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April 27, 2010 3:44 am

Westside class hears from Titanic discoverer

Written by Tribune Staff

It's not every day that a famous explorer grades your paper, but that's exactly what happened to a class of fourth-graders at Westside Elementary last week.

Sonja Black's class recently completed a unit she has developed around the 1912 sinking of the ocean liner Titanic. Using the story of the ship, from its launching to the discovery of its remains in 1985, Black's students study not only history, but math, science, writing and art.

A central part of their study is reading a book, “Exploring the Titanic,” by Robert Ballard, the oceanographic explorer who discovered the Titanic's wreck.

As the project neared completion, Black said, this year's class decided to put their work in permanent form. They put together a book, which they sent to Ballard at the Institute for Exploration, an organization he heads in Connecticut.

Last week, it came back to them, and Ballard had planted an A+ on each student's work and had autographed each page.

Inside the book was a note that said their book was “wonderful.”

“We really enjoyed looking at your wonderful drawings and passed your book around the office,” the note said.

The unexpected response surprised the kids and their teacher.

“We were really excited,” Black said. “The class was high all day.”

The students decided during their work on the unit that they wanted to put their work together into the book, and they decided what would be in it.

“We chose some pictures and poems and and put them in a book,” said Kodi Stringer.

With some urging from Black, they rewrote some of their papers to make sure they used their best penmanship, and gave the materials to Donna Bitzas, who produced the book for them.

Then they decided to send their book to Ballard to show him what they had learned from him. They weren't really expecting a response, and Black was surprised when she found an envelope in her mail.

During the unit, Black said, the class activities all were aimed at meeting standards for Park County School District No. 1 and Wyoming, but actually had performed at a higher level. She said Ballard's book is written at a higher level than fourth grade, but the students all read it.

As for the students, they said they really enjoyed studying the Titanic. They watched documentaries, went out in the street to measure off how long the ship was and counted the passengers and figured what proportion of them died. They also learned about the damage to the ship and why the damage caused it to sink, and they read a play about a family that was on ship. A guest speaker, Pat Miller, who has studied the disaster, came and talked to them.

Each of the students found different things interested them. A.J. Lewis said the most interesting part was the story of finding the wreck, while Kendyl Bohlman liked learning about how the boat broke up as it sank. Madyson Reidinger and Jesse Erickson liked the stories of some of the passengers. Aaron Jacobsen was interested in Ballard, who also had looked for sunken Japanese submarines near Pearl Harbor, another event Black uses to build a unit.

“I use a lot of history to teach,” Black said. “The interest (in the Titanic) is so high, and the kids really like it.”

Now this year's class has a special reason to remember what they learned about the Titanic. Each of them will take home a page autographed by a famous explorer, Robert Ballard, and each of them can boast of receiving an A+ from him.