The assignment for the students: List in sequence five important events they've read from a chapter of "Pippi Longstocking."
The fifth-grade class at Jarrettsville Elementary School has no problem mastering the "sequence." But their teacher, Gemma Hoskins, is surprised bythe trivia that made it onto their "important" lists.
Grabbing a student's notebook, she asks, "Is it important that his notebook is red? Will it affect his life?"
"No," the students call out, realizing that the notebook would soon be forgotten.
But they laugh when Hoskins hands back the blank notebook and says with a smile, "Wait a minute. This is empty. Maybe it will make a differencein his life -- a big difference."
"One thing I noticed when I gothere is she's funny," 10-year-old Brent Upton says later. "When we find something funny, she thinks it's funny and makes it more so."
Having fun is central to Hoskins' educational philosophy -- "Tell jokes and laugh a lot" are among her posted class rules.
And her efforts to include levity in teaching goes a long way toward explaining why Harford's 1991 Teacher of the Year won the statewide award announced Friday night.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick presented the award at a banquet sponsored by the Maryland Chamber Foundation and the state Department of Education. As the state honoree, Hoskins becomes a candidate for the national award next spring.
"I loved school and wanted more. That helped me learn. My goal is that my kids have a good time doing it," says Hoskins, 38, a National Merit Scholar from Baltimore's Archbishop Keough High School who went on to complete a master's degree in mass communications at Towson State.
"When we set up rules at the beginning of the year, they tell me what their needs are, and I tell them what I expect of them."
Jarrettsville Principal Gerry Mack says Hoskins' special touch helped the 18-year veteran when she transferred last year from Magnolia Elementary.
"She was so dynamic and exciting in her interview, and she fit in perfectly with our collegial participatory management style," Mack says.
Among her achievements last year were her students' campaign to make Jarrettsville the state's first volunteer smoke-free school and launching a student-produced news program in cooperation with Towson State University.
Hoskins' easy transition was therapeutic for her after she and her Magnolia students endured her husband Ernie's death from cancer that spread from a hip tumor.
In what Hoskins calls "teachable moments", her students shared stories about loved ones struggling with illness. She told them how Ernie went back to college to renew his art studies.
"I think the fact that he took control of his life was important," Hoskins says. "It made me appreciate those are the kinds of things in life that are important -- not just knowing which explorer in what year, but knowing how to deal with problems."
Mack praised Hoskins for her volunteer work with Big Sisters, the Sexual Assault -- Spouse AbuseResource Center and Save Our Streams.
Hoskins' award was long overdue, says Towson freshman Scott Youngblood, a former student who wrote her a letter of recommendation for the state Teacher of the Year award.
"Second grade -- it wasn't too far into the year when she announced we were going to have a talent contest," Youngblood, 18, recalls. "We didn't think anything of it at first but she went ahead and made it into a video production. Not everybody wanted to participate or had a talent they wanted to display.
"She encouraged everybody to participate by using the video equipment, so that made it something special."