In Mr. Sweeney’s home room at John Witherspoon Middle School (JWMS) last Friday, sixth graders enjoyed their own version of an Alice in Wonderland tea party. There were several Alices and a few mad hatters as well as some furry creatures and kings. Each student had devised his or her own invitation and each had come up with an interesting fact about their own birth dates to share.
In keeping with the theme, each had brought along a gift chosen especially for Alice as well as riddles they’d made up themselves. “The idea behind the gifts is to draw upon the students’ analysis of Alice’s character, which changes as the story progresses and she matures,” commented English teacher James Sweeney.
Anna’s gift was a locket in which Alice could place a photograph of her cat Dinah. Mollie brought three pictures of her own cat to share with Alice. Jimmy brought a cat toy so that Alice could entice Dinah into her next adventure. Colin brought her chocolates because, as he pointed out, when she eats, she grows bigger. Other gifts included a shape-changing kit from Josie and a dictionary from Ben who pointed out that Alice might need a little help because of her “mismatchings and misspellings.”
Joe’s riddle stumped quite a few: “I am a rock group that has four members, one of whom was assassinated. What am I?” If the Beatles immediately spring to mind, think again and revise your interpretation of the word “rock” and think presidential. Precisely the sort of wordplay that Lewis Carroll would have enjoyed.
Alice Day started with a tea party in each sixth grade class before a grand parade in the gymnasium where everyone had a chance to check out each others costumes, including those of the adults involved. “The kids love it when the teachers dress up too,” said Mr. Sweeney, who was sporting dormouse nose, ears, and tail.
Guidance Councilor Evelyn Counts came as a playing card. Social studies teacher Connie Esher had sprouted butterfly wings. An unidentified staffer, completely disguised in a rabbit costume, caused some speculation as to who he or she might be. One teacher was “decked” from top to toe in playing cards; others were characters from Alice in Wonderland.
While the students were most definitely having fun, there was serious educational content behind the maze constructions, towers built from playing cards, problem-solving, and language activities that took place throughout the day.
“Carroll’s masterpiece ties into the Language Arts Curriculum in various ways,” said teacher Mary McNamara, who conceived of Alice Day some 18 years ago when she was looking for an activity that would cap the Language Arts unit that her students had done on Lewis Carroll. She wanted something, she said, that would do justice to the energy her students had put into their studies. “They had worked hard to conquer the elaborate levels of the political satire within the British humor of Alice’s adventures,” she recalled. “It presents some challenges for middle-schoolers in terms of political satire, puns, malapropisms, parody, allusion, and ideas from the past relating to girls’ roles and children’s rights.”
Though Alice Day was born in Ms. McNamara’s middle school classroom, the idea spread. Before long, other sixth grade teachers were joining in. “Alice Day instills the wonderful idea that playing with words can be fun. Students love that it is logical but doesn’t actually make sense,” she said.
Ms. McNamara, who taught mathematics before teaching English, reported that her students are fascinated by the fact that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician and could write too. “Alice Day brightens the winter as it’s held on the last Friday of January so it’s something to look forward to after the winter break, a whole day to celebrate their learning.” The day ends with students dancing their own version of the Lobster Quadrille. Remember the lines?
“Will you walk a little faster? said a whiting to a snail/There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail ….”
Chances are students at JWMS know Carroll’s verses pretty well, sense or nonsense.