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Detectives for a day

December 13, 2011
Jessica Nikolich - Assistant News Editor , The Alpena News

ALPENA - Ella White School third-graders transformed into detectives Tuesday afternoon when Kelly Skiba's class was visited by Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary's outreach and education team. For its third year in action, the sanctuary's Christmas in the Classroom program will be traveling to nine area schools throughout the next week as students unveil the truth behind the long-sunken Rouse Simmons schooner.

AmeriCorps volunteer Harriet Smith taught the hour-long session, beginning with a read-aloud of Jeanette Winter's book, The Christmas Tree Ship, to give students a background of their upcoming investigation. She highlighted the value of separating true stories from tales.

"What's the real story here," Smith asked while she handed students the tricky task of determining whether the book was folklore or fact.

Skiba's class, in addition to the rest of the classrooms included in the sanctuary's program, is well-versed in working with primary resources, which sanctuary education specialist Meaghan Black said was a critical curriculum component for this particular program. Sarah Waters, education and outreach coordinator, said they looked at what classes were studying in order to decide what teachers to contact.

"It's targeted outreach; we're hitting a new group of kids every year," Black said. "We've got several educators here, so we're rotating through our educators. It took a good chunk of time (to prepare) - we had to research the story of the Rouse Simmons and try to find the primary source materials and bring it down to a level that the kids could understand. The first year was a little trial and error, but by the second year, we had it pretty well down."

The Wisconsin Historical Society had done a similar program, and Black said the sanctuary's ties to the museum gave them the original idea. The museum created a live broadcast reading the story and making Christmas tree ship ornaments, which Black said they experimented with the first time around.

"It was an activity primarily focused at younger kids. It was a great story, and we thought we could make it even better by adding more content," she said. "We sandwiched in between (the story and the ornament craft) an educational component where children use primary source documents to determine whether parts of the story are true or false. To add more content and make it more relevant to the teachers, we added the piece about determining whether they were fables."

Using magnifying glasses to read enrollment forms and hidden writing on old photographs, the third-graders were able to dig up hard evidence proving that the Rouse Simmons did exist from 1868-1912, and Capt. Herman Schuenemann and his wife and three daughters were real people who used the ship to conduct their Christmas tree business. Black said the education staff printed replicas of the primary source materials and made them in house, and the magnifying glasses were donated by Independent Bank.

The shipwreck was found 165 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan, and the class was shown actual video footage retrieved by divers, which prompted a lot of curiosity. One student asked what happened to the Christmas trees, and Waters said over time they probably drifted away or got eaten by critters. Another asked if the divers saw any skeletons, and Smith said no human bones were ever found.

Smith welcomed all questions but enforced the most important lesson of the day: "The story was generally real, but actual details were added in," and stories tend to change over time as they are passed from person to person.

Toward the end of the program, Skiba's students made Christmas ship ornaments out of green pipe cleaners and beads, materials provided by donations from individuals in the community to the Friends of the National Marine Sanctuary. Smith told the class the ornaments were meant to serve as a reminder of the Christmas tree ship story so they could retell it to their families.

"They've been so excited waiting for you to come," Skiba told Smith, Waters and communications specialist Stephanie Gandulla, who were all present for Tuesday's program.

Black said Christmas in the Classroom is set to take place every year. This Saturday, a shorter version of the program will be offered at the sanctuary, at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Jessica Nikolich can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 343.



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