By Amy Orr, Special to the Independent
“Heel and a toe, and a heel and a toe, and a slide, slide, slide.” The song repeated its rhythmic instructions as students guided their parents around the floor at Top of the World Elementary.
Square dancing brought smiles to the multi-purpose room as Pioneer Day drew to a close. Mothers and fathers counted their steps and tried to keep pace with their children. It was a special time for connection and reflection.
“I get so much joy from the square dancing, especially when I look at the parents. It almost becomes a tearful moment for me, seeing the pride on their faces,” said fifth grade teacher Teryl Campbell.
Now retired teacher Toni Flores started Pioneer Day about 30 years ago, according to long-time TOW office assistant Claudia Redfern. Designed to help fifth graders connect with their studies about western expansion, the program became an annual school-year culmination, which took place at TOW last Friday, June 19, days before the final bell this week.
Each year, students are encouraged to don western attire. Classrooms are filled with cowboy hats, flannel shirts and prairie skirts. Throughout the morning, fifth grade teachers manage immersive history stations to give students a taste of pioneer life.
This year, youngsters had the opportunity to try their hands at calligraphy, quilting, tin-smithing, and authentic pioneer games. Students rotated through each of the stations, learning a bit of history as they acquired new skills.
n Azadeh Baghai’s room, students dipped feathers into ink and wrote their names on bookmarks. Alice Mitsuka was excited to learn calligraphy, but said that “writing with a quill was actually really hard to do.”
The sound of hammers filled the air in Campbell’s classroom as students pierced pieces of tin.
“We’re making designs the way people really used to do it,” student Grace Gilchrist said as she pounded a pattern into the metal.
“The pioneer games were different than I expected them to be, but they were my favorite,” said classmate Jacob Diver.
Alfie Cant and Ava Knepper both loved the quilting experience. Alfie pointed proudly to his careful arrangement of colored squares. Ava was also pleased with the way her piece came out.
“My grandma taught me how to sew, but this is my first time coming up with my own design,” said Ava. “I did three different quilt square drawings before I got started.”
John Franconi, father of twins Julianna and Russell, said he was impressed by the hand-on learning. “When I was a student, we learned everything from textbooks,” he said, “but this school is experiential. I think it’s great; a day like this pulls everything together for the kids. They really internalize what they’ve learned.”
Historical touches were evident even during the break, as the young pioneers carried pails and baskets of food and spread blankets on the grass.
Moms and dads joined their children in the sun, soaking up the final moments of elementary school. Kelly Zinser said her son Dylan was really excited for her to take the day off from work and spend it with him.
“This is one of our last programs with the fifth graders before they leave for Thurston,” said teacher Susan Anderson. “It’s nice to have everyone celebrating American history and spending time together.”
After lunch, parents filled the seats in the multi-purpose room. Phones and cameras clicked as an enormous student chorus belted ballads. Microphones amplified the words of the soloists. Behind them, a row of fifth grade guitar players strummed accompaniment.
After they finished singing, the youngsters got into their positions for square dancing. They glanced toward their parents with eager anticipation.
“At first it was kind of weird dancing with a boy,” said Ava. “But after you get used to it, it’s actually a lot of fun.”
The fifth graders danced several numbers, then asked family members to join them for the last song. Seats emptied as parents jumped up to partner with their children.
Most of the adults didn’t know the steps and some couldn’t keep the beat, but they muddled through the moves, clapping and laughing together.