Students follow mission to the letter Eighth-graders trading letters, e-mail with crew of aircraft carrier Nimitz

December 24, 1997|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The eighth-graders in Team 7 at North Carroll Middle School aren't getting graded on most of the work they do tracking the course of the USS Nimitz and corresponding through e-mail and regular mail with their "crew pals" on the aircraft carrier as it monitors the Persian Gulf.

And that might be why they love it so much.

"It's fun learning this way," said Tracey Redmond, 13, of Hampstead. "This [project] has people you can talk to and understand it better."

And it has improved their grades, said she and classmate Jessica Robertson.

"We're learning from them and not just Mr. Chrvala," said Jessica, 13, of Westminster.

Their social studies teacher, Mike Chrvala, had a germ of an idea over the summer to have the students correspond with the Nimitz crew as a yearlong geography and current events project.

The Nimitz project is helping the students rack up the 75 hours of service learning they will need to get a high school diploma. Eighth grade has always had some built-in opportunities to earn those hours, such as by writing to veterans. Chrvala thought it might be nice to also correspond with soldiers on active duty. He was one himself.

"When the U.N. weapons inspectors were booted [from Iraq], it wasn't abstract for these students," Chrvala said. "These were their friends on a ship and they were possibly going to war.

"I've had parents come up to me and say, 'Gee, my kid comes home and watches the news!' They come in and tell me stuff they saw on television the night before," Chrvala said.

His fellow teachers on the team -- including Cyndi Dukes, who teaches language arts, Ted Payne in science and Shelly Eyler in math -- agreed to gear some of their lessons to applications about the Nimitz. Payne, for example, did a lesson on how planes fly. Dukes is working on the students' letter-writing.

To make sure each of the approximately 6,000 men and women on the carrier received at least one Christmas card this week, the students worked extra hard to send one to each, not just to their regular correspondents.

Although students don't get graded on their letters, Dukes and other teachers read all letters before they go out.

The school set ground rules about the correspondence, Chrvala said. All e-mail from the ship to the school is retrieved by teachers who read it before forwarding it to the students. And the children are not allowed to e-mail the ship from home. So far, everyone has abided by the rules, Chrvala said.

As a geography lesson, it has taught the students about the Middle East, a region many of them knew nothing about before, said Kristy Shaffer, 13, of Manchester.

And as a history/current events lesson, its importance would surprise many Americans: When the gulf war dominated the news, today's eighth-graders were in the first grade, oblivious to most of it.

"What's really amazing is when you talk to them about the Iran hostage crisis, they're, like, 'Huh?' They have no clue about it," Chrvala said.

The students said they didn't think much of the idea at first. It seemed routine, and to some, like Jessica, downright boring. She had no interest in the military, she said.

But several students said that after the first correspondence, they loved it. Suddenly, the endeavor changed from school project to human interaction.

They empathize with their crew pals, who sleep on thin mattresses and live in close quarters on the ship.

When 13-year-old Rick Stewart of Hampstead heard it would be a month before the ship had a port call, he figured he would send his crew pal some things from his own back yard to make NTC him feel more at home. He sent a care package of rocks and autumn leaves.

His twin brother, Nick, said it seemed like an unusual care package to him, but the sailor wrote back that he loved it, that it made him feel like someone was thinking about him.

In March, Chrvala hopes to culminate the project with a field trip to Norfolk -- a four-hour bus ride -- on a Saturday to meet the crew after they dock there.

The students are all looking forward to it, he said, and parents are already volunteering to go as chaperons.

Until then, they will continue to write letters and exchange care packages -- T-shirts, patches and photographs from the crew members, and brownies, videotapes and single-use cameras from the students.

And e-mail continues as the students and crew develop an easy rapport. Kristy composed a letter in the school's computer lab to her crew pal, Karla Japzon.

"Dear Karla," she began. "Hey, waz up? I'm doing great! I'm going to be in the newspaper. Also, I'm going to be on the news. I hope you got the brownies I sent you."

Pub Date: 12/24/97

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