Ten-year-old Carolyn Page sat with her legs tucked between her and the thick green carpet in the media center at Benfield Elementary, listening attentively to tales of what life is like in Peoria, Ill.
Peoria, population 100,000, recently earned the "All American City" title. Peoria teacher Jean Miller, visiting the school yesterday, shared information about its natural resources, tourist attractions and history.
"I had never heard of it (Peoria)," Page said after the discussion at the Severna Park school. "But it was real interesting to hear about what it's like in other states."
Miller's animated talk included pictures from her classes, a question-and-answer session, a videotape presentation and homemade snacks.
Page and her 77 classmates can thank their fifth-grade social studies teacher, Patti Bartlett, for their taste of Midwestern life.
Each afternoon, Bartlett rotates among Benfield's three fifth-grade classes attempting to make social studies more interesting.
Instead of rote memorization projects involving other states, Bartlett has pupils write to two newspapers in each state, requesting postcards and letters about favorite spots for readers.
The result: 1,200 colorful postcards covering three bulletin boards, along with a U.S. map marked by pushpins identifying states from which the class has heard.
Postcards -- some more personalized than others -- came from locations ranging from Hilo, Hawaii, to Superstition Mountains, Ariz.
In some cases, the assignment has led to on-going relationships with pen pals from Alaska and California. The class has yet to hear from Utah, Idaho and Nevada.
After Miller saw a letter from the Benfield class in the Limestone News, a Peoria newspaper, she asked for time to speak to the class, since she was already planning a trip to Maryland.
"Some people there are scared because someone predicted an earthquake," Miller said. "My students thought that was why I was leaving."
But after the discussion, she said her visit to Maryland is strictly to visit her son and daughter, who live in Pasadena and Severna Park. Both were raised in Peoria.
Miller noted differences between Maryland and Illinois -- her state, for instance, is known for beef, while Maryland has a reputation for crabs. But when it came to testing students' knowledge about Illinois and surrounding waterways, Jared Kensky, 10, proved that he had done his homework.
Jared repeatedly raised his hand to name the bodies of water surrounding Illinois, plus other tidbits he had learned about the state's natural resources.
Students seemed surprised to learn about the limitations at Miller's school. The 31-year veteran teacher is responsible for a homeroom; sixth-grade reading; sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade health and science classes; and physical education for first through fourth grades. Miller said the school, which is almost 100 years old, has nine teachers and 200 students.
"It's a poor school, but we're resourceful," she told the pupils.
As befits the veteran teacher she is, Miller couldn't resist handing out a homework assignment before she left. Kelly Gribbin, 10, volunteered to find out why Peoria schools are closed for a day in honor of Casimir Pulaski.
"I plan to look it up in the encyclopedia," Kelly said. "I'll get it to her in about two weeks."
Ten-year-old Thersa Ketwig already is thinking about the next class project, where students will be required to wade through the postcards and map out a two-week trip -- including a detailed itinerary.
"I'd like to go to New Jersey," Ketwig said on her way to lunch.