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Thanksgiving #1: Tony Sarg and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade

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Lesson Overview:

Where can inquiry lead?  Why are we inquirers?  Why do we have Units of Inquiry?  What happens if we combine inquiry with creativity?  This is the best lesson I’ve developed about the power of inquiry.  Using Melissa Sweet’s brilliant Balloons Over Broadway, work with your students to think critically about inquiry and the value of inquiry.  In some cases, inquiry can even lead to exciting celebrations!!

Lesson Plan:

Suggested Grades:

1-6 (This one has universal appeal)


To understand that persistent inquiry can have surprising and wonderful results!  (AASL 2.3.1, “Connect understanding to the real world.”)

Suggested Time:

40-45 minutes.  However, two or three periods could be needed if you choose some of the holiday extension activities.

Success Criteria:

Each student will be able to retell the story of Tony Sarg and his habits of lifelong inquiry.  Each student will also be able to explain Mr. Sarg’s contribution to modern parades, specifically the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.

Lesson Outline:

1. Introduction:

Ask the students a few of these thinking questions:

  • What was the last inquiry you made?
  • What action did you take on your most recent inquiry?
  • How long might an inquiry last?
  • How long does a unit of inquiry last?
  • Can you think of any inquiry that might last an entire school year?
  • Can you think of any inquiry that might last for more than one year?
  • Can you think of any inquiry that might help you do your chores?
  • Can you think of any inquiry that might change your life?
  • Can you think of any inquiry that might change how the world celebrates festivals?

Explain that today’s lesson is a true story about a little boy whose childhood inquiries led him to a profession and ultimately to a project that changed the world.   We are all much better off because of this boy’s personal inquiry.

2. Main:

Show the children the cover of Balloons Over Broadway by Melissa Sweet.  Ask whether they know what Broadway means or where it is.  Ask what the man seems to be doing.  Ask if they understand the word “marionette.”  Ask what the strings in the man’s hands are leading to.  “Picture Walk” the book’s cover to generate some interest and make predictions about the story.  Ask the children to look and listen for evidence of inquiry as the story progresses.

Share Balloons Over Broadway with the class.  The illustrations are rich, detailed, and colorful, so go slowly and carefully.   As children find evidence of inquiry, capture some of their ideas on a flipchart or board at the front of the class.  If you are working with older children, one of them can do the scribing/notetaking for the group.   Evidence of inquiry includes:

  1. As a child, Tony tried to figure out what made things move.
  2. As a child, Tony devised a way to feed the chickens without getting out of bed!
  3. Tony worked out a way to make marionettes’ movement very lifelike, so people wanted to see more of his puppets.
  4. Tony designed and built new puppets and characters for a large, New York Department store.
  5. Tony helped create the first street parade for Macy’s employees, most of whom were immigrants to the U.S.
  6. Tony had to figure out how to replace the wild animals with something safer and less frightening – he inquired and came up with rubberized puppets (air-filled rubber bags) that moved on poles and were manipulated by people.
  7. Tony figured out that if he filled the rubber bags with helium, they would rise higher so that more people could see them and they would be easier to handle. He tried his new idea in 1928 and it worked!  Through persistent inquiry, Tony invented balloons that still fill the skies of New York City every Thanksgiving Day.

Show the children a few early pictures of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Photos from the 1920s can be found here:  Macy’s Parade 1920s.

Show the children a few photos of Tony Sarg from the 1920s or 1930s.  (Use Google Images or the Macy’s website.  I find the website is not as easy to use as in previous years, so I would stick with Google Images for photos of Mr. Sarg.)

Show the children a short video about how balloons are designed and created today:  Macy’s Balloon Design Studio

If you have time or wish to devote another class to this lesson, choose any of the art or Thanksgiving activities from the Activity Kit linked below.

3. Conclusion:

Remind students that the big idea from today’s lesson is that Tony Sarg was an inquirer.  If he had not been curious, he would not have spent all those years playing with and building marionettes and puppets, and without that background he would not have been able to design the forerunners of today’s giant helium balloons.  Challenge the students to keep inquiring – their inquiries will take lead to amazing discoveries, too!

  1. Balloons Over Broadway: The Ture Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet.
  2. Computer and projection/sound equipment for showing photos and videos.
  3. Everything from your library collection on puppetry and marionettes.
  4. Balloons Over Broadway Activity Kit from Houghton Mifflin Books for Children: Balloons Over Broadway Activity Kit
  5. Balloons Over Broadway Discussion Guide for Educators: Balloons Over Broadway Discussion Guide
  6. Video allowing students to visit the Macy’s Design Studios: Macy’s Balloon Design Studio
  7. For older students, background information about Tony Sarg from the University of Connecticut: Tony Sarg from University of Connecticut
  8. For older students, background information about Tony Sarg from the Smithsonian: Tony Sarg from the Smithsonian

Everything I have seen written to support the award-winning Balloons Over Broadway by genius Melissa Sweet ties the book to Thanksgiving, puppetry and marionettes, or parades.  From a PYP perspective, though, the book links best to the Learner Profile attribute of Inquirers.  I like to teach this book as an example of lifelong inquiry and the unexpected and unimaginable outcomes when inquirers keep trying and keep creating

Recommended books for this lesson:

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy’s Parade by Melissa Sweet.

Key Terms:

Sarg, Tony, Puppeteers, Thanksgiving Day, Inquiry, Inquirers