Sunday, October 26, 2014

Looking through the Trick-or-Treat bag for History:

Ideas for Teaching about Halloween

I never realized that there was history, close at hand beside my very own home. I did not realize that the old grave that stood among the brambles at the foot of our farm was history.

— Stephen Leacock

In my work with student teachers, there are two days that I will never observe them teach: the Friday before spring break and Halloween. No teacher wants to be evaluated on those days.

And this year, Halloween falls on a Friday. Of course, there is no reason why you cannot go about your business and teach whatever topic you are on. As I mentioned in my last post, I meant my next post to be about slavery. But then I got thinking about Halloween and the quotation above, and I thought, why not teach something about the history of Halloween next Friday? I like the idea of getting students to see that history is all around them. Even at the bottom of the trick-or-treat bag.

I live just outside Chicago within biking distance of one of the Mars Candy Co. headquarters and Ferrara Pan Co. factory (maker of Lemonheads, Redhots and Jugyfruits among others). The Chicago area is also home to Blommer's Chocolate Factory, which (according to their website) is the largest cocoa processor and chocolate supplier in North America. You can smell the chocolate up to a mile away depending on the direction of the wind. Very Willy Wonka-esque.

When I drive on I-294, I go past the rotating Baby Ruth/Butterfinger sign. And I love to see the Wrigley building on the Chicago River when it’s lit up at night. Yes, that Wrigley. Chicago used to be the candy capital of America. At one time it produced up to a third of all the candy in the country, as I learned two years ago at a wonderful little exhibit at the Elmhurst Historical Museum (if you’re in the Chicago area, check out their website. It says you can contact the curator for a traveling version of the exhibition).  

But even if you live nowhere near a candy factory, you can still teach a lesson about candy and Halloween.  Halloween is the second largest commercial holiday in the country, and I read somewhere that we spend an estimated six billion dollars on it. Of course, Halloween was not always such a big deal. Neither was Christmas, for that matter. I remember being surprised when I first learned that Puritans in colonial New England had banned the celebration of Christmas.
Teaching students about how the holiday of Halloween has evolved offers opportunities to see that history is everywhere; that our celebrations of holidays changes over time and is impacted by other changes in society.

For example, both Christmas and Halloween have been profoundly affected by immigration. The tradition of Christmas trees came from German immigrants and carving pumpkins may have evolved from an Irish tradition of carving turnips into lanterns during an Irish festival marking the end of the harvest. (See here.) Candy-making, too, was influenced by immigration. (See below for more info).

So below are some additional websites I have found that are useful for pulling together a lesson on either Halloween or candy or both. What would you do with them? Well, I have also recently been looking into the concept of Genius Hour. While the whole point of genius hour is to let students explore what interests them, not to predetermine the topic, I think you could still adapt the idea by giving them the predetermined topic.
Here is a link to a post that describes doing something like that in a Civil War unit in a middle school setting. (This is Project Based Learning or PBL. Find out more about that here.) Perhaps you could adapt this to Halloween for a day and ask students one big question and then let them go to town trying to find answers and information. So maybe--it's Halloween Friday, so why not?--just have students look through some of the websites I have listed below and see what they come up with about one of the questions below:

How has the holiday of Halloween changed over time and why?
What can we learn about history from the history of candy?

Or perhaps you can eliminate the question and have the students come up with a good, historical question. (Admittedly, teaching students how to ask historical questions is something that you really have to train students how to do in advance. Maybe this could be your first lesson in a series of lessons teaching about how to ask good questions.) So maybe you could try something really basic: Find one fun or cool fact to share with the class and one "interesting" question (as opposed to historical--just see what they come up with. Just make sure it's not a factual-type question. Find some way for students to post this online or share. 

Just one suggestion: do NOT make any of this a homework assignment over the Halloween weekend!

  • Edsitement's website has a page about Halloween and other similar festivals around the world. It includes information about the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico, along with other festivals (If you have a significant Hispanic population at your school, it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two. I was in Mexico City last October, just before Day of the Dead and was surprised at the markets to find so many more decorations for American-style Halloween than traditional sugar skulls and Mexican decorations!) The website also contains lesson ideas and links to the American Memory Project's documents about Halloween. (If you've never been to the American Memory Project, it is an essential website. Check it out!)
  • The History Channel has a brief history.
  • I missed this exhibit at the University of Chicago, but it's online now. There are quite a few images and a page on the history of chocolate and candymaking in Chicago.
  • See "Halloween by the Numbers," where you can find statistics from the U.S. census.
  • See this "flashback" article from the Chicago Tribune about the role of immigrants and Chicago in the history of candy. This book is for those of you who live in Chicago and want to learn more.
  • An article from the Huffington Post about Chicago and candymaking.
  • This article from Forbes discusses current economics/business news related to the holiday.
  • This article from the Smithsonian's website discusses the history of candy, Halloween and the surprising relationship between candy and medicine.
  • is an online store, but has surprisingly good (and fun!) historic resources, including a timeline, a list of discontinued candy, a history overview, and lots of nostalgic candy ads and old TV commercials. Check out their candy timeline.
  • And last, but certainly not least, check out this blog I just found called History Spaces. I found it when googling the history of the Baby Ruth candy bar. (Shorter article on the Baby Ruth candy bar here.) Great stories at this blog about all kind of really random things and useful for teaching the idea that history is everywhere.

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