Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: World Equestrian Games inspired teacher's unique geography lesson

Michelle Jackson, a teacher at Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School, had her fourth- and fifth-grade students write letters, which she then gave to visitors at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Some of the recipients of those letters wrote back, above, from as far away as Australia and Scotland.
Michelle Jackson, a teacher at Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School, had her fourth- and fifth-grade students write letters, which she then gave to visitors at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Some of the recipients of those letters wrote back, above, from as far away as Australia and Scotland.

Michelle Jackson was so excited about the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games that she signed up to volunteer. Then, a week before the Games began last September, the fifth-grade teacher thought: How can I share this experience with my students?

After quickly consulting colleagues at Sts. Peter and Paul Regional Catholic School in Lexington, Jackson came up with a plan.

She asked students in her classes and in the school's other fifth-grade class, taught by Peyton Nunley, to write letters welcoming WEG visitors to Lexington and telling them something about Kentucky.

Jackson, 24, a Centre College graduate, carried some of the 50 or so letters with her while she worked with journalists, athletes and spectators in media zones at the Kentucky Horse Park competition venues. Whenever she encountered people from other states or countries who she thought might appreciate a letter, she gave them one.

She didn't have any idea how much the letters were appreciated until a few weeks later, when people started writing back from as far away as New York, Scotland and Australia.

A photojournalist from Australia sent the class a postcard with a picture of a koala. The mother of a para-dressage competitor from Scotland sent a letter and a big envelope full of brochures about Scottish parks and nature areas.

A sixth-grader wrote the class a detailed letter about what her life is like in Richfield Springs, N.Y., and she included several drawings of horses.

Jackson gave one letter to an Alabama family that included a fourth-grade girl. The girl took it to school to show her teacher, and one thing led to another.

On Friday, Jackson's students will use Skype software to have a video conference with Amanda Gibson's class at Liberty Park Elementary School in Vestavia Hills, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham.

Both classes have prepared for the computer-assisted meeting by sending questions back and forth, drawing posters and gathering maps and flags. "We've talked a lot about how we'll have to take turns and that everyone can't talk at once," Jackson said.

The Alabama students want to know about Kentucky's state bird, fruit, flower and fish, as well as the nearest amusement parks. They are curious about what burgoo is and what Sts. Peter and Paul School is like. They want to know whether any of the Kentucky kids own or ride horses, and whether they had been to the Kentucky Derby.

Because Sts. Peter and Paul is a regional school, several students do live on farms with horses. And the whole class will be able to tell the Alabama kids about WEG, because they were among more than 62,000 Kentucky students who got to attend, thanks to donations that Alltech raised from its suppliers.

Jackson's students are interested in Alabama's state bird, flower, tree and animal. But they also want to know about Alabama football and the space center in Huntsville.

"I asked what their favorite historical figure was, and I told them mine was Henry Clay," Victoria Parrish said. Why Henry Clay? She said she lives near and has visited his Ashland Estate.

The fifth-graders are curious about the Alabama students' favorite foods and plan to talk about theirs. Max Sparkman wants to tell them about Ale-8-One — "it's my favorite soda ever" — which led several students to suggest that they send a case of the Winchester-made soft drink to Alabama. "I told them we'll see about that," Jackson said, making no promises.

Thanks to this letter-writing assignment, Jackson's students said they learned a lot about other places and people — and know a lot more than they did before about Kentucky and their hometown.

"I thought it was interesting that one piece of paper we wrote on went to the other side of the world," Mason McCollum said.

"Yeah, and I didn't think any of them would write back," Elli Spanier said.

All of which makes their teacher smile.

"I wanted them to learn that the world is very accessible to them," Jackson said, "that adults in Australia and Scotland thought it was important to write back to 11-year-olds in Kentucky."

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