Thanksgiving play brings lessons to life in Modesto

naustin@modbee.comNovember 27, 2013 

— A Thanksgiving classic brought lessons on history, reading and working together to life this week in Lupe Miler’s second-grade class. All the applause was just gravy.

“They brought it! I told them they had to and they were awesome!” said Miler, grinning ear to ear after Tuesday’s performance at Beard Elementary. Her well-practiced troupe gave dramatic readings of Sarah Josepha Hale persuading President Abraham Lincoln to designate a national day of giving thanks and acted out the first Thanksgiving. Not one of the 7- and 8-year-olds needed a prompt or a script – they memorized every word, not only of their own role but others.

“They had to know other parts in case we needed an understudy,” Miler said.

Normally shy Riley Kate Smither didn’t blink, said mom Jennifer Smither. “She knows the whole play, front to back,” she said, watching her daughter with a wide smile after the play.

Riley played the part of Eleanor Billington – “the infamous Eleanor Billington,” interjected grandmother Jean Topete. “I went online and found out about her,” she said. Billington’s husband was executed for murder and she, one of only four women to survive to the first Thanksgiving, spent time in the stocks for criticizing a Plymouth Colony leader.

“We didn’t tell her that part,” Topete said.

The play was an idealized, early-grade version of the feast, omitting less-savory moments of Native American treatment at the hands of European settlers, noted parent Jennifer Egenberger. “I was an anthropology major,” she added.

Daughter Hayden Dinsdale portrayed Hale, a central character in the play who had a number of lengthy speaking parts. “She practiced every day for six weeks,” Egenberger said.

Mikal Dinsdale said the play was a great experience for his daughter. “She’s so engaged. It really shows,” he said, crediting the teacher and the after-school program for helping the children learn their parts and explore history.

Hayden said she got the part “because I was hardworking and I was good at being friends with people.” That last part was important, she said. “It helped me because the Pilgrims become friends with the Indians in the play.”

Hayden had five grandparents in the house, watching her confidently stride through her lines. Among them was retired teacher Pat Egenberger, who said the seamless handoffs of the microphone took the most practice.

“That’s the hardest part for kids this age,” she said.

A frequent classroom volunteer, she said the play tackled harder vocabulary and more reading comprehension work than usual in second grade, all part of the behind-the-scenes learning that went into the performance. “It’s like an iceberg – you just see the tip,” she said.

Rauree Estrada practiced her lines as an Indian at the Thanksgiving feast for weeks, said grandmother Melody Clayton, and during their library visits got more books about Thanksgiving to read.

“I think they learn so much better when you incorporate it,” said Jan White, adding she was glad granddaughter Elisa Madrigal got to have the experience of a class play.

Miler said she wound in second-grade social studies and literature, using class time set aside for reading aloud to practice and bring in library books on the Pilgrims as research. “The play brought in character and setting, beginning-middle-end – it’s all tied in with the English language arts standards,” she said.

Miler’s family pitched in to make the sets, and her husband took the day off work to be her stagehand.

“I can remember my first-grade play,” Jim Miler said. “They’ll never forget this.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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