Our Polar Express tradition continued this year in the library. Every year we host a Polar Express Day where every class comes to the library to enjoy hearing the story read aloud. Students and teachers get to wear their pajamas to school.
When they enter the library, they find hallways that have been transformed with special decorations thanks to a special team of elves (teachers) who come back to school at night to create some magic. In the library, the lights are turned off and our tables have been flipped on their sides to form a train that students board. The hot chocolate song comes on and a team of servers (parent volunteers) bring out hot chocolate for all.
A conductor (teacher) holds up the book while we listen to a recording of the story. At the close of the story, our parent volunteers come out and place a bell around each student’s neck and whisper “always believe” into their ears. Students receive a candy cane as they exit.
Many classes take a class photo together by the Barrow tree or with the new backdrop that Ms. Vaughn magically discovered.
This is a special day that takes so many people to pull off. It ends up being one of the many memories that students come back to again and again when they think about what they love about our school. We are so happy to continue this special tradition.
Thank you to:
Kim Ness, parent, who purchased bells, string, cups, marshmallows, hot chocolate, and candy canes. Thank you for also organizing our volunteers for the day and for organizing volunteers to prepare bells.
Families who donated their time to help the serve hot chocolate, punch tickets, and hand out bells.
Renee Williams, lunchroom manager, and the lunchroom superheroes who prepared our hot chocolate and let us borrow carts and trays.
Ellen Sabatini, principal, who created our schedule for the day.
Sarah Britton Vaughn, Phyllis Childs, Allyson Griffith, and everyone else who helped transform our halls
The team of parent volunteers who donated a morning to string over 600 bells.
Teachers for being on time, preparing students, turning pages, cleaning up spills, throwing away trash, and sharing your love with our students and families.
Katherine Byrne (family engagement specialist) & Lauren McElhannon (counselor) for organizing pajamas for students who didn’t have a pair to wear to school.
Our wonderful PTA for providing funds to purchase all of our supplies.
Anyone else I may have forgotten. If your name or job isn’t listed, it’s not intentional. This day takes so many hands. Please remind me and I’ll edit this post to include you.
Every year that we have our Polar Express Day, I’m reminded of the power of community. School-wide events are so rewarding, but they take a lot of work to pull off. The library hosts multiple school-wide events every year. A team of special elves come together to make Polar Express Day a special event for every child in our school. It is often one of the big memories that students have about their year and their experience at Barrow.
Many schools ask us what goes into our Polar Express Day, so here’s a little peek:
Our principal creates a schedule so that every class in the school gets a time to come to the library to hear the Polar Express. Most 30-minute sessions 2-3 classes at a time
Janice Flory, our library volunteer coordinator (a PTA role) buys bells, string, hot chocolate, cups, and candy canes through PTA. She also organizes volunteers to help each Polar Express session during the day
A group of volunteers works on stringing 600 bells so that every student in the school gets a bell. This year it was a wonderful troop of Girl Scouts
I work on setting up the library with special decorations, chairs, and banners. I make sure the technical side of Polar Express is working such as the train sounds, read aloud, and special music. I also work with our volunteer coordinator to make sure all of the pieces are running smoothly.
A team of teachers come overnight the night before Polar Express Day and create special hallway decorations such as a train track, ticket booth, and ornaments
Our lunchroom makes huge batches of hot chocolate
On the day of the event, teams of volunteers help pour and serve hot chocolate as well as hang bells around each student and whisper “Always Believe”. Kim Ness, parent volunteer extraordinaire & Janice Flory, library volunteer coordinator, help keep the volunteers organized all day.
Teachers do special activities in their classrooms such as making Polar Express tickets. They also hold the book as we listen to the story over the library speakers
Our family engagement specialist organizes a nighttime Polar Express for Barrow alumni
On the day of the event, there’s always lots of odd and ends that have to be done and we all work together to get it done. It is a tight schedule and takes quick moving in between sessions to reset everything for the next group
This year we added a green screen photo booth to take a picture with the book as the background. Teachers helped a lot with this as well as our principal. Next year, we’ll need to have someone stationed here to help it run smoothly
Our green screen was a favorite activity this year. Many teachers jumped in to help with this one because it was a little bit tricky if the app stopped working. We’ll keep thinking how to make this station a little bit better next year. Even with some glitches, we got some fun pictures of classes.
Each year holds special memories for Polar Express. There are special little moments from students all throughout the day. I’m so thankful to have community who comes together to create this magical event of always believing.
Ask any Barrow student about some of their favorite events from the year and Polar Express Day will most likely be on the list. Every year in December, our school transforms into a train station with a train bound for the North Pole. We wear our pajamas to school, and every class in the school comes to the library to listen to the Polar Express. On their way, students pass by numerous decorations that have magically appeared overnight.
They sit in rows as if on a train and are served hot chocolate while the hot chocolate song plays overhead.
Then, students listen to the story. At the end of the story, every student receives a bell with the word “Always Believe” whispered into their ear.
As they exit, they each receive a candy cane as they return from the North Pole back to their classrooms. I love watching the magic happen for our PreK students as well as students who are new to Barrow, and I love the excitement and bit of sorrow that 5th grade students have as they experience their final Polar Express.
Each year, this event amazes me by the amount of community that is involved in staging the event.
Our principal organizes a schedule and gets feedback from the teachers about their assigned time. She also purchases hot chocolate, cups, and candy canes and arranges with the lunchroom to have the hot chocolate made throughout the day.
A parent volunteer creates a volunteer sign up to have about 3 adults at each Polar Express session to assist with preparing hot chocolate, serving it, and handing out bells. This year I also had tremendous help from Perrin, a former Barrow student, who came back to volunteer for the entire day. She organized volunteers and made sure our hot chocolate kept flowing all day long.
Some years, a team of volunteers have a bell stringing day where they prepare all of the bells and store them individually in egg carton trays. This year, a retired teacher prepared all 575 bells for us. Thank you Terri Sheppard!
I setup the library. This year, I arranged the shelves to form a path that took students to their seats. I lined the path with white lights, flowers, stockings, and a tree. I also setup the chairs, spotlight to shine on the book, and falling snow on our projection board.
Overnight, a team of teachers take time to decorate the hallway. This special group is our spirit committee and always involves teachers like Mimi Elliott-Gower, Sarah Britton Vaughn, Allison Griffith, and anyone else they can round up. The kids love coming in to see what the school looks like on this special day.
One of the students who was leaving Polar Express gave me a huge hug and said, “Mr. Plemmons…we are so lucky at our school to have things like this.” Another student said, “Thank you, Mr. Plemmons, for having this for us.” It took me by surprise, but I couldn’t agree more. I’m so thankful for our sense of community that pulls together to make these kinds of events truly magical for students.
A favorite day for Barrow students is our annual Polar Express Day. This year was our first year back in our new building, so of course, this day brought new surprises for students. All of the favorite traditions were there, too:
All students wore pajamas. Our counselor, family engagement specialist, and PTA made sure that all students had pajamas.
Every class came to the library to listen to the Polar Express read by William Hurt
Students were served hot chocolate with marshmallows by several fantastic volunteers.
Each student received a bell placed around their neck with the word “Always Believe” whispered in their ear.
Each student received a candy cane as they left the library.
Some new surprises this year:
Kevin O’Neil, Barrow Dad, dressed up as a waiter to serve the 1st 2 groups hot chocolate
Our school was decorated in several collaborative spaces for multiple holidays, not just Christmas
3 sets of train tracks brought kids to the library
Our display wall outside the library was transformed into a train. The tv screens all displayed images from Polar Express
Holiday music was played throughout the halls
The projectors in the collaborative space played a crackling fire
The projector in the library played falling snow
This year our hot chocolate pouring and bell prep was in a separate room so it wasn’t as distracting to the kids
The train schedule of classes was posted outside the library
This is truly a magical day. It takes a huge team effort to pull this off. There are so many hands in this day that it’s hard to list them all. Many thanks to:
Our lunchroom staff for fixing chocolate for 500 on top of fixing breakfast and lunch
Our principal for organizing volunteers through Signup Genius, creating a schedule, and making sure supplies were bought
Volunteers who went out to search the stores for bells, string, hot chocolate, cups, napkins, and candy canes. It was quite a big search!
Our PTA for helping string 500+ bells
Sarah Britton Vaughn, Mimi Elliott-Gower, Allision Griffith, and several others who stayed late Tuesday night to put up some extra magic in the hallways
Multiple volunteers who poured hot chocolate, put bells around necks, and cleaned up spills
Todd Hollett for working long hours to figure out our hallway technology
Every year our Polar Express Day is an event that students, teachers, and families look forward to. We of course wear our pajamas and listen to the story in the school library, but it’s much more than that. We want students to experience the story. A conductor with a flickering lantern meets classes and leads them to the train tracks of the Polar Express. The path is lined with multiple decorations: lights, student-made art, train tracks, a ticket booth, railroad signs, and more.
Here’s what the students saw this year:
A sample of music from the Polar Express movie plays while students enter the library and take their seats. A spotlight illuminates the book that awaits them. The hot chocolate song comes on and students are served hot chocolate with marshmallows. After listening to the story, every child receives a bell placed around their neck with the words “always believe” whispered in their ears. Students immediately begin shaking their bells, which sounds like this:
As they exit the library, they receive a candy cane. Many of our 5th graders cry on this day as they experience their final Polar Express Day. We have even started having a Polar Express alumni night for people to come back and experience the magic.
This year, I’ve been thinking about our participatory culture and how much participation is involved in this event. Here are some examples:
Our principal organizes a schedule, volunteers, and materials
Our lunchroom staff makes hot chocolate
Parent volunteers purchase all of the materials and supplies
Parent volunteers (and some students) string the 450 bells
Parent volunteers pour and serve the hot chocolate and place bells around students’ necks
Teachers and students work with me to decorate the library and hallways. Many teachers come back at night to decorate in order to have the element of surprise on the morning of Polar Express. Every year, the decorations are different depending on what the teachers dream up in the moment.
This year, for the first time, many students made decorations to line the hallways with. One of our enrichment clusters made decorations and some students made decorations on their own.
At times, I’ve felt guilty that so many people help with this event, but this year things began to click in my mind as I realized that this is an event sponsored by the library that is truly owned by the entire school. I hope to think more about this in years to come and look for more ways that students can be involved in this special day.
Picture book month is coming to a close, but big celebrations, surprises, and planning are happening in the Barrow Media Center. Just today, I have been brainstorming with teachers about upcoming units and almost every grade level is preparing to begin persuasive writing. We are thinking of sponsoring a writing contest in the media center where students write persuasive essays on the importance of picture books, but I’m still playing around with this idea and what I might actually make the “topic” of the contest be.
Also, today, I was surprised to find an envelope in my box with a donation from a group of community members in honor of someone’s birthday. I was able to order several new picture books (and chapter books) to add to our collection.
Finally, a big surprise arrived at our school today: an autographed copy of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. Mrs. Lori Frumkin used to be a teacher at our school and is now working with the Chicago Public Library. She heard Chris Van Allsburg talking about is books to several groups, and she remembered how special Polar Express Day is at Barrow and got a copy of the book autographed for our school. Thank you so much, Mrs. Frumkin!
We are planning our Polar Express Day for December 15th and decorating has begun. We’re also planning a Polar Express Alumni Night. Later this week, Mrs. Rockholt and I will be preparing hundreds of certificates for students who participated in picture book month. What an exciting time!