Way Back to School

LAST NIGHT, CURT AND I ATTENDED our second-to-last elementary back-to-school night. Peezer is in 4th grade now. This is the year he starts instrumental music (he has chosen the clarinet). He's already looking forward to becoming a "patrol" in fifth grade. Third through Fifth grades are probably my favorite years for kids and we are enjoying him immensely these days.

While explaining the homework policy, his teacher said she understands when sometimes, the homework just doesn't happen, for whatever reason. Then she told how she remembers ALL TOO WELL her own fourth grade year, when her mother made her stay in and do homework on HALLOWEEN NIGHT even though all the other kids were trick-or-treating. You could tell from her voice that she was over it, mostly.

I, too, remember fourth grade, mostly with nostalgic fondness, but for one thing. We had this independent reading program called SRAs, and I don't remember what those initials stood for, but the program itself came to represent BLACKMAIL in my mind. I loved to read, but these particular reading activities bored me silly. Consequently, I was not motivated to read whatever schlock was on those color-coded cards, then answer the comprehension questions so I could advance to the next level. I just didn't care. Still, it was expected that we students would work through them at our own pace, and because I was a good student, I was expected to plow through them. Only, I wasn't.

Around this time, I had been pestering my mom to let me get my ears pierced. Sensing an opportunity to reinforce a lesson, and concerned about my recalcitrance toward the SRA program, she met with my teacher. They conspired to formulate a plan: if I could advance through the SRA cards to a certain color-coded level, I would be rewarded with a trip to the Mall, where a nice lady at Piercing Pagoda would use a gun-like device to inject gold studs into my 9-year-old earlobes. I was surprised that my mom would so blatantly collude with my teacher, but I wanted my ears pierced bad, so I gritted my teeth up through the dark green reading card and my mom made good on her promise, and my ears didn't sting for very long at all after the piercing. (Yes, Mom, I learned my lesson.)

Anyway. Last night, my kid's teacher talked of synthesizing and collaborating, and of collecting data points to track the kids' progress. She explained the grading scale (hint: it's not alphabetical). She uses a Promethean board with a "proximity tablet" she can walk around the room with, tapping on it with a stylus to present lessons, and the kids can participate by pressing buttons on their own desktop interactive voting device (think audience participation on America's Funniest Videos). The class keeps track of compliments paid to them by teachers and staff and can earn rewards when they reach a certain level. The have things like "guided reading" and "balanced literacy."

All of this made me wonder how the teachers manage to incorporate everything, organizing the kids into groups so they can collaborate to synthesize each concept. On its surface, It's so different from my own fourth grade experience, which featured blackboards and chalk, an alphabetical grading scale that was tracked by hand in a spiral-bound grading book, and the dreaded SRA reading program. It's amazing how much has changed for both students and teachers.

But what hasn't changed is the sense of community a school can represent.  At our kids' school, back-to-school night is a chance to say hi to neighbors and friends from our community, and reconnect with the teachers our kids have had throughout their years. I recall the same sense of community at my own elementary school, which was in a small town. The principal of my elementary school had been one of my mom's high school teachers. My dad's cousin ran the cafeteria. I had more than a few cousins in my class. Everyone knew everyone. It takes a village.

While my own elementary school experience was community based, I'm sure my parents' experience was even more so. Having been born and raised in the country, they attended one-room schools for their earlier grades. I have a book, published by the Perry Historians, called "A Scrapbook of Schoolhouses in Perry County" by Margie Becker of New Bloomfield, PA. It's a wonderful collection of the history of education where I grew up. It's also a testament to my ancestors' believe and involvement in education. The book includes lists of teachers at each schoolhouse and board of education members and directors, and I recognize many names on these lists, including neighbors, great aunts and uncles, my grandfather, and yes, my mom (who was school board president for some years). 

Here is a picture, from that book, of the elementary school where the blackmail occurred. It housed grades K-4 when I attended, plus one class each of grades 5-6, with the other 5/6 graders attending school in the "annex" (which was the basement of the medical center next to the school). Prior to the building of Greenwood Joint High School, this same building was where my mom attended high school. When GJHS opened, kids from Millerstown (my mom) and Liverpool (my dad) high schools all attended the new high school, and my parents were in the first class to graduate from GJHS.

  Millerstown elementary school

I made a note in this book that my dad attended both Lebkicher's and Gilfillen's schools, though I don't know which grades. So here they both are, Gilfillen's first:

Gilfillen's school

And Lebkicher's (sometimes spelled Lebkichler's), where my dad may have been taught by his Aunt Mae if I've got the years right:

Lebkicher's school

By the time I came along, both of these schoolhouses had been sold and turned into private homes.

I don't know if the teachers back in those days thought much about synthesis or collaboration, and certainly the body of knowledge and methods for teaching and assessing it have changed significantly. But the sense of community must have been magnified when only a handful of kids were in the room with one teacher.

We left last night's event feeling blessed live where we can send our kids to high-quality schools with all the latest technology, highly-educated teachers who obviously care about our kids, and a true sense of the school's role in building and supporting our community. I imagine my parents and grandparents felt the same way. So maybe, all things considered, things haven't changed all that much after all.

Hide and Seek

LAST WEEKEND, I dragged took my neighbor Stephanie up to my old stompin' grounds. My aunt and uncle built a sweet cabin on the ridge above what used to be my grandmother's (her mother's) farm, and they kindly allowed us to invade for a girls' weekend. Steph's sister Dory and Dory's friend Diane met us there. Our mission: A whole bunch of geocaching, a ride on the Millersburg Ferry and a visit to the Ned Smith Nature and Art festival.

I provided nonstop running commentary and shared interesting facts spouted minutiae about my hometown. I pointed out where my relatives live. (Which was, like, every third house.) I told stories from back in the day.  I wouldn't shut up was probably pretty unbearable, but I was their chauffer, so they were my captive audience.

For the uninitiated, geocaching is a worldwide game of hide and seek. You can find lists of "caches" on the website, enter the coordinates into your handheld GPS, then use that to guide you to the exact location of the cache. Along the way you can get sunburned hike, learn local history, and you get to see things that are miles from all civilization off the beaten path. My companions are all quite experienced geocachers, but they were patient and willing to train their chauffer.

But enough of my prattling on and on and on. I'll let the photos do (most of) the talking.

Dory fishes a microcache out of its hiding place while Steph logs our find.

Caching

One of the caches we found was hidden in state gamelands, high above the Susquehanna River… 

Susquehanna river valley, looking north 
…and Routes 11/15. This was just north of Liverpool, PA. 
High above 11-15 along the Susquehanna 
We found caches at two covered bridges - 
Aline covered bridge sign 
 
…the Aline Bridge, just up Route 104 on the way to Middleburg, and…

Red Bridge Liverpool PA
 
…Red Bridge, outside of Liverpool. Please don't tell anyone that I grew up maybe 4 miles from this bridge but never knew it was there.  Adjacent to this site were an old outhouse–

Outhouse next to Red Bridge Liverpool
 
—and a long-abandoned house:

House next to Red Bridge Liverpool PA
 

There were also cemeteries (which, I just learned, is from the Greek word that means "sleeping place"). There was the one out by Barners Church –

Barners Church
 
…where there are, in fact, many tombstones bearing the name "Barner."

Barners Cemetery 
(…even though this photo features a "Meiser" grave marker. You'll have to take my word for it.) 

Then there was the cemetery at the site of the former St. Michael's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pfoutz Valley. It's an equally peaceful "sleeping place":

JewishCatching July 2011 118
 

 This cemetery used to be adjacent to a church, which has long since been razed:

St Michaels Church monument 
St. Michael's is next to the farm that was my aunt & uncle's, and the next farm after that one was was my grandmother's – where my dad grew up. So you see, I can't even count how many times I've driven by this place. And yet, I can remember only stopping and visiting it a few times. It's so peaceful and quiet there, and as I surveyed the plot's location amid corn and soybean fields, I got to thinking how this would be such a nice place to spend my eternal rest, because the chances are next to zero that they would pave over this particular slice of paradise… but then I remembered the other cemetery we visited earlier in the day –

Sarah Catharine Shuman's gravestone
 
The cache was nestled next to Sarah Catharine Shuman's grave. She died when she was only ten. And that was next to these —

Grave stones at Tombstone cache
 
–which were sequestered way up on top of a slab of earth that was flanked by a highway on-ramp and an off-ramp – the Millerstown exit of Routes 22/322. The highway was built in the '60s, and my cousin Julie tells me that her dad protested the original plan to relocate those graves. The highway was redesigned to leave this small family plot intact. And I am sure that when Catharine's grieving parents buried their precious daughter there, they couldn't have imagined that her resting place would end up overgrown and inaccessible to all but the hardiest, most adventurous hikers. I mean, you really have to wanna get up there.

Now, this cache –

Nekoda Cache
 
…was called Nekoda. The cache was hidden in an overgrown area across the road from an old structure that once housed a general store and a post office. Until recently, it still showed up on maps of Pennsylvania, even though the post office has been defunct for decades. The building sat abandoned for many years. I could see it from my bedroom window. I spent 16 years looking across the corn fields at it, wondering if it really was haunted, as was the rumor.  A family has since bought it and fixed it up and I'd love to see what it looks like inside – I bet it's great fun to ramble around in there. We, however, were focused on navigating 'round needle-sharp bramble bushes to locate the cache that was tucked into the overgrowth near an old stone wall that may have once been the foundation for a barn or other outbuilding.

Geocachers at St Michaels
 
My fellow seekers – Steph, Dory and Diane. And yes, that's a Busch Pounder in Dory's hand. This was our 15th and final cache of the day, and we decided to linger 'neath the evergreens and enjoy a refreshing cold beverage to celebrate our finds. What a fun day – I enjoyed showing my friends around my hometown and surrounding area, and really liked learning some new things, too.

I have more to share, including the Millersburg Ferry photos – but those will have to wait for another day. Until next time –