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The City Journals

Roaring ’20s comes alive for Early Light Academy students

Mar 08, 2018 02:44PM ● By Julie Slama

Early Light Academy’s junior high PE teacher Shannon James teaches students how to do the Charleston as they learn about the 1920s as part of the school’s Day in History. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

It was back to the days of the first Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, “Steamboat Willie,” newspaper boys and Al Capone. It marked when Americans first used radios and refrigerators in their homes, and toward the end of the decade, it was the last years of the Model T on the assembly line and Amelia Earhart being the first female passenger to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. It was the era of American artist Georgia O’Keefe, bloomers and the Charleston. 

The Roaring ’20s came alive at Early Light Academy as their Day in History allowed students to explore the topics that symbolize that decade, said instructional coach Shannon Berry.

“Our Day in History allows students to experience life in a different time period,” she said.

This is the charter school’s fifth Day in History, with previous years exploring the 1400s, 1776, 1863 and 1968.

Berry said that the traditions and cultural committee, comprising teachers, looks at time periods in history each year for students to explore.

“Teachers choose a topic to teach, and students within the grade level rotate to learn a number of subjects on the year or decade,” she said.

First-grade teacher Amy Naylor was telling students how immigrants to America missed their country’s traditions, so the first Thanksgiving parade was born in 1924, and employees of Macy’s store marched in their traditional costumes. Tigers and elephants from Central Park Zoo marched alongside until 1927 when they were replaced by Felix the Cat, the first balloon in the Macy’s Parade. Today, the parade attracts about 4 million people along the route, and about 50 million view it on television.

Her students also learned that Walt Disney, and his partner Ub Iwerks, directed and released the 1928 animated short film, “Steamboat Willie,” which is considered to be the debut of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend, Minnie. It was a breakthrough in the animation industry since Steamboat Willie was the first cartoon with sound. First-graders were drawing the famous mouse to remind them of this decade, she said.

Nearby, third-graders were learning about Alcatraz and who was imprisoned there and why. Teacher Naomi Foreman said that Al Capone, an American mobster and crime boss who attained notoriety during the Prohibition era, was imprisoned there in the following decade. She described “the rock” and how few criminals survived if they could even escape. She also read to the students from the historical fiction novel, “Al Capone Does Our Shirts.”

Fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Jellum was teaching students about photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who influenced the acceptance of photography to become an art form, and his well-known wife, artist Georgia O’Keefe, who is best known for painting large flowers and the landscape of New Mexico.

“I love Georgia O’Keefe and how she used color on big flowers and how it was fun,” Jellum said. “I love art and history, and it’s a cool opportunity for our students to look at a certain time period and not only know what events happened there but have a broader background and knowledge of who influenced the time period.”

Students were taking O’Keefe’s concepts of using with bold colors while painting fall leaves.

Jellum, and her fourth-grade team, were wearing bathing suits from the 1920s that she sewed. Many students wore flapper dresses or dressed as newsies, tying into the decade.

In the junior high, seventh-grade math teacher Theresa Sanford was teaching students about fashion.

“Coco Chanel was a fashion designer who took hold in the 1920s and made clothing we’re more familiar with socially appropriate,” she said. “The little black dress was a Chanel design. Up until this time, black was only used for mourning. Now, it’s considered a standard and basic wardrobe item. Shortened skirts were introduced, freeing women of their corsets and allowed them to be able to do practical activities made necessary by the war.”

Sanford said changes in men’s fashions weren’t as significant. Up until the 1920s, men’s shirts’ collars and cuffs were detachable so they could be washed more frequently and starched. In the 1920s, the men’s shirt collars and cuffs were attached and softer, she said.

Sanford also showed a clip from “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” and while the hairstyle wasn’t quite accurate, Julie Andrews goes through a transformation characteristic of the 1920s.

Music and dance was a significant change in the 1920s. Jazz and the Charleston replaced the fox trot and waltz, PE teacher Shannon James said.

“They wanted to step out and do crazy dance; it was all about partying not elegance,” she said, before proceeding to teach junior high students the Charleston.

Eighth-grader Abby Berry, who wore a flapper dress, said through the day’s rotations she learned about how space scientists, many who fled from Europe, worked together to develop technology that lead to the liquid-fueled rocket.

She and classmate, Lincoln Theriault, also were told the story in “The Great Gatsby,” a 1925 novel written by American author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Lincoln said his class made paper airplanes to represent Amelia Earhart being the first female passenger to cross the Atlantic Ocean; learned that jazz music was more of a swing beat that was “super different” than classical music played before this decade; and discovered the mood of the country in general was “fun,” before the Great Depression hit.

“I looked up 1920s dress for boys and it was pants, straps (suspenders), colorful socks, two-toned shoes and hats, like the newsies wore,” he said as he dressed the part. “Normally, I don’t like history, but it’s more fun to be dressed up and feel like I’m living at that time. I can make more connections, not just learn dates.”