Thursday, November 8, 2012

Teaching My Own: Talking Turkey

One of the really fun things about teaching my own is that my mind was blown on pretty much a daily basis. Sure, John Holt had rearranged the furniture in my brain with his radical teachings about education, but to see those ideas play out right before my eyes was quite another thing.

My little blonde-haired babies were teaching me so much.

Take these turkeys, for example. 

From these cutesy pine cone creations, and many other projects like them, I realized that the act of creating something was pivotal to accessing my daughters' brains. If I wanted to share some information with them, and be sure that it would stick, I quickly discovered that a project was the best tool for opening their minds.

{Years later, I learned the essential facts about brain physiology that explain this phenomenon scientifically. But let's not jump ahead. The simple fact is that doing things helped my daughters' brains absorb new information.}

Raised in a traditional classroom environment, this was all new to me. In my world, students were to sit quietly at their desks as the teacher explained new ideas, or silently read about them in textbooks. We might then answer questions, do a worksheet, or maybe watch the teacher do some sort of demonstration. But we were allowed to roll up our sleeves and actually make stuff only during our once-a-week art class, or as a very special occasion.

With my daughters, making things became a daily act of learning. By observing their interests and fine motor skills, and using my imagination freely, I got better at choosing and implementing successful projects. We all enjoyed the challenges and excitement of this new style of learning.

* * * * *

About the turkeys. Seasons and holidays were a big focus in our early years of schooling; my kids loved to make any kind of seasonal decorations, and I found our creative sessions to be a perfect time to casually interject in a few interesting tidbits about the topic at hand. Often times, I would use the projects as a springboard to reading a book on a topic that I was hoping to pursue. Allow me to demonstrate:

We started this project with a pile of pine cones and hazel nuts. Each girl picked out her turkey's head and body, then I helped to hot glue the nut onto the cone at a pleasing angle. Then we wrapped a short section of yellow pipe cleaner around the middle of his body, tucking it into the ridges on the cone, and fashioning the two ends into supportive feet. 

"These are kinda like the turkeys we will eat on Thanksgiving. Did you know that a long, long time ago, people used to eat turkey, just like we do? But they didn't buy them at the store. There were lots of turkeys in the woods where they lived, so when they wanted to have a feast, they would go hunting for turkeys." 

Next came the exciting part. We painted the body and head. No scientific accuracy here - all colors and stylistic preferences were encouraged. From very early ages, my kids preferred to use acrylic paints; they do lend such a pleasing sensation and satisfying coverage to any art project. Though there was often a baby in the high chair who like to suck on her paintbrush (there's one in every crowd), so she would get tempera instead.

As with any project, there is potential for frustration, and I learned that it pays to adapt and troubleshoot as quickly as possible. With this project, I discovered that pine cones can be tricky to paint, and in desperate times, you can pour a little paint in a shallow bowl and dip the pine cones in.

"The Native Americans used to hunt turkeys, and when people from across the ocean - the Pilgrims - came over to live here too, the Native Americans helped them get food and for a while, they were friends. One year, when the Pilgrims had a really great harvest, they all had a big feast to celebrate." 

With any big project, we would break for lunch while things were drying, and then put anyone who was cranky down for a rest. 

After lunch came the last and most tedious part of the process. We hot-glued a kernel of unpopped popcorn onto Mr. Turkey's face for a beak. From felt, the girls did their best to cut out tiny eyes and a red gobbler, and we used a dab of tacky glue to attach them. 


"So at this big feast, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans even had popcorn. They had soooo much good food, and they played games too. For three days! Hey, here's a book about what they did at their thanksgiving party...let's check it out."

* * * * * 

Now I'll admit that my daughters might have jumped out of bed that morning, ready and willing to listen to a book about the history of the American colonies. 

But after making these cute little turkeys, and opening their imaginations to the wonders of that early feast, I knew beyond a doubt that they were ready gobble it up.

* * * * *

For more stories about my Thanksgiving traditions, read:


  1. I love projects! And this one will be perfect for entertaining the kids during Thanksgiving break!

    1. Here's hoping they will come up with some twist to add to the danger/excitement value of this simple project. Tiny muskets perhaps?
      A before-and-after pair of turkeys showing one after the butchering process? Please let me know what they create!


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