Monday, October 05, 2009

Halloween Part 2: “It’s A Big Circle.”

(Note: This post is the second in my multi-part Halloween extravaganza. Here’s the first one in case you missed it.)

My daughter Josephine’s birthday falls on the day before Halloween, so it’s always been a significant celebration for our family. For her second birthday I lined our mantelpiece with a half dozen jack-o-lanterns carved from some of those small sugar pumpkins (they’re tough little buggers to carve; I don’t recommend it). For each subsequent year, we’ve added more and larger jacks until last October when I carved nearly 50. They lined the driveway, dotted the lawn, stood guard on fence posts, crowded our upstairs balcony, and even leered down at party guests from the branches of trees.

It’s only natural that this mid-autumn hobby of mine would roll into the classroom.

We generally start with 8-10 pumpkins of various sizes and they become visitors in our classroom, sometimes hanging out in the block area where they are rolled around, hauled in the beds of toy trucks, and included in constructions.

Sometimes we find them in the drama area where they become the centerpiece for imaginary meals, or family members in a game of playing house.

Sometimes they’re in the sensory table where they’re poked and prodded with various tools, or buried in beans, rice and seeds. We’ve learned that they float in water.

Sometimes they find themselves on the art table where children draw on them with markers, then erase them with damp cloths.

They even make an appearance in the “hay maze” we build out of gym mats standing on end.

But even the youngest children know their destiny is as jack-o-lanterns. And sure enough, one day, as the excitement for Halloween is reaching a fevered pitch, I position myself in the middle of the classroom with a big tub between my feet and start carving.

I’m capable of carving quickly – I can usually knock out a good one every 10 minutes when I’m in production line mode – but with these I take my time.

I start by showing them my pumpkin saw. (The pumpkin saw, incidentally, is a terrific innovation in the world of squash carving. It’s far, far superior to the traditional kitchen knife in that it gives you more control and allows for quicker, more precise outcomes. It’s fortunate that they’re cheep because I usually snap off at least 4-5 of them every season.) I explain that it’s an adult tool, that it’s designed for cutting, and that they should, therefore, keep their fingers to themselves.

The next thing we do is predict what we’re going to find inside. The older kids are generally confident we’ll find seeds, but many of the 2-year-olds genuinely don’t know. One of the most common off-target predictions is “candy,” which is logical given how closely the holiday is tied to sugary sweets.

I then angle the knife into the pumpkins and saw a circle around the stem, pointing out the shape and making further silly predictions about what we’ll find inside. We pull off the top with some fanfare, then I invite the children to help clean out the pulp and the seeds. There are rarely more than one or two takers in the bunch, contrary to what one might expect, and even these brave souls only pull out a couple of fist’s full each. (This is where I’m able to save a great deal of time in the carving process. I’ve learned through experience that if you scrape down the insides too well, you accelerate the rotting process. In other words, I leave most of the pulp and seeds inside, just removing enough to make room for a candle. Personally, I like the look of all those grisly innards dangling down behind the features of my jacks when they’re lit, and the fragrance of burning pumpkin innards is actually quite intoxicating.)

Now comes the time to start making the faces. We spend a lot of energy discussing what kind of expressions we want (happy, sad, angry, surprised, scary, etc.) and what shape the individual features will take (triangles, squares, circles, ovals, wiggly, etc.). The final touch is to carve the triangle-shaped “chimney” into the “hat,” then we sing the song:

Once I had a pumpkin
A pumpkin
A pumpkin
Once I had a pumpkin
With no face at all.

With no eyes
And no nose
And no mouth
With no teeth.

Once I had a pumpkin
With no face at all.

Now I have a jack-o-lantern
A jack-o-lantern
A jack-o-lantern
Now I have a jack-o-lantern
With a happy (sad, angry, etc.) face.

With happy eyes
And a happy nose
And a happy mouth
With happy teeth

Now I have a jack-o-lantern
With a happy (sad, angry, etc.) face.

Once the carving is done we’ll have an array of expressions to refer to at Circle Time as we sing: “If you’re happy (sad, angry, etc.) and you know it . . . your pumpkin face will show it.”

I save some of the cut-out facial pieces, clean them, then use a few of the jacks as “pumpkin puzzles” over the next couple days with the eyes, noses, mouths, and “hats” as the puzzle pieces.

The jacks live in the classroom until our traditional evening party, when they are taken outside to the playground to be lit. When it gets good and dark, I sneak out to our garden and arrange the jacks along the top of the fence where they smile, scowl, leer, and pout down upon the children as we tour the "Jack-o-lantern Garden." It looks wonderful and smells like pumpkin pie.

But Halloween is not the end of our pumpkins’ lives at Woodland Park. In many ways it’s only the beginning.

On the Tuesday Pre-K class following the parties, at least one jack takes part in our David Letterman-inspired science experiment called “Break or Bounce,” which involves me climbing to the top of a ladder and dropping various things off to see what happens. The jack, needless to say, is usually one of the highlights.

The rest of the jacks are piled into the beds of our garden, where over the course of the next several weeks, we fill them with dirt, drop them, stomp them, chop them, squish them. We notice teeth marks where the squirrels have gnawed on them. We talk about the bugs that come to infest them. We discuss their future as worm food. We examine them as they change texture, grow mold, and become piles of mush. We notice, ultimately, that only the stems remain.

Last year, during our Pre-3 party, as we admired the glowing jacks, Sammantha, Woodland Park grad and older sister of Alex, said to me: “Tomorrow you’ll put all of these jack-o-lanterns into the garden, then they’ll decompose and become dirt and a pumpkin vine will grow from one of the seeds.”

She’d been through the process 3 times during her years with us and knew the drill.

Sure enough, when I arrived to open school this fall, there was a pumpkin vine twining across the garden.

As Sammy said, “It’s a big circle.”

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Mama Llama said...

There is a great song by Peter Mayer, "John's Garden", that I used to play a lot for my students in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

(The song starts at about 1:40)

Do you sprinkle a little cinnamon and nutmeg in your pumpkins before you light them? smells extra delish!!

dv.x.3 said...

you've given me many a-ha moments since I first started reading your blog, but the one about leaving the pumpkin innards? Brilliant! Less work for me, more olfactory pleasure, and extra creepiness to boot. I know how I'll be carving my pumpkins this year. Thanks!

Teacher Tom said...

I've been thinking about that Mama Llama, maybe I will try some spices this year.

Thanks for the song tip.

Teacher Tom said...

Thanks sprouts! Likewise on the inspiration.

Kathy said...

Wow. I wish the Dragon went to your school. I love all the many different ways you use a single item.

Anonymous said...

I'm excited about going to get my son's pumpkin this week. My wife works the weekend, but she has Thursday off, so we're going to go find a cool farmer's market or pumpkin patch and carve one up for him. Love the idea of adding the cinnamon and nutmeg from the comment above, going to have to try that too.

Mama Llama said...

If you light your Jack-o-lanterns with a candle, sprinkle some cinnamon and nutmeg onto the lid and then rub it in a bit. The heat from the candle really releases the scent from the spices. Every year, the trick-or-treaters at my door exclaim over the smells and ask me what I'm cooking. I always tell them "pumpkin!".

Pumpkin Delight (Kimberly) said...

We do a math/place value activity with our classroom pumpkin and his seeds. After spending the week before observing, describing, and predicting the amount of seeds inside, the pumpkin becomes a member of the classroom. More often than not "gasps" fill the room as I use my knife to cut the top off the pumkin.
I wonder if your little ones are shocked when you cut into your new classroom "toys".

Unknown said...

What a great tip about the pumpkin innards! I always scrape them all out! I would love to see a picture of yours when they are all done! OK? : )