Using tall tales to teach

Stories: Fifth-grade teachers Kevin Mulroe and John Krownapple have created comical characters to make history lessons more fun

March 10, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Everyone's heard of the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail. But what about the famous Buzzard Trail?

And who knew that two important figures of the Gold Rush were Steve the talking mule and Cletus -- who had an opossum living on his head?

OK. The Buzzard Trail isn't that famous and Cletus and Steve aren't really important. To tell the truth, none of that is even true.

But if it helps elementary school pupils be more enthusiastic about learning history, then fifth-grade teachers Kevin Mulroe and John Krownapple are glad to tell such tall tales.

That's why they've turned their fictional stories of Cletus, Steve and other comical characters into children's books they hope a publisher will one day pick up.

So far, no one's biting. But the teachers' tales are making their way around Howard County schools in the form of readings and skits -- first at Triadelphia Ridge, where the two men teach, and then at Deep Run and Worthington elementary schools.

They've read their stories at an elementary school in Anne Arundel County. And there are plans for more readings.

"Pannin' for Rocks" and "The Muledruff Trail" started out last school year as characters intended to spark Triadelphia Ridge fifth-graders' interest in a social studies unit about America's western migration during the late 1700s and 1800s.

"We wanted to interest fifth-graders in history by adding some ridiculous, off-the-wall elements," said Krownapple, 25.

So they invented Cletus -- a bumbling backwoods gold miner who has the longest nose hairs in America, collects rocks and has an opossum posing as a hat on his head. And Hank -- a bushy-bearded merchant who sells pemmican (a high-protein food made with animal fat). Steve, a talking mule, is the brains of the crew.

They use the trio to illustrate the trials of the westward travels and keep kids entertained.

"The characters that we created and dressed up as turned out to be big hits," said Mulroe, 27. "The kids loved it."

Other Triadelphia Ridge teachers started hearing about Cletus and Hank in the hallways and in their classes. Hank's pemmican recipes became the subject of poems and short stories.

Krownapple and Mulroe knew they were on to something.

"We said, `You know what? We might be writing a story here,' " Mulroe said. "We might have a story already written."

During the summer, the pair took their "mixture of historical context, fantasy and humorous elements" and wrote "Pannin' for Rocks."

Fifth-graders aren't the only ones who enjoy hearing about Hank, Steve and Cletus.

At a recent reading at Worthington Elementary, youngsters of all ages giggled in their chairs when Mulroe, dressed as Cletus in high-water jeans, boots and a tank top, ran around the cafeteria looking for the opossum -- which was perched on his head.

They roared when Cletus called his underwear "drawers," and confused "gold" with "mold" on his cheese. And they nearly fell out of their chairs when he mistook a girl in the front row for the opossum he still couldn't find.

"It's on your heeeaaad," said one girl, pointing to Cletus' hat.

"Whur?" Mulroe barked, looking crazily around the room. "Didju say I gotta go ta bed? I am kinda tired. I guess I'll go ta bed."

Second-grader Christopher Caresse said he found Cletus' nose hairs, which covered his yellow teeth, too funny for words.

"And when he couldn't find the possum," Christopher, 8, said, "man, that was funny!"

Krownapple and Mulroe said they like to tell their tales and do their skits at schools not only to teach history, but also so kids can see "young guys who write."

They usually end their presentations with a mini-lesson about the importance of reading and writing, rewriting and perseverance.

The pair also try to put in a plug about teamwork.

"It's really cool working with someone with a similar sense of humor and a similar philosophy," Krownapple said.

"And," added Mulroe, "similar nose hairs."

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