How the teacher turned kids into Frog Jockies and made them love History

Kids with birthdays in December often celebrate half-birthdays in July. That way, they don’t have to compete with Christmas and other holidays for gifts, fun and party dates. And this is the way I felt about Rodeo Week and Pioneer Days, a celebration that took place each year in May. How did I come up with this idea? Well, Rodeo week, like Halloween, is also a kind of town wide costume festival. In that way it is kind of like Halloween but one in which the frontier days of the Gold Rush and Old West were celebrated. Kids dressed like cowboys and cowgirls, learned to square dance in P.E. class and read heroic stories of the pioneers in Northern California who overcame the hardships of wagon trains, wild savage Indians, cleared the land and finally settled as ranchers, farmers or townsfolk to become part of the proud history of the area. A colorful local judge also of pioneer stock whose family owned an old gold mine, visited annually to lecture in costume to the kids in language they could not decipher. (This was part of the fun). And fiddler groups competed for local awards too.

When I got to the town, I had never been to a rodeo. I was simply not interested in what seemed to be a kind of Will Rogers era pastime and involved lots of activity with various big and small animals I didn’t care much about. Actually, most of the kids in my school didn’t go to the rodeo anyway because the tickets cost too much and there was lots of beer drinking and general rowdiness. Kids who had horses often got to go but they were few and far between where I taught among impoverished children at the edge of town. So as a 7th and 8th grade teacher I just didn’t think much about the whole week. The school year was almost over anyway and there was certainly no requirement to dress up.

But I soon was promoted as teaching principal of a small rural school with 160 kids and 7 teachers and what went on in the curriculum was my responsibility. Some of the teachers were older and appeared to me to be suffering from a kind of continued need to whine and gripe about most things. Several others, however, were from my perspective absolutely brilliant. One of the brilliant ones was Rose, a woman in her late 40’s whom I have mentioned in another piece. I wrote that ‘Rose had a unique way of looking into each kid and somehow seeing what he or she could become. She looked past any misbehavior and learning difficulty to see each kid as someone who was becoming wonderful. Then she taught to that wonderful person. And usually, the wonderful person emerged sooner than later.’ To my great good fortune, Rose also had this perspective with young men who were teaching principals. If I was goofing up in some way I didn’t perceive, she would give me a call at home and share her thoughts. She was always right.

When Rodeo Week rolled around this time time, I saw a huge curriculum problem in the story behind the proud celebration of local history. Key facts, places and events were left out. There was no mention of places like “Bloody Island” in the middle of the Sacramento River where hundreds of Indians were murdered. Likewise, “Massacre Flat” where approximately 500 Indians were rounded up and shot to death, was missed in the legends of heroism and happiness. I was deeply disturbed that the annihilation and legal hunting down and murder of Indians was never taught. At the same time, it seemed almost too gruesome to teach to 4th and 5th graders.

So what should the curriculum be for such an event? Once again, Rose, the expert teacher, the daughter of local loggers and shopkeepers from pioneer stock emerged as a kind of seer for me. She never quoted Phil Schlechty to me but it was clear she agreed with his definition of good curriculum as fun stuff kids really want to do and learn about. Rose also knew much about the history of the local Indian genocide.

She avoided the most gruesome details but introduced her 5th graders to important authors who didn’t pull punches when writing about the topic. One such author was Mark Twain. Rose brought every student to him in the craziest and most fun way I had ever heard of.

First, every 5th grader had to read the “Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” This is a gold rush story of gold rush that like much of Twain’s work, seems funny but packs a real punch around issues such as gambling and cheating that no one could deny were strong themes in the era. In the story, gamblers hold a frog jumping contest and cheated by feeding one of the frogs buckshot to slow him down so he would lose. Then the fifth graders had to tell the story to all the younger students in the school by visiting their classrooms.

As a next step, Rose took the story into the real world of the kids. She held her own Jumping Frog contest on the school blacktop and every kid could compete. With her three sons and husband, Rose raided the ponds of local golf courses during the night with flashlights to find the frogs. Under her guidance, her sons would place the frogs in big picnic coolers to keep them fresh and alive for the races the following morning. In other words, no kid had to bring his or her own frog, although there was no ban against it.

At the appointed time in the morning, her bleary eyed sons would arrive with the coolers and start hosing down the blacktop before it got too hot for the frogs to compete. (One year, we suffered a heat wave and the races had to be called due to frogs frying during the races). The kids who wanted to race were assigned frog jockey numbers pinned onto their t-shirts and encouraged to name their own frog. Rose distributed fake money, coin like tokens so the kids could gamble like the old gold miners. The tokens could be redeemed for snow cones that were also available on the blacktop. Any kid could get a snow cone, but the gambling winners got to go first in line. Many parents always came to watch as well as other officials Rose had invited.

My first year as teaching principal was the year a near disaster occurred due to the frog curriculum. This was the year of the new Reading Text book adoption. And it was on the very day of the frog races that the compliance officer from the Northern California Region of 5 counties, Edna Boggs, showed up unexpectedly at my school.

I saw her coming around the building to see what was going on since the classrooms were empty and all the teachers, kids and many parents were collected on the blacktop betting and preparing for the races. Now none of this activity, not even the actual story by Mark Twain was in the new Reading textbook.

“Hello Edna,” I said cheerfully.

“Hello Bill,” she said. “What’s going on here?”

“Oh,” I responded. “We are celebrating Rodeo and Pioneer Days by focusing on Mark Twain’s fun story about the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

“Hmm.” Replied Edna. “You are aware, are you not, that Mark Twain’s stories are hardly appropriate for children, and not approved aside from our beloved Tom Sawyer?”

“Well, no,” I said. “I thought this story was fine.”

“it is not fine,” said Edna. “It contains gambling and cheating and God knows what else.” Her voice rose as she made her proclamation and several teachers moved closer to hear what was going on.

Edna was not aware that the second heat of the frog jumping contest had just begun and that she was standing in the path of one of the contestant frogs. The frog’s jockey, a scrawny yet bright 4th grader yelled out, “Interference! Interference!”

Rose leaped into action and gently grasped Edna by the arm saying, “Hello Edna, I’m glad you’re here but it’s time to step aside so these kids can jump their frogs.”

Rose knew that she needed to get ahead of Edna in this curriculum compliance game so she raced into the office to call the chairman of the school board first and the superintendent second to let them know how much fun the kids were having and how many parents (including a couple of board members) were at the school in costume helping and taking part. By the time Edna got back to her office and called the superintendent to complain about the non-compliant curriculum, it was far too late to have the impact she desired.

“Thanks for your opinion, Edna,” said the superintendent. “You are welcome to go back to the school and share any more concerns with the board members who are in the contest with some of the kids.” Edna hung up and dropped this particular compliance issue.

As soon as the jumping contest was over, Rose’s sons collected the frogs, put them back in the coolers and returned them in broad daylight to the golf courses from whence they came. I basked in the success and fun of the day. Rose showed me how to build curriculum and how to defend it all at the same time. Nothing happened about teaching about the Indians but that would come a few years later when the local tribe opened a casino and reaped their first round of revenge, gambling addiction, on the descendants of the brutal settlers who slaughtered their ancestors.












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