A Holiday Gift to the Community

Students’ original Christmas play and caroling create holiday joy in Jiggs

By Dianna Troyer

Teacher Tracie Zumwalt and Avery Chappell make Christmas decorations.

11 collaborative writers— all students at Mound Valley Elementary School in Jiggs— will perform an original holiday play they crafted and have rehearsed for the community.

“The kids are totally self-motivated and look forward to doing a different Christmas production every year,” says Tracie Zumwalt, the only teacher at the kindergarten to eighth-grade school.

“They start by picking their roles and go from there,” she says. “If several students want to play Santa, we decide by drawing popsicle sticks. Whoever picks the shortest stick gets to be Santa.”

Inspired by their parents or favorite movies, students have written “Mrs. Claus and Rudolph Save the Day,” “The Saddlemaker and the Elves,” “Santa Takes a Digger” and “The Polar Express, Nevada Style.”

“They’re always excited to plan the program and love making their own props, too,” Tracie says.

Students pick the songs to start and end their performance, accompanied by local pianist Linda Zunino.

For Mikayla Merkley, Tracie’s assistant, December is a
cherished time.

“I enjoy how much the Christmas season brings all of us together, not just for our play but in the classroom as well,” Mikayla says. “The amount of cheer that fills the classroom while writing our own play, doing crafts and holiday learning activities is really heartwarming.”

Students not only perform in the holiday play but load up in a horse trailer to go caroling as members of the Mound Valley 4-H Club. Photo by Angie Chappell

The students’ traditional program and potluck brings about 60 people in the remote ranching community together to celebrate the Christmas season at Jiggs Community Hall. This year’s production is 6 p.m. December 14.

“Everyone looks forward to Santa—played by Ronnie Hackler, when Santa is busy at the North Pole—dropping in at the hall to visit,” Tracie says.

Holiday festivities resonate with students for many reasons.

First grader Jordan Olson says he “looks forward to seeing Santa.”

Second grader Brooke Merkley says doing the Christmas program “is fun because you see Santa and the presents he brings. I look forward to seeing Mrs. Claus and Rudolph, too.”

Third grader Avery Chappell—who likes to dress up, have fun with her class and watch for Santa—says her favorite play was “The Polar Express, Nevada Style.”

That play was also third grader Jenna Hansen’s favorite.

“It brought joy to the audience, and we were performing and singing to our family and friends,” she says.

Jaxyn Trujillo, another third grade student, says he likes doing the Christmas plays “because you make up what you do during the play. The ‘Polar Express’ was my favorite, too.”

Hadley Trujillo, a fourth grader, looks forward to seeing Santa and “how much joy our play brings to the audience and my family.”

Students at Mound Valley Elementary School look forward to December’s play. Photo courtesy of Tracie Zumwalt

Her favorite was “The Saddlemaker and the Elves.”

Fourth grader June Woods hinted at this year’s production.

“We might be able to write about Santa breaking down when he is delivering presents,” she says. “I like dressing up and all the really good food we have afterward.”

Her favorite play was “Santa Takes a Digger.”

Fourth grader Rainah Olson looks forward to the play “because it’s about Christmas.” Fifth grader Brooklyn Chappell says the holiday season isn’t all about gifts.

“It’s about family and friends,” she says. “I like the plays because I get to act out what we wrote in class and make props. I love seeing the snow and being with my family, too.”

Fifth grader Mesa Hays— who recently moved to Jiggs— is looking forward to being in her first play.

“My favorite part will be making my costume and practicing,” she says. “I look forward to seeing my family in the audience, too.”

Seventh grader Levi Bates says his favorite part of December is hanging out with his friends, teachers and parents. He says it is hard to pick his favorite play.

“They were all good,” he says.

During production of “The Polar Express, Nevada Style,” students enjoy a train ride to the North Pole. Photo courtesy of Tracie Zumwalt

Besides their school production, students celebrate Christmas by caroling as members of the Mound Valley 4-H Club. They drop in at the historic Jiggs Bar in the center of town and five or six homes.

“At some houses, the residents like hearing us so much they come outside to listen,” says club leader Angie Chappell. “We give out holiday goody bags, too.”

Instead of riding in Santa’s sleigh, Angie pulls the group in a horse trailer with hay bales for seats and a heater to keep them warm. Holiday music plays.

“They love doing it,” Angie says of their 14 members. “It’s our gift to the community.”

Tracie says working at the elementary school is a gift she appreciates year-round. She was introduced to the school as an occasional substitute teacher when her children were young.

“I loved going out there — being in a close-knit rural community with respectful students and supportive parents,” says Tracie, 55, who has taught at Mound Valley for seven years, replacing longtime teacher Cheryl Turner, who retired.

“I had been teaching English at Spring Creek Middle School and was ready for a change,” says Tracie, who lives in South Fork, about 15 miles north of Jiggs. “Now instead of driving north to Spring Creek for about 20 minutes, I head in the opposite direction about the same distance.”

Enrollment has ranged from a high of 16 to a low of nine.

“It’s never dull, teaching all grades,” Tracie says. “I know students’ strengths and weaknesses academically, and can individualize their lesson plans.”

Tracie reorganizes her classroom every year, putting up new motivational sayings and decorative themes.

“I don’t want students to get bored, so I make our classroom look different and fresh every year,” she says. “I love teaching here and watching my students grow up.”