Kindergarten Thanksgiving: 5 year olds wielding knives…

(Originally posted November 20, 2010)

Allow me to explain…

Sixteen years at the helm in Kindergarten brought its share of memorable events! Twelve of those years in the Coppell ISD hold some of my fondest memories from days spent with my young students: Kindergarten Rodeo, the Teddy Bear Parade, the Valentine Tea Party. As wonderful as each of these events were in their own right, NOTHING to me held a candle to the Thanksgiving Feast!

My first year teaching in Coppell at Austin Elementary was spent in room A-108, right next door to one of the most amazing master teachers to influence so much of my teaching career. A spitfire of a lady, Cindy Brisko is a teacher who truly has Kindergarten flowing through her veins! Her knowledge of how young children learn, along with her ability to challenge and motivate her students with her spur-of-the-moment innovative teaching style continues to amaze and inspire me to this day! Visiting her classroom last year, I saw so many things in her room that had inspired and influenced my teaching over the years. I have always said that Cindy Brisko is my “Kindergarten Teaching Idol,” and I will be forever grateful for the years spent next door, learning how to REALLY teach Kindergarten!!

As mentioned above, the Thanksgiving Feast was my favorite of all Kindergarten events, and “how it’s done,” was explained in minute detail from Mrs. Brisko! I dare say that at the end of her synopsis of this event and how it was to play out, I must have been as pale as a ghost. Talk about orchestration of monumental proportion! Cindy held my hand as I jumped into the deep end of this instructional pool!

In a nutshell: Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING for the feast would be prepared by the children. (Except the turkey!) We aren’t talking snack crackers and juice boxes here, folks! We are talking chopping vegetables, shucking corn, crushing cranberries, following recipes to make multiple Pumpkin Pies (down to beating egg whites and folding them into the pumpkin mixture at just the right moment…recipe straight from my Southern Living Bible). Children are shown how to safely use paring knives to cut the fruit and vegetables in prep for the meal, and follow instructions from beginning to end.

Yes, shocked readers, you read it correctly: Paring knives. Paring knives wielded by children in velcro light up sneakers and Garanimals mix and match separates. I thought surely Cindy must be kidding. As she told me how to model for my students safe paring knife usage, I know my brow beaded with sweat and my knees began to buckle. With vertigo setting in, my brain swirled with headlines from the evening news post-feast: “KINDERGARTEN TEACHER DISTRIBUTES DEADLY IMPLEMENTS TO 5 YEAR OLDS–ON PURPOSE!! DETAILS OF HIS DISEMBOWELMENT ON EYEWITNESS NEWS AT 10! INTERVIEWS WITH SHOCKED PARENTS TO FOLLOW ON NIGHTLINE WITH TED KOPPEL!”

Paring knives aside for a second, the entire Thanksgiving feast as outlined by Cindy was a learning experience for the children unlike any I had ever undertaken. True, it required mountains of parent help in organizing food items and cooking utensils to be sent from home, as well as an army of parent volunteers on feast day itself to assist the children in their assignments. If completed as planned, without unforeseen loss of digits or limbs, it would be a day to be remembered by all in attendance.

After meeting with Cindy, the next hurdle to be jumped was the parent meeting with Room mothers. There I got to explain to their jaw-dropped faces that yes, the children that they would barely allow to lift a sippy cup without assistance, were going to be dicing, slicing ginsu toting sous chefs one and all come feast day! Oh yeah, and I had to present this info to the Room Moms as if I knew what I was talking about and that this was actually a wonderful idea!

Moms had their marching orders: a mile-long list of food items and cooking utensils needed for feast day to be divided and conquered, and gathering a host of volunteers the likes of which would not be seen again until springtime for the Kindergarten Rodeo. (At Rodeo time they would say, “This is a piece of cake compared to Feast Day!”)

In the classroom, with Jack-o-lanterns barely off the front porch, the first class day in November would have me sharing the wondrous tale of a first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621. Facts of the Mayflower, Pilgrims, Squanto, friendship and thankfulness laid the groundwork for the next several weeks of instruction and learning activities. To culminate our learning journey spanning the Atlantic Ocean from England to Cape Cod, we would celebrate with our very own feast day, right here in our very own classroom. Most of our projects and activities would center around preparation for our feast, from the things the children would wear to the decorations for the tables. The feast date was highlighted on the calendar and spirits were high as we all set to work!

For feast day, each child would get to choose whether they would be attending as a Pilgrim or as a Native American. Regardless of feast day role, all would make components for each wardrobe. Pilgrim hats for boys would have not buckles (a Hollywood embellishment) but braided fabric, in this case strips of colored paper wound together, glued on as a hatband. Girls would fold and make a precious little white cap to be secured with string under the chin. White puritan collars would be cut out of bulletin board paper. A swatch of Scotch tape would hold in place around young necks until hopefully the photos were taken at feast time!

Of course the showiest, and considerably more labor intensive were the clothing items prepared for the Native Americans! Vests, made from a solid color pillow case, were cut down the front, neck and armholes cut in advance by their loving teacher. No, I wouldn’t let them use fabric cutting scissors, I was saving that adventure for the paring knives…

Vests would be decorated with picture symbols using permanent markers, and then with kindergarten sized Fiskars, children could add fringe at the bottom. Lots of color and lots of “picture writing,” front AND back. (A handy paper grocery bag well placed would prevent the pictures intended for the front finding a way to the back.) Later, as we learned how cloth and animal skins were colored back in the days of Squanto, children got to crush blueberries and dye strips of muslin for later use as headbands.

Once the blueberry colored muslin strips had drip-dried, parent helpers would pull children to the hallway and assist as children selected small shells, corn and pumpkin seeds for parents to secure with hot glue. SHOCKER: NO, I did NOT give each child a hot glue gun. I mean really, did you think I was crazy?!?

Headband complete, necklaces would be made with a dried Horse apple slice (those green crinkly orbs dropped from the Bois d’Arc tree) as the base, seeds and feathers selected by each child would then be hot glued on by attentive parent helpers. For a stylish touch, the rest of the necklace would have colored macaroni strung in a mathematical pattern on each side of the embellished horse apple. As we struggled to be as authentic as possible with our wardrobe design and construction, we came to the conclusion that given the opportunity, Native Americans would certainly have used colored macaroni!

Table decorations were equally important in the feast day prep work. Placemats were decorated with handprints traced and transformed into turkeys, and big, fat pinecones were stuffed with feathers and a hand drawn head for the cutest little Pinecone turkeys you have ever seen! Seeds were even glued to the base for the turkey to dine on in those all-important “fattening up” days leading to our big classroom eat-in!

By the time the calendar told us the big day was upon us, everyone, including this teacher was ready to scream ENOUGH already with this Thanksgiving hoo-ha!! Even so, the excitement was palpable in my classroom, with feelings of a job well done even though we hadn’t even started preparing the food!!

Choosing feast attire, the Pilgrims or the N.A’s (I SO want to just type Indians, in the sake of time, but I just can’t…), would almost always find the class majority wanting to wear those vests, headbands and necklaces instead of the drab Puritan attire. And who could blame them?? Those blueberry dyed headbands alone were stylish beyond words!! However, I would usually end up bribing a few of the kids to be our token Pilgrims. That first feast year, I practically had to paint the picture of Governor William Bradford being the King of all the Pilgrims sitting in a throne of honor at that first feast just to get ONE boy into the Pilgrim get up!! (Thank you Patrick Brunson for stepping up all those years ago and being the Pilgrim of Honor!!) As a consolation prize for everyone, on the day prior to feast, the wardrobe not being worn to the feast could be worn for corndog and steak finger consumption in the school cafeteria.

Finally, after weeks of learning and hours of creating and preparation, the sacred day of feasting arrived! The day before, I stayed late moving furniture and setting up stations were little hands would mix and measure, slice and dice, stir and pour. As last minute frantic worry would hit, the early morning hours would find me raiding my home kitchen for an extra everything and loading all in my car, just in case something was forgotten in the list making or not sent in by a well meaning, yet absent minded parent. On the back counters of the classroom, bulletin board paper was ready for moms to cover tables for messy food prep, stacks of decorated pillow cases, macaroni necklaces, Pilgrim hats and pinecone turkeys were organized and ready for distribution later in the morning.

Excited children walked into a very different classroom space, with lively chatter of the morning ahead. Invariably, a few girls would arrive with long braids, slated for a role later that morning as Pocahontas. Since moms were present as students arrived, most children were goofier than usual as they played out the scenario that I was never able to figure out: WHY do responsible, independent 5 year olds, my classroom leaders, revert to behavior of a spoiled 2 year old whenever a parent steps into the classroom?? I must confess, I took great joy in squelching those dramatic little vignettes!

I must mention that our Kindergartens were blessed to have a cooktop, oven, refrigerator and double sink in each classroom which made this wonderful learning experience possible! As children would complete chopping, shucking, cutting and mixing, food would be moved to the back counter area where more volunteers would take the food prep to the next level: actual cooking and baking.

As morning requisites of “I Pledge Allegiance” and listening to morning announcements were completed, the work of the morning was at hand! I would sit on the floor with a large circle of our future Pilgrims and N.A’s and give each child their own marching orders for the hours ahead. I would also speak in an especially louder voice as I would instruct, “The parent helpers are NOT here to do your job for you!! They are here to GUIDE AND ASSIST!” My fingers were crossed that they listened…the parents as much as the students!

Then, as I pulled a cutting board, paring knife and apple from my desk and moved it to the space in front of me, skeptical parents that were busy in the background would pause to watch if I was REALLY going to teach the children how to use paring knives. I would begin emphatic syllable pronunciation as I instructed where hands should be at all times, where the sharp part of the knife should be pointed, how to cut and slice the fruit, etc. All vowed to uphold the rules of paring knife usage to their utmost ability. (Fingers again crossed…with prayers offered as reinforcement!)

Once the last reminder of IF YOU HAVE TO WIPE YOUR NOSE YOU MUST, I REPEAT, MUST GO AND WASH YOUR HANDS!! WITH SOAP!!! was given, the endless hours of instruction and preparing began to unfold around us like an opening night Ballet at the Met! Busy little hands worked dutifully measuring sugar and pumpkin, taking the helm of the hand mixer as pumpkin pies began the transformation from canned goods to dessert, crushing cranberries with blocks in repetitive cadence, and shucking corn while marveling in rapt wonder at what corn looks like outside a Del Monte can.

During this time, I would monitor the entire classroom making sure every one was on task and not being a feast prep slacker. Before you would know it, all the busy food prep was completed, pies were in the oven, and the scent of warming turkey would be wafting across the classroom. Then, RECESS!! Kids move outside for well earned running and playing while our sainted parent helpers completed the baking and cooking, as others transformed the tables into works of Thanksgiving dining beauty!

Once word came that the food was almost ready, it would be time to pass out the garments for feasting. To say the children looked adorable couldn’t even begin to describe the scene!

Then, we would move inside to the hallway and practice “The Thankful Song,” pages illustrated by the children, lyrics and tune rehearsed over and over for weeks, ready for a special giving of thanks for the bounty enjoyed by these young Pilgrims and Native Americans, present day.  As we prepared for our big entrance, children peeked into the classroom as parents lined the walls, cameras and camcorders aimed and ready.  I would lead the children into the classroom where each child would search out their self-made placemat and pinecone turkey.  Seating assignments located, all would stand straight and prepare to belt out our Thankful Song with our best singing voices! When these precious little ones sang the following words never once did we reach the songs end without ME in tears:

     There are many things I am thankful for, I can find them near and far. 
     There are many things I am thankful for let me tell you what they are:
     I’m thankful for the Earth, I’m thankful for the Sea, I’m thankful for my 
     Friends, and I’m thankful to be me!
     There are many things I am thankful for and I know I’m not alone, 
     Can you find some things you are thankful for? Can you do it on your own?
     I’m thankful for my clothes, I’m thankful for my food, I’m thankful for my 
     Pets, and I’m thankful to be me!
     There are many things I am thankful for, and I know I’m not alone, 
     There are many things I am thankful for, I can tell you on my own!
     I’m thankful for my family, I’m thankful for my school, I’m thankful for my
     TEACHER, and I’m thankful to be me!  

(Of course, the word ‘Teacher’, was sung with extra gusto and heartfelt meaning!)

Then, wiping tears from my eyes, I would remind our young feasters to thank parents for helping, and that unless they were allergic, all Pilgrims and Native Americans were to at least TRY each and every culinary offering!  Over the years I had to settle with a few only licking the slice of pumpkin pie, but hey, by that point this enforcer was worn OUT!!  I’d settle for a lick!

At feast end, I would invariably have parents admit to skepticism of how such a big event would play out, but even now, years down the road, I will still have parents talking about Kindergarten Feast Day outshining all other events of that first school year.  The students pride in their hard work– not only one morning, but in weeks of preparation could not have been more evident in each face that day!  That same pride was also surely seen in the face of this teacher watching those dear faces chomp down on an ear of corn, Pilgrim hats cocked to the side, and those melodic words being heard for the first time, “Hey, I didn’t know I liked Pumpkin Pie!”  (Those words did NOT come from the pie licker in case you were wondering!)

On feast afternoon, as I packed up my car with platters, pots and pans, food processors, and pie plates, I would always give a sigh of relief that this big day came off without a hitch.  Never in all the years of this event in my room was a finger severed or even nicked by the dreaded paring knives! Maybe I followed the directions of Mrs. Brisko just like I was taught!  

There are many things I am thankful for, I can tell you that for sure!  First, for being blessed with the “job” of teaching young children in Kindergarten–the hardest job I have ever had, or will ever have–and the BEST honor of a lifetime!  Second, I am thankful for so many teachers who over time lent their experiences and knowledge to this Kindergarten teacher.  I only reached the heights I did by standing on their shoulders.  To one of those teachers, Cindy Brisko, it was her continuing inspiration and willingness to share her knowledge and ideas for exceptional teaching that became my source of greatest influence.  As I move on now to work on my doctorate in Early Childhood teacher training, I  hope that I can pass on what I have learned from Cindy and others to the next generation of Kindergarten teachers.  May they each distribute paring knives with confidence to the young sous chefs of the future!

Surrounded by inspiration and excellence!  Dear friends and teaching colleagues, Lex Anne Seifert, Linda Adams, Mr. Creel (Barrymore to Mrs. Brisko), my Kindergarten Teaching Idol, Cindy Brisko and Tammy Mandel, fellow member of the original Denton Creek Elementary Kindergarten team and teaching inspiration for me in her own right! 

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