one or two of your students’ parents obliged. It was all well intentioned. 

Don’t think, dear teachers, that it has gone unnoticed that you have also prepped a “safe food” plate for those that have food allergies and medical needs. As your colleague, I know you have the Clorox wipes on hand to wipe away food residue, the Epi-pen that you hope you never need, and the sink ready to wash the hands of 28+ students. Every teacher has every child’s needs in mind and plans accordingly each and every day, especially on party days. We are teachers. It’s what we do; but do you ever get to the point where you are mid-party, serving out seconds and refilling cups, and stop to think: “this isn’t what I had in mind when I signed up to educate children; I feel like I am hosting an indoor birthday party of sorts on a rainy day when no one can go out and play, and I am not a party planner/supervisor. I am an educator.”?

Traditional holiday celebrations in the classroom carry all sorts of baggage and obstacles, particularly elementary classrooms, so why do we continue to do it? In phases, I have slowly changed how I do classroom parties, and you can too! I am all about the celebrations and having fun with my students, but I didn’t find traditional classroom parties to be all that fun, and I even noticed how it was impacting many of my students, and how I actually wasn’t meeting some of their needs. I’ve observed:
  • Students with food allergies look enviously at the food they can’t have, even though they’ve been given a similar alternative. There are times when all kids just want what everyone else has.
  • The quiet introverts, selective mute children, and anxiety ridden children retreat even more so and look even more anxious and nervous on party days where the noise levels are up, there are more people and adults in the classroom (parents and people they don’t know make them highly uncomfortable in their safe classroom that they’ve become accustomed to. 
  • Students who thrive on structure lose the self control that they work so hard to keep in check on all other days, and their bodies and brains beg for calmness – usually shown by making poor choices or even getting in trouble. I’ve observed how sugar intake effects students on ADD/ADHD meds, and how it effects other students, too.

Emotions run high on party days. It’s fun, fun, fun, and then we all come crashing down – in the classroom, on the bus, or even a couple hours later at home. As a mom of three, I cringed when I knew my own kids would be over-indulging on party days and I knew exactly what kind of mood each of my three kids would be in when we got home. Two of my kids would seem to not be affected at all, and the third…well, tread lightly. I also felt like I couldn’t indulge my own kids in a sweet treat on these days because they already had a ton at school. Sometimes, I just want to be the fun parent that surprises my kids with a treat…because that’s what treats are---something indulgent on occasion, not in mass quantities throughout a whole day.

A year or so into teaching, I knew that I could and should do something different, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. It is not easy to change tradition or make un-popular decisions – especially as a new teacher. Change is not easy – period! So, I followed suit for a long time. Fast forward to over a decade in the profession, and I still have the same feelings about classroom parties. I wanted to provide a richer, healthier experience for my students on party days. I wanted to focus on fun experiences rather than focus on food/movies in the classroom, and I wanted to support what it being taught in Phys. Ed., art, or even music - all of which we don't get enough of throughout our day. I have since had two administrators and my grade level teaching partner who are completely supportive and on-board, and so here we are…finally over half way through this school year, successfully changing up the way our students celebrate holidays and birthdays in my classroom. The focus is on the fun experience, rather than the food. No longer in my classroom is sugar synonymous with fun!  

So far this year, we have celebrated birthdays by focusing more on celebrating the child---a birthday book gift from the me, a fun song/dance or whole class game, and a treat that can easily be distributed at the end of the day rather than using class time for cupcakes. Students are just as happy receiving a piece of gum, a sticker, a fruit roll up, ONE jolly rancher, or some other small item from the birthday boy/girl without having to take up class time to scarf down a cupcake in between math and reading instruction. 

Halloween was a little tricky to kick this all off, but it worked and we all enjoyed it! Instead of the traditional party and costume parade, we opted for a fall Halloween Hike. Our amazing PTO decorated our nature trail with Halloween themed items, music, and cider and snacks at the end. Some students and families missed the tradition of the parade, but the majority were supportive and accepting, and even relieved that it wasn't a huge deal. 

 It was so great to get outside and enjoy nature! Our 4th grade students wrote short, spooky stories and poems and we hung them on the trees along the trail. Every so often, we'd stop and read one of the stories/poems.

One of the things we considered when we switched up our Halloween tradition was whether or not students would be missing something if we changed our plans. We decided that Halloween was a holiday that all students participate in at home, unless they choose not to, and so we weren't taking any experiences away from students. We were simply swapping out one way of celebrating for a healthier, more active way of celebrating.

Our Christmas celebration consisted of us putting on some snowshoes and utilizing the beautiful half-mile nature trail on our school property. You wouldn’t even need snowshoes or a trail…just take a winter walk, build a snowman with your class, play outside, and come in for some hot cocoa. They will love it! We also had a fun book exchange gift-giving activity. 

For Valentine’s Day, we traded in the sweet treats for Valentines without candy attached, and we had a painting party instead. Several of my students noted how much fun it was because they don’t get to paint at home – it’s too messy, or they don’t have the materials. Students had a blast painting on canvases and later looking through all their cards from their friends, and we still had a cute, yummy snack and juice boxes that everyone could enjoy! 

Changing the traditional classroom party comes with some prep work and conversations with parents, but it can be done successfully. I have not had one student complain or mention that they’d rather be eating cupcakes or candy! As you can see, we haven't completely eliminated treats or food at parties, but have significantly reduced the amount of food offered. Now, the focus is on the fun, and we fuel up with one little treat or snack! 

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