SPOTSWOOD, NJ - Strega Nona Day has been a first grade staple for more than 20 years at the Schoenly School. The Tomie dePaola children's book "Strega Nona" was first published in 1975. Set in Southern Italy, the story tells the tale of Grandma Witch. Strega means witch in Italian and nona means grandma.

In dePaola's signature story, Strega Nona is well known throughout her village for helping others heal their ailments. Her helper, Big Anthony causes a bit of trouble when he helps himself to Strega Nona's magic pot and makes so much pasta it almost destroys the little town. Strega Nona Day brings the story to life for Schoenly first graders.

"This special day was created by Ellen Lewis, a now retired first grade teacher," explained Schoenly first grade teacher Dawn Hyland.

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Lewis originally developed Strega Nona Day for her own first grade students. However, the result was such a delight, it spread to other classrooms and became a spring tradition.

"Due to the joy it brought to Schoenly School students, it is still continued today," Hyland said. "While the heart of Strega Nona Day remains the same, the activities have changed over the years and it is now a grade-wide event."

Strega Nona Day is something preschoolers and kindergarteners look forward to experiencing when they are first graders. Many former students fondly recall the day, which includes creating a keepsake Strega Nona-inspired tee.

In the days leading up to Strega Nona Day, Hyland and her fellow first grade teachers, Carol Kuhn, Jaclyn Cassidy, Jennifer Nocera and Jennifer Saldarini, read the dePaola classic as well as the other titles in the Strega Nona series. Parent volunteers assist in setting up the numerous art projects with many coming in on the actual day to help out in the classrooms.

Students are divided into groups, mixing the classes together, as they move through the different activities that include planting pumpkin seeds, making t-shirts, cooking up some pretend spaghetti with yarn, stitching a Strega Nona puppet and more. Even Strega Nona herself stopped by for a little visit for this year's Strega Nona Day on March 29.

"Through this integrated unit, we hope the children will understand different cultures, learn to work cooperatively and show that learning can go beyond the pages of a book," Hyland said.