Shared Stories: Teaching comes alive

Kay Halsey was a teacher in the 1960’s and one day she planned a lesson with the goal of making history come alive for her students. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns.

By Kay Halsey

Schools in the 1960’s were designed to teach reading, writing, spelling, social studies, and math to all the children in every community. There were crowded classes in small spaces and no air conditioning. We had sets of old books if we were lucky. It took lots of collecting of materials by the teacher.

I was assigned to teach fifth grade. I decided to be creative in teaching early American history. Several restored villages on the east coast had costumed workers demonstrating what life was like when the first colonies were established.  I decided to demonstrate for the class how lye soap was made long ago.

The recipe for making soap included lard.  During this time of my teaching career, housewives cooked bacon and drained the fat into a container on the back of the stove. To involve the class I asked the children to bring some bacon fat from home. I took their contributions to my home, I clarified the fat, and I stored it outside by the garbage can.

Next morning, while preparing the equipment for school, I couldn’t find the fat. My husband had thrown it away. I immediately decided to ask my neighbors for their bacon fat, explaining my dilemma. They were happy to help. Putting all of the equipment and materials in a box, I went to school. Before school opened, I prepared the table for this soap-making demonstration.

In those days we didn’t have aides in the classroom. A parent had volunteered to come in that morning, and I hoped she would be helpful. I wrote the recipe for making soap on the blackboard.

I took the can of lye and started stirring it into the can of fat. After a few minutes it started bubbling up. The bubbles turned into foam and began spilling over the can onto the table. Then it spilled onto the floor. The foam scattered onto my legs and burned my hose. I began jumping up and down as the class roared with laughter. I couldn’t stop its foaming.

The parent stepped up and told me she could take the class out to recess so I could clean up. The parent became my angel!

I stripped the hose, washed my legs, which were burning, and called for the custodian to come and clean up the floor while I planned a quiet activity for the afternoon.

When asked what happened by the teachers in the Teachers Lounge, I confessed to more laughter from my peers. I hoped that none would mention this ever again!

Christmas came and teachers exchanged gifts. One teacher from the Midwest gave me a beautifully wrapped gift of lye soap that she had found in a store there. 

So much for my idea “Teaching Comes Alive.” The laughs never stopped.