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Thanksgiving feasts help students learn


The menus vary. And the table settings change. But over the years, there has been one constant part of the school Thanksgiving feast: construction-paper headgear.

Some students don colorful paper feathers. Others  buckle hats and bonnets made from more neutral-colored construction paper.

And at Winding Creek Elementary School in Stafford County, there has been one other constant: Melissa Zubick, who has taught for more than 40 years.

In that time, the dress code for the Thanksgiving feast hasn’t changed that much. Last week, Zubick’s students donned paper headdresses and vests, and invited their fifth-grade reading buddies to dress up as Pilgrims and join them for a holiday lunch.

In recent times, the paper vests crafted to resemble Native American attire have changed materials. Now they’re created from bulletin-board paper. But fifth-grader Madison Fleming remembers a time in the not-so-distant past when the vests were crafted differently.

“I remember making my vest back when I was in kindergarten,” Madison said. “We made them out of  bags from the grocery store.”

But times have changed, Zubick said.

“These days, it’s hard to find paper bags at the grocery store,” the teacher said.

Homemade goodies have also fallen by the wayside. Now, all of the treats must come from a store—and in their original packaging—a nod to the increasing awareness of food allergies. It’s a trend reflected in the “nut-free classroom” signs in the halls of Winding Creek.

And there’s another change from when Zubick began teaching. These days, aspects of the annual feast—like just about everything else in school—will show up on the standardized tests in the spring.

Zubick hasn’t changed the usual festivities, but now she focuses on how they will help students prepare for their Standards of Learning tests in the spring.

The students still decorate their vests with patterns of  Native American symbols. And they re-create the 1621 feast of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag. The patterns will be on the kindergartners’ math Standards of Learning test. And the details of the first Thanksgiving will show up on the social studies exams.

“This is a good way to get them to learn,” Zubick said. “They’re excited about the Pilgrims and the Indians, and they don’t realize they’re doing math and social studies.”

The hands-on learning helps the students remember their stuff come test time—and even after.

“This brings back a lot of memories,” fifth-grader Caroline Loving said as she sat on a terry-cloth “animal skin” in Zubick’s classroom.

“Yeah, you remember everything when you come back,” Madison agreed, glancing around her old kindergarten classroom.

She gestured toward her construction-paper bonnet. “I forgot about this in fourth grade, but then I came back and now I remember all of it.”

Amy Flowers Umble:  540/735-1973