A taste of history: Hundreds of students reenact White House Dinner

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey
By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey
By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey
Hundreds of bottles of apple cider donated by parents so students can do "toasts" during the White House Dinner By Tami Hoey Hundreds of bottles of apple cider donated by parents so students can do "toasts" during the White House Dinner By Tami Hoey
By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

PHOENIX – Who wouldn’t want to sneak a peek at what really goes on inside an official White House Dinner?

Hundreds of 7th graders in the Paradise Valley School District got to do just that at Friday’s White House Dinner Reenactment. 3TV was there as the students donned costumes, grabbed props, and stepped back into the year 1942.

The event is a simulation of a formal state dinner hosted by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his guest of honor, Sir Winston Churchill. 

Approximately 470 students have been preparing in their social studies classes for months, learning things like etiquette, table manners, and formal dance steps. The experience is hands-on learning at its best.

"My parents were of the Greatest Generation, and when I see my students bring this time period back to life, I feel my parents would be so proud," says Marci Olsen, Social Studies Department Chair at Desert Shadows Middle School, and the founder and organizer of this amazing event. "Imagine 470 students putting on a play that lasts all day, doing it almost perfectly, and with no rehearsal!  That is why I am so proud of my students and truly love seeing them recreate 1942."

It is certainly not a typical school day for these middle-schoolers! The students board the bus at school in the morning, and are transported to the majestic El Zaribah Shrine Auditorium. For the rest of the day, it’s like a snapshot of the past, as they immerse themselves into a day in the life at the White House.

Even the parents get into the spirit of things and help recreate an authentic experience. Dozens of moms and dads dress up and act as servers, spending the day waiting tables, helping in the kitchen or serving drinks. Others act as "graders," observing the students throughout the day to make sure they all stay in character.

Many parents are amazed at what this has been teaching their kids. "The White House Dinner event combined with the study of WWII has has brought to life the picture we have of (my daughter's) grandfather, along with the crew of his B24 Bomber which was shot down over Germany and crash landed in Switzerland in 1944,"says one mom, Jane Mitchell. "Also, she will be wearing her great grandmother's dress from the 1940's, which adds a touch of authenticity to the event."

That's right; you won’t see kids in jeans and flip flops here. The dress code is strict, and helps set the mood for recreating the time period. Girls wear formal gowns, vintage dresses, or knee-length (or longer) skirts. Guys wear white or black collared shirts, ties, and long pants. Some students even wore military uniforms worn by their grandparents.

The “dinner” begins with conversation and mingling. Parent “servers” offer appetizers and drinks. (Sparkling apple cider, of course!)  After that, a panel of “dignitaries” enters the room and is seated at head table.  A six-course meal is served, followed by toasts, speeches, and a meet-and-greet with the president and first lady. 

The final event is the student dancing. Kids are paired up according to height, and show off the dance moves they’ve been practicing in school for weeks and weeks.

These middle-schoolers say it has been an unforgettable learning experience, and much more fun and interactive than sitting in a classroom with a book.

"The White House dinner is an effective way for students to not only learn about this time period, but to experience the event firsthand," says student Camryn Grimm.

"Acting out history like this and pretending to be a family member involved in WWII gets us so much more excited about learning history," says another student, Zach Brown. "I can't imagine learning it any other way!"

And it's not just the students who get involved. "Parents and community members get so excited about this event," Parent Volunteer Coordinator Mary Stevens remarks. "Many return to help us year after year, even when they have no students involved!  I can't tell you the number of comments I hear every year about how incredible what these students and parents do!  The community comes together to donate time and effort to see these students fulfill an assignment they will never forget."

"I love Desert Shadows Middle School for things like the White House Dinner event, which is a special opportunity that many other schools don't offer," says student Hannah Mitchell.