Here's How We're Making Halloween Work for All Our Students

There is a schism in U.S. education. I’m not talking about Common Core or the latest state tests. I’m talking about Halloween. Halloween. The word is enough to send shivers through the spines of most educators. It truly is a day of terror for teachers. All that exuberant energy, all those costumes shedding glitter and fake fur all over the classroom, all that candy spilling out of pockets and lunch boxes. There are a lot of reasons to hate Halloween. And that is why, all over America, different districts, different schools and even different classrooms have different rules about October 31. To Halloween or not Halloween? That is the question. Even if you don’t celebrate, the spirit of Halloween is all around us. The stores fill with candy and costumes, pumpkins pop up on porches and on TV a good portion of America spends an evening with Charlie Brown and Snoopy. But as far as school policies go there is no “All” in All Hallows Eve. I grew up in a very religious part of Oregon where it was not uncommon to hear complaints about Halloween because it is a pagan holiday. As a result, many schools now embrace “Harvest Celebrations” rather than Halloween. Food allergies and the loss of academic time is also a large factor in schools choosing not to celebrate Halloween. I can’t accept any of these reasons not to celebrate Halloween.

My First and Almost Last Halloween Party as a Teacher

I remember my first year teaching when I weighed out whether my class would be Halloween or Halloween-free. I took all of those things into consideration, I asked the parents of all of my students if they celebrated. Everyone did. In the planning process, I called on the many Halloween parties I enjoyed from elementary school. I remember Mitch Rivard’s mother bringing a cauldron of punch with dry ice in it that drifted across the snack table just like a monster movie. I remember the year the cupcakes were frosted to look like giant eyeballs and were so gross some of the girls wouldn’t eat them. I also remember the community spirit of spending a few hours making the decorations and planning a party together. And I pulled all of those things together and created the all-time best Halloween Party ever, in the history of Mr. B’s Classroom. Despite my best efforts, I was met with a classroom of sad faces and tears. The dry ice was cool but it didn’t make up for the fact that several of my kids were too poor to buy a costume. Many of my kids had parents who were working two jobs and didn’t have any time to make a costume from scratch. One of my kids came from a house where they really didn’t give a damn if their kid had lunch, let alone a costume. I looked around the room, a little bit like Carrie at the prom, with absolute horror filling me. I saw glittery fairy wings and chiffon next to the kid in the pajamas they had probably worn to bed last night. I saw a cowboy with the hat, and the boots and a fringed leather vest next to a kid in a cardboard box that looked a little bit like a robot that might have fallen off a roof—he was actually a police car (That looked like it also might have fallen off a roof). There were two ghosts from sheets. One was shiny and white with holes cut out for eyes. One was not-so-white and draped around the head because this family didn’t have a sheet they could cut up. Interspersed with the princesses, fairies and ghosts were the kids with nothing. A few industrious students had attempted face painting with markers (that was an interesting call home) but several kids just hung back from the crowd. Their costumes were looks of sadness, some looks of envy and an overall look that they had just been put on display. That was almost my first and last Halloween party as a teacher.

How We Saved Halloween

But as the year passed, I saw the same thing happen when it came to birthdays. Some kids showed up with platters of cupcakes to celebrate, others, of course, did not. Do I ban birthdays now too? No, because I realized those kids with nothing might be going home to nothing. And so, even as a first-year teacher eating peanut butter sandwiches every single day for a year, I ran to the store at lunch and I bought cupcakes. Birthday after birthday after birthday I bought cupcakes and not because I’m a hero—I’m not—but because I’m a teacher and I cannot let that kid with nothing feel like nothing in my class. That could not be a lesson learned in my classroom. And just like birthdays, I realized I did not have to ban Halloween either. What I had to do was create a Halloween where every kid could participate. The party became the lesson plan. The students made the decorations, they set up the room, and, most importantly, they made their costumes at school. One year we made robot masks and had a robot party. Another year I drew up a set of crowns and Tudor jewels for a royal Halloween. In the end Halloween was saved because I found value in my students creating their own space and their own entertainment. As a special education teacher we look at life skills all the time. Is knowing how to put together a celebration and how to behave at a party, not a life skill? I deemed it was. My students and their parents agreed with me. I ask every year and every parent has said OK to a Halloween party. But some day, some parent will say no and it will all have to change. I remember in elementary school when the students who were Jehovah’s Witnesses would file out of the classroom and head to the library every time a holiday was celebrated. I always felt sorry for them as a kid and as their teacher. Well, no kid of mine is going to go sit in the library while the rest of us eat eyeball cupcakes. For that kid, we’ll all celebrate the Harvest. And so to Halloween or not to Halloween is not necessarily the question you should be asking. But perhaps how to Halloween with equality is what we should be talking about. Besides, if we are going to ban anything, let’s ban November 1. Every teacher knows it is the candy-fueled day after Halloween that strikes the real terror in our hearts! If you’re looking to help your students create costumes, check out my free resource, Tudor Bling, on Teachers Pay Teachers where you can download 22 pages of instant costumes!
Brett Bigham
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to ...

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