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School trip an overnight success

They weren't crazy to attempt this after all.

Bauder Elementary School teachers and parents took 67 fourth-graders, most of them 9 years old, to Tallahassee for an overnight field trip earlier this week. They toured museums, government buildings, nature parks and the Supreme Court. They spent the night in a motel.

No one vomited. No one got lost. No one bled.

Most of them slept. Few of them misbehaved. They all seemed to have fun. Most importantly, they appeared to learn along the way.

The trip grew out of two teachers' effort to try something different with the fourth-grade curriculum at the Seminole school.

Rangel Dockery and Nancy Tondreault threw out the textbooks and the traditional division of class time for science, social studies, English, spelling and math. Instead, they developed their lessons around themes.

The first theme, Fabulous Florida, began with the school year.

The student text was a youth novel called The Talking Earth, in which a Seminole Indian girl named Billie Wind ventures into the Everglades alone to try to discover the talking animals and earth spirits of the Seminole legends, befriending an otter named Petang and a panther named Coootchobee.

Using that book and others as a base, the teachers blended science and social studies with reading and math, writing word problems that involved the book's characters.

The trip seemed the perfect way to cap the theme, the teachers decided.

Principal Carol Thomas agreed. So did all the parents, who paid $99 per child. Then, 23 parents and an uncle said they would chaperone and pay $99 each for the privilege.

The trip was on.

Getting there

Tuesday morning, long before most of these kids even rise for a normal school day, they hug sleepy parents goodbye.

Mrs. Tondreault (pronounced TON-dro) asks what movie her kids want to watch on the bus' two televisions. Someone in the back yells The Terminator.

"You're on the wrong bus if you want The Terminator, she says. They settle on a ghoulish Disney movie called The Bride of Boogedy.

Mr. Boogedy screams and shrieks. A hand-held video game beeps. A few kids play patty-cake. Another group plays a version of TV's Family Feud.

The miles roll by quickly, aided by a few fourth-grader jokes.

"What do you call a cow without legs?" one kid yells. "Ground beef."

"What does an elephant do when he hurts his toe?" shouts another. "Calls a tow truck."

The first sign of what really interests kids shows up as the group exits the buses at Wakulla Springs State Park, the first official stop on the tour.

Cody Johnson asks if there's a gift shop.

Day 1: Nature

Wakulla isn't the Everglades, where the novel heroine Billie Wind survived on her wits. But it is close enough to impress the kids and even the teachers. "It was just like being in the book," Mrs. Dockery says later. "It was amazing."

The tour boat chugs noisily along the river, and guide J.J. Johnson tries to point out the varieties of birds and turtles.

The kids snap their cameras at any bump remotely resembling a gator snout, moving en masse from one side to the other with each new sighting.

Halfway through the trip, Johnson backs the boat up so they can get a closer look at a 10-footer lying on the bank. "Hi, alligator," Amy Evans calls as she waves.

The guide keeps saying he'll find them a snake, and he's good to his word. He points out a brown water snake, maybe 18 inches long, lying coiled.

"Where, where?" kids shriek, snapping photos in the general direction as they search.

Parent Kathy Jacobs can't help laughing when she finally sees it. "I thought we'd have this big, man-eating snake," she says.

From Wakulla, the tour moves to the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science, also known as the Junior Museum.

They divide into two groups for a guided look at the native Florida animals that live there: bobcats, red wolves, river otters, panthers, black bears, skunks, deer and, of course, alligators.

The children eagerly offer reasons why panthers are near extinction _ destruction of habitat, traffic, etc.

At the otter exhibit, somebody yells, "Hi, Petang."

Though the young black bear is putting on a show, ramming his tire swing first with his head then his rear, most of the kids are looking past him. There is a big gator in the next pen.

As the guide points out a striped skunk, Ashley Moses pulls at her mother's arm. "Take a picture, Mom," she says. "The only skunk I've ever seen is in cartoons."

By 5 p.m., the adults are flagging as the kids swarm the hands-on exhibits.

Matthew Kerry looks at Indian corn under a magnifying glass. Ryan Kremer and Nick Metts sit foot-to-foot in a small dugout canoe like the one Billie Wind made. They all take turns staring at a wreath woven from human hair.

As the bus heads for the motel, small heads bob in the bus seats.

"I can't wait," Rachael Smith says, "to get to the mall."

Day 2: Government

After breaking their vows to stay up all night, the kids are dressed in dresses and long pants, eating doughnuts by 7 a.m.

They are getting a special tour of the state Supreme Court.

Veteran Justice Ben Overton has two grandsons who attend Bauder. Neither is in these classes, but Overton has arranged the presentation, which he and his wife Marilyn attend.

The security guard who meets the group at the front door says anyone with gum should throw it in the flower beds next to the marble steps. Two moms sheepishly toss theirs in.

Overton's law clerk, Kathi Giddings, picks seven to sit in the justices' big maroon chairs. Six more get to play lawyers on each side of the issue. One is the clerk, another the court marshal.

Each lawyer has two minutes to argue whether students caught with guns at school should get two licks with a cane.

"It teaches them a lesson," Heather Warnken argues in favor.

"I think they should not cane because they could be disabled or scarred," Greg Wehr argues.

The justices' vote: six against caning, one for.

The rest of the morning passes in a blur. The groups see the chambers for the House of Representatives and the Senate. They ride the elevators to the top of the 22-story Capitol for a wide view of the city.

As they leave the governor's office, Mrs. Dockery says the group is running behind so there will be no shopping in the gift shop. The kids groan, and some of the parents complain.

It turns out to be the one point of contention during the whole trip.

Momentum is waning by the final stop at the Museum of Florida History. Justin Bray pretends to shoot a 6-pounder cannon from the 18th century. Chaperone Bob Hewell explains a Civil War physician's need for a saw to Christopher Hewell and Kyle Langes.

Joe Rose announces that those swords could cut off heads easy, and Paige Caton tries on clothes from the trunk in the Grandma's Attic display.

But the kids are getting tired, and seem relieved to get back on the buses.

The trip home goes by quickly, although the teachers do have to remind the kids to sit a little more often.

By 7 p.m. Wednesday, 36 hours after leaving, the buses are almost back to Bauder. Mrs. Dockery stands to thank the children one more time for behaving so well. They talk a little about all that they have seen and done.

Then, she gives them one final order.

She tells them that she always asks her 8-year-old son what he did at school. Most days, he shrugs and says, "Nothing."

"If any one of you," she says sternly, shaking her head, "gets off this bus and says, "Nothing,' oh ho ho ho ho."