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Groundhog stories bring craft to kids

Published Aug. 27, 2005

(ran EO edition)

Forest Lakes Elementary teacher Rachel Pages wanted her students to understand that writing is more than imagination.

"Sometimes they think you can just make it up as you go," she said. "And sometimes you can, but most writing needs to be based in fact."

So she invited local author, poet and songwriter Barbara Birenbaum of Clearwater to talk with the students and share some of the facts she has blended into her fanciful books, including Groundhog Phil's Message.

"She's big in groundhog circles," said Pages.

Last week, Birenbaum brought her groundhog friends to more than 140 second-graders in two sessions at Forest Lakes Elementary. When Groundhog Punxsutawney Phil pops up in Pennsylvania on Monday, the students will know something about the history of the event, its star and a little about creativity.

Birenbaum started by asking the class what groundhogs do on Groundhog Day.

"They wake up from hibernation and see their shadow," said Chris Chappel, 7, and then hesitated. "I think I'm getting it reversed, they see their shadow and they go back in the hole."

The tradition is that when the Groundhog Phil sees his shadow and goes back underground, six more weeks of winter will follow. If he doesn't see his shadow, then an early spring is predicted.

Birenbaum said Punxsutawney, Pa., was once an American Indian town called Ponksaduteney, town of sandflies or "ponksads."

When the first white settlers arrived in 1814, the Indians told them about their groundhog legends. And the Europeans had their own traditions for predicting spring involving hedgehogs, sun or swirling snow.

So groundhogs predicting weather must have sounded somewhat reasonable in 1886, when Punxsutawney Spirit newspaper editor Clymer Freas designated Feb. 2 as Groundhog Day.

As Punxsutawney Phil's fame spread, Birenbaum said, contenders arose, like Sir Walter Wally in Raleigh, N.C., Gen. Beaureguard Lee in Lilburn, Ga., and Octorara Orphie, a female prognosticator from Quarryville, Pa.

Though Octorara was the official predictor in 1943 when Phil failed to appear, the Punxsutawney rodent reigns supreme as the "official" prognosticator.

Second grade teacher Teri Klein asked Birenbaum whether she liked to write stories when she was a student.

No, the author said, she thought her brother was the family's writer. He died while in college and then a teacher saw a talent for writing in his younger sister.

"Every single one of you has something that makes you special," Birenbaum said to the second-graders. "You just have to find it."

_ If you have news or photos about Oldsmar schools, churches, businesses, neighborhood groups, community organizations or people, call Theresa Blackwell at (727) 771-4305, fax it to her at (727) 771-4301, e-mail or mail material to her at the North Pinellas Times, 34342 U.S. 19 N, Palm Harbor, FL 34684.