MY JAW DROPPED WHEN I TURNED ON THE TV AND SAW FREEPORT, ILLINOIS PROTESTING ON MSNBC. SOMETIMES I HAVE TO TAKE A BREAK FROM THE NEWS FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS, SO I’D MANAGED TO MISS THE HEADLINES. I WORKED FOR THE JOURNAL-STANDARD NEWSPAPER IN FREEPORT IN 2008 AND 2009 – IT’S THE KIND OF SPUNKY TOWN A REPORTER CAN FALL IN LOVE WITH. FREEPORT HASN’T LOST JUST ONE FACTORY. IT USED TO BE A PROSPEROUS MANUFACTURING CENTER: IT’S LOST A BUNCH OF FACTORIES. I FELT SAD THAT THE WORLD GOT TO WITNESS ONLY THE LOSS OF THE LAST ONE.
I DECIDED TO SHARE THE KIND OF FREEPORT DAY I USED TO LOVE BY POSTING ONE OF THE STORIES I WROTE FOR THE JOURNAL-STANDARD. I LIKED TO JUST POKE AROUND, STICKING MY HEAD INTO VARIOUS SCHOOLS TO SEE WHAT PEOPLE WERE UP TO. SORRY ABOUT THE CAPS IN THE FIRST GRAPH – BLOGPRESS SOMETIMES TAKES OVER FORMATTING DECISIONS. THE DAMN UNIONS ARE PROBABLY BEHIND IT…
THE GREAT FOURTH GRADE OUTDOOR ADVENTURE
BY CLAIRE O’BRIEN, JOURNAL-STANDARD
Photo Claire O’Brien / The Journal-Standard
Freeport, Ill — The day was cold and blustery, but the campers were prepared. They had pitched tents, built a campfire, lugged in sleeping bags and stocked up enough food for everyone. They wore warm coats, and carried notebooks and pens, ready to take notes and collect data.
Most importantly, the adventurers stacked a pile of newly sharpened roasting forks near the campfire, ready for marshmallows, S’mores and any other culinary option that might become available.
Although the fire provided enough smoke for distress signals, this strategy would not become necessary – because the campsite was surrounded by the familiar houses of the neighborhood surrounding Lincoln-Douglas School.
In fact, the campsite was right there in the rear of the schoolyard, within shouting, if not throwing, distance of the back door. Even if you closed your eyes, you just knew you were in school – mainly because there was school work to do. And that was the whole point of the great Lincoln-Douglas School camp out.
Teachers wanted to show the students – specifically, the fourth grade – that reading is a part of the whole of life, and doesn’t exist solely in the special sphere of school and library. You need words and language and reading everywhere you go in the world, even in the unlikeliest places – like a campground.
Reading directions, processing them and carrying them out in sequence is a skill campers need to have, and the Lincoln-Douglas fourth graders jumped right in.
Even though the students hadn’t actually put up those tents themselves (a few dads had done that the day before) teachers made sure the kids knew that the often tricky procedure required a careful reading of the instructions – followed by an application of them in the correct sequence.
Now that the fourth grade had trekked across the remote tundra of the Lincoln-Douglas playground, it had more sequence reading to do – recipes.
The young chefs crowded around a picnic table, where teachers passed out recipe cards. The children read the instructions intently. S’mores have to assembled in a specific sequence, and campers had to know that their marshmallows would disintegrate if they were allowed to burn too long. They could burn them, but only very briefly. Things really did go a lot better at the campfire if you read the instructions.
Of course, it helped that principal Deb Kleckner is a Girl Scout, and was prepared – as only a Girl Scout can be – to solve any problem that might arise.
The same hardy dads who had erected the tents had built the campfire.
“But I could have done it,” Kleckner said. “I’m not a Girl Scout for nothing. And the kids did learn how important sequencing is to a campfire. We talked about the formation of the wood and kindling, what steps have to come first, how to leave room for oxygen – oh, it was nothing but sequencing!”
Dear Mom and Dad
After stuffing themselves with as much graham cracker, chocolate and marshmallow as supplies and teachers allowed, one hardy band of campers settled into a nearby tent, their writing supplies at hand.
Student teacher Cassie Busker filled the children in on their next assignment.
The entire fourth grade – all three classes – have been reading a book called “Firestorm.” The novel’s hero, a young boy named Axel, gets caught in a forest fire caused by a bolt of lightning while camping with his aunt and uncle.
Axel is a resourceful fellow, not unlike the Lincoln-Douglas fourth graders, and he directs his relatives to that part of the forest that has already burnt down.
Here, in relative safety, the family waits for the surrounding fire to move on. The fourth grade assignment: pretend that you have just been through Axel’s ordeal and you have found a way to get a postcard home to your parents. What will you write?
The children considered the question for a few moments, then hunkered down to write.
“Dear Mom and Dad” everyone began – and then the tent was quiet, save for the faint sounds of children breathing and the wispy rustling of paper.
Trouble in Forest Park
Letters home completed, the adventurers left their cozy tent and moved on through the wilderness, eventually arriving at a very large camper.
Encouraged by the welcoming sight, the travellers knocked on the door, which was immediately opened by … a teacher! No stranger to the fourth grade, Ms. Swalve ushered the children in with another book about camping.
Soon enough, the camper was filled with reading children, sprawled hither and yon, all following the adventures of the protagonist of “Trouble in Forest Park.”
The novel is designed as a “leveled reader,” one of three books using the same vocabulary words, but written at a different skill levels.
For a good chunk of time, pages turned and noses periodically sniffled, as the Lincoln-Douglas wilderness readers learned how one intrepid girl proved to the boys that she was just as good at camping as they were – maybe better.
Eventually, the fourth grade sojourn in the big camper came to its inevitable conclusion, as all good things must. The children put away “Trouble in Forest Park” and trooped down the steps, heading toward the school.
Far away, they could make out their teacher, Mrs. Ludwig, beckoning them back to class. Their fourth grade room seemed strangely far away after so much time in the woods. Yet, there was the school, as familiar to the children as their own houses, with their classroom just down the hall.
And Mrs. Ludwig was suddenly right in front of them, telling them to step on it – they had fourth grade business waiting for them inside.
by claire o’brien/co’firstname.lastname@example.org