Whoever doubts the commitment of teachers should visit a school on Halloween.
For many years, my 8th grade bands put on a Halloween concert. By late fall, these students had about two years’ worth of instruction and playing experience. A concert two months into the school year provided an important performance goal, right out of the chute.There were three 8th grade bands—two concert bands and a jazz ensemble—so we had enough musicians to put on a fun, hour-long show.
There are lots of solid pedagogical reasons to perform in late October, beginning with the literature, well-known classical adaptations, music written in earlier centuries to illustrate demons and witches, things that go bump in the night. Concepts like program music and minor keys are easy to teach with this music—and equally easy for parents and siblings to listen to, bringing families into school for an evening of wholesome, community fun.
The students were in costume. The first time we held a Halloween concert, back in the 1980s, this was a hard sell: What? Me? Sophisticated 14-year old in a Halloween costume?
Boys resisted more than girls, but could be persuaded to show in up their shoulder pads or hockey jerseys—or to paint on a mustache. By the third year, however, it was an Official Tradition and 8th graders were talking about their concert costumes in September, and pointedly reminding 7th graders that the concert was a perk reserved for 8th graders.
My costume never varied. I was always the Wicked Witch of the Band Room, carrying my broomstick to the podium, a role that felt pretty natural.
I would argue that dressing up and playing (often challenging) “scary” music is good curricular and instructional practice. It encourages young adolescents to be kids again in an increasingly frightening adult world—playful and artistic, sharing their burgeoning talents with their community.
That playful approach applies to many disciplines—which makes all celebratory activities today, from counting pumpkin seeds to a reading of Shirley Jackson, good ways to explore cultural themes (and, yes, practice skills and increase knowledge).
Over the years, we ran into a couple of snags, mostly around the fact that costumes were influenced by the arrival of pop-up Halloween stores and the new availability of violence-soaked props. We
had to have a rule about gruesome costumes (the kind that scare little children in the audience). Then, we had to have more rules about “sexy” costumes and ethnically inappropriate and insulting costumes.
None of those rules or discussions were a genuine problem, however. More like opportunities to talk about our values and goals. Middle schools kids are surprisingly good at understanding cultural misappropriation and why it’s wrong (better than adults, actually)—and why phony guns and “bloody” machetes don’t belong in schools. Every conversation I had with my students or their parents about the Halloween concert led, in my experience, to better understandings about our community and how we wanted it to be a safe and supportive place for everyone to live.
The key word here is conversations. A public school is a kind of stage, where the values of a community are played out. The more schools squash play, creativity, and artistic expression, the more colorless and tedious curriculum becomes.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.