Happy Halloween, everyone! It is All Hallows Eve in our neck of the woods. The pumpkins stand watch on our front step. The treats have all been readied to give to any nasty little Spirits of the Dead who dare to darken our door tonight. Costumes have been donned. Trick-or-treating plans have been formulated. We are all prepared. Except for one thing…….it is raining.
Environment Canada has issued a special weather statement for our town that speaks of damaging winds and torrential rainfall and possible flooding. There has been some talk that communities in our area may dare to postpone Halloween for safety reasons and have it later on during the weekend. The children are having none of that talk. My youngest daughter has railed against the injustice of it all and this, being her final year of knocking on doors, has demanded to head out into the maelstrom regardless. As she stomps her feet and folds her arms, she looks to her mother and says, “We’ll go together, right Mom?!” Mom is not as enthusiastic.
Mom is a teacher. She still has to spend the next six hours of her life at school with several hundred costumed children; all out of routine, all amped up in anticipation of the sugar high to come, all without the benefit of the usual recess breaks because, as mentioned, it is dark and stormy and no one is going outside on this day. Teachers and students, alike, will all experience this day together for Halloween, in school, on an indoor recess day, is a day like no other. It is the perfect storm, as school days go.
A “perfect storm”, by definition, is an unusual event, characterized by the coming together of elements that usually remain apart. This day has it all! Children gorging on unhealthy food. No fresh air to stimulate young brains. Visual distractions everywhere the eye can see. The unrelentlessness of being trapped for six hours straight in classrooms that smell so much like sugar that your teeth begin to ache. The noise. The endless stimulation. It all can be too much and, it often is. It is a fairly safe bet that, before the school day ends, there will be vomit and tears and lost costume parts.
And yet, at the end of the school year, when students are asked to reflect upon all that they have experienced, many will point to Halloween as being their favourite day of them all. The overwhelming sensory stimulation will have been forgotten. What will remain is the memory of doing something special with people who are special to them and, most of all, that this day was fun. Every adult who works in a school for the benefit of young children deserves an extra bonus in their pay packet on days such as today for today, the magic they wield is very real.
If you have ever watched someone in a canoe battling to stay upright as they descend through a series of rapids then, you may have some idea of the awesome energy at play today in classrooms on Halloween, on an indoor recess day. A good teacher accepts that energy and absorbs it into the fabric of the class schedule for that day. For example, in many schools, one of the very first activities on Halloween is some sort of costume parade throughout the school or, if applicable, through the neighbourhoods that adjoin the school. This activity is very much by design and holds an important purpose. As the children first enter the school building on Halloween morning, they are, quite literally, pulsating with excitement. Fifteen minutes or so later, they are walking in a straight line for half an hour and they couldn’t be happier doing it. They think they are doing something grand and glorious; visiting classroom spaces normally off limits to them, seeing how other classes decorated their rooms, hearing the feedback from other students regarding their costume choices and yet, while excited, the kids are all calming down and settling in to the routine of the day…..a different kind of day, yes but, a school day, still.
By the time Halloween arrives, good teachers will have spent many weeks establishing consistent classroom routines. If they have been successful, a school day for their students will have a certain feel to it. That “feel” can best be described as a sense of comfort and familiarity for the students. One of the reasons that students like coming to school is that they know what to expect will happen to them throughout a day. There is little in the way of unfamiliarity to provoke anxiety. All is relatively well known. Establishing a consistent structure to each day allows the day to flow seamlessly from one activity to another. Halloween is the first real test of this in the school year. For Halloween at school cannot be six hours of straight unbridled partying. Six hours is a loooooong time when there is no structure to a day seemingly devoid of structure. But, there is always structure. That’s how educators make the day memorable for students and sane for themselves.
By the time the students have walked in a line for thirty minutes, they are ready to return to their own classroom space. They are ready to start their party. But, it is funny, young children do not know, instinctively, how to party. Unlike adults, they don’t tend automatically crank the tunes and commence with drinks and dancing. Young children tend to wait to be told how their party is going to work. What are the rules of this party? What order are things going to happen? When do we get to eat? If a teacher has done a good job of establishing the classroom routines prior to this day then, anarchy will remain a stranger and, instead, the kids will sit down on the carpet, as they always do, when they start their day. They will wait to start their day because that is what they have been trained to do.
A good teacher will design a different, looser day for their students because, despite their training, small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day are still small children on Halloween on an indoor recess day and their capacity for studious, industrious work is limited. No doubt, there will be Halloween colouring sheets and word search puzzles. There will be jigsaw puzzles and opportunities to build scary things with blocks. Students will be allowed to make Halloween crafts, draw spooky pictures, paint scenes that would make your hair curl. There will be computer time and story time, too. Of course, a classroom pumpkin will be carved, seeds extracted and counted and baked.
Then, of course, there will be snacks to eat along the way, as well. Healthy snacks first. Always healthy snacks first! This is when good classroom routines bear fruit. Prior to this day, whenever it is lunch time in class and the students open their lunch bags, a good teacher will always insist that students eat their healthy snacks first. Not all students have the healthiest of lunches. But, you want to honour their parents for sending in whatever they could afford so, you allow the child to eat everything in their lunch bag but, you always start by having them eat the healthiest foods first so that, if they are to fill up on anything, it will, at least, have been healthy for them. Halloween is no different. Food is one of the main attractions to this day for children. But, a good teacher will work to stem the tide of sugar intake by building on good classroom routines and inviting the kids to graze on fruit while they “party” at their Halloween activity centres. Once the fruit is gone then, there will be time for cupcakes. But, there is always lots of fruit to eat first.
You know, as well as I, that when our bellies are full, we tend to slooooooow down. So, time spent in the first half of the school day inviting children to fill their bellies has the added benefit of causing them to sloooooow down as well as the day progresses. Usually, around the half way mark, the kids begin to tire of their party and will want a break. This is when it is a good time for a movie and for some healthy popcorn, too. Keep eating, little ones, keep eating those healthy snacks.
By the end of the day, most small children are spent. Costumes are half on and half off. Their body posture can best be described as wilted. Not very many muster any level of excitement when the teacher brings out the big, heavily iced cupcakes just before home time. At the end of the day, the classroom will smell badly, there will be wrappers and crumbs around the room and no one will really care about taking home their Halloween worksheets and crafts, either. The kids actually do more resemble zombies than whatever it was they were supposed to be while getting ready for home. All in all, it will have been quite a day for everyone concerned. A day that, as tiring and overwhelming as it may have been; for many, it will be a day that they will cherish throughout the rest of the school year.
So, as my daughter looks to my wife for support on her determined quest to go out trick-or-treating in a storm, my wife looks back with an expression of weary wisdom on her face in reply. Much will have happened between this moment and the next moment they meet, eight hours or so, from now. So, Mom says, “I suppose but, we’ll see.” That seems a more realistic answer on a day that may turn out to be like no other. But, then again, it may, in fact, be a day of memories for my daughter who, years from now, will say to her Mom, “Remember that day I was a cow girl and your braided my hair for me and took me trick-or-treating for the last time? That was an awesome day, right?” And Mom will look at her daughter and say, “Yes. Of course it was. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”