Classroom of the Week: Undermountain first-graders fly high with new tradition

SHEFFIELD — A new tradition is blowing up at Undermountain Elementary School.

The third annual First-Grade Balloon Parade stepped off at 2 p.m. Nov. 20, with its grand marshal, better known as Principal Charles Miller, cutting the ribbon to the route around the school's hallways.

The first-graders marched by hoisting their favorite characters and original creations, which included Snoopy, a monkey, a caterpillar, a snowman and multiple Pikachus, among others. Other classrooms took a break from their regularly scheduled lessons to look and cheer on their peers.

Unlike the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which inspired the grade-wide project, the Undermountain balloons are nowhere nearly as gargantuan as the ones that tower over New York City's Times Square, nor are they filled with helium.

First-grade teacher Ashley Lotz, who organizes the event and created the curriculum with her colleague, Christina Carlson, said the first year they did try using smaller balloons, but with accident-prone youngsters, the balloons didn't all withstand the parade. This year, Bridget Krans and Amanda Rossi also helped with the program.

So these days, first-graders are tasked with using other household materials, like paper, felt, tape, glue, glitter and cardboard to bring their creations to life. They then hold their characters above their heads as they amble down their parade route.

"It's fun," said first-grader Chloe Hotaling. "Really fun."

Asked about how it felt to share his finished creation, a Snoopy dog, Lucas Van Deusen said, "It makes me feel happy."

"Everyone works really, really hard on them," said Tyler Seward.

The whole project starts with research.

The teachers conduct lessons introducing both fiction and non-fiction about the history of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. They learned that in the 1920s, as Macy's department store expanded its business, it also expanded its workforce. Many of these newcomers were immigrants who were proud of both their homeland traditions, like festivals, and wanted to celebrate their new American heritage in advent of the holiday season. So the company's president, Herbert Strauss, agreed to let them have a parade.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The classes also read "Balloons over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade" by Melissa Sweet, which tells the story of balloon innovator Tony Sarg, and "Milly and the Macy's Parade" by Shana Corey and Brett Helquist, which fictionalizes the immigrants who come together to bring the parade to life.

"In general, the kids are learning about how different people come from different cultures, and the different ways our cultures can come together and be shared to do something good," Lotz said.

After their reading and writing lessons, the students practice their drafting skills. Each first-grader must come up with a design and a plan for their balloon, integrating science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics or STEAM skills. They have to draw sketches, list materials and test out their designs to make sure they're stable.

"They always amaze us," said Lotz. "We have parents and family members that come in, but we're just there to help. I'm in charge of hot glue, and that's it. For the most part they have to do the work and do it on their own, and they do a great job each year."


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