Open Season on Hand Turkeys

If you dig around in your attic in all the school projects your children have brought home, you will find this cute little creature, the hand-turkey. Chances are that he stayed on your refrigerator door from Thanksgiving until after New Year’s. Nothing wrong with that, all American parents have done the same thing. 

If you have walked in an American elementary school (public or private does not matter) the week before Thanksgiving, you have seen flocks and flocks and flocks of hand-turkeys! They are particularly adept at sticking to classroom doors and walls of hallways.

As cute as they are, I have a problem with hand-turkeys? Any of my former master’s students can tell you why, and in all honesty, this mostly written for them. 

Think for a moment about two things: (1) How long does it take to create a hand-turkey as a classroom activity? (2) What is the direct connection between the hand-turkey and the learning goals about the historical importance of Thanksgiving?  Those are the things most likely to appear on an exam.

  1. I figure that roughly it takes an hour for early elementary kids to draw around their fingers, decide on the colors for each feather, and to add the feet, the beak, the eye, and the red beard. One hour. That is a lot of class time, but more about that in a moment.
  2. What is the purpose of the hand turkey? (OK – right here, art teachers, you are excused! Choosing to color each feather a primary color is a legit purpose, but only if you are working on primary colors.) Everyone else, let’s move forward with the reason for the hand-turkey experience. There may be three primary reasons – (a) to send something cute home to the parents. That is nice, but it is not parent engagement, so it is pretty weak; (b) because everyone else in the school and most every other elementary school in the country is doing it! Even weaker, (c) because the teacher enjoys the activity: it makes kids happy; it makes parents happy, and those two things make for a happy teacher! The worst reason to do it.


Big Question #1: How is the drawing and coloring and posting on the classroom door and sending home to the parents a hand-turkey DIRECTLY CONNECTED to what every child is expected to learn about Thanksgiving.

Bigger Question #2: 25 kids in a classroom X 1 hour spent on the turkey = 25 hours of instructional time. That is FIVE days of instruction lost to an activity with little to no instructional significance. Not when compared to the need to read or compute.  

Let’s multiply that time across the entire school assuming there are four Kindergarten and first-grade classes combined where this activity likely occurs. Assuming 25 kids per class again, we have 100 kids getting drawing around their hands and making that turkey. That is 100 hours WASTED (unless it was in art class working specifically on primary colors near Thanksgiving). One hundred hours. How many kids deficient in math or reading could acquire THE one critical skill that might cause some neurons to click such that math and reading begin to make sense?

BTW: The simple solution to the hand-turkey dilemma is to assign them as homework and involve the parents in helping the child learn about the relationship between turkeys and Thanksgiving. Class time saved. Parent engagement in a child’s learning established. 

Biggest Question of All: Let’s consider a typical high school. In any week, how much time is wasted on non-instructional classroom activities? How often is class interrupted by an office-announcement? How much time is spent on doing study sheets during class time? How long does it take to get class started? How long before the dismissal bell are kids gathering up their bookbags? 

For my argument, I only want to look at study sheets (I hate ‘em!). Assume that a student has one study sheet every week in every academic class and that the student has four academic courses each semester or eight per year. Finally, assume it takes an hour to complete the study sheet. 

Over a four-year high school career, that student will have lost 576 hours of face-to-face time with her teachers – the most precious time in any classroom – or 7.2 weeks. Multiply that by, let’s say, 1200 students, in a medium-sized high school, and the result is a staggering 8640 weeks of cumulatively lost instructional time over four years. What makes this worse is that those study sheets should have been done at home. If YOUR student can do study sheets in class without the teacher, insist that they bring them home to complete. 

Did I exaggerate a bit?  If anything, my numbers are on the low side.

And, now you know why I am a Thanksgiving Scrooge when it comes to the scourge of elementary classrooms this time of year – the damn hand-turkey!

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