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Teacher leaves N'Awlins, but not MardiGras, behind

(ran North, South editions)

It made her homesick and at times made her eyes well up.

Still, even with the FCAT looming last week, Anne Hensel was putting forth her best effort to give Gulf Middle students a taste of her old hometown and the Mardi Gras celebration that had been a part of her life for about 20 years.

It was shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit that Hensel landed in New Port Richey. She was due to come here anyway because her husband, Donald, who works for the Whitney National Bank, had been transferred to an office in Tarpon Springs. But Katrina forced the couple to evacuate with two suits for him and some shorts and T-shirts for her.

"We were fortunate. We lived on the side of the levy that didn't break," Hensel said. "We had wind damage and a little bit of water damage. Our biggest damage was not being able to say goodbye to a lot of people."

The couple pushed up their move to Florida, and Hensel was hired at Gulf Middle soon after Labor Day as a language arts teacher on the Achievers Team.

"I thought it was kind of unusual because the school was on Louisiana Avenue," she said, adding that everyone, from administrators to fellow staffers to parents and students, had been welcoming.

"We're slowly making friends here," she said. "We're making a home. A lot of people are from different areas, so I'm just part of the crowd now."

But come Mardi Gras time, Hensel was remembering her days at John Quincy Adams Elementary School in Jefferson Parrish, where she had worked as a staff resource teacher.

"It wasn't unusual for students to be eating a piece of King Cake while taking a test this time of year," Hensel said. "Kids would come in randomly with King Cake almost."

But here in New Port Richey, well, the celebration is a tad foreign.

In fact, Hensel said, folks from New Orleans don't want to get the nut, the pea, the baby, or whatever is hidden in the King Cake, because that means you have to buy the next King Cake. Here, folks are clamoring for the hidden whatever because tradition says it brings good luck, Hensel said. "Here, they're fighting over it.".

Then there are students like Michael Jara who said he thought Mardi Gras was "some way of selling "hello' in Spanish."

And 12-year-old Dylan Neff, who said, "I never really learned about Mardi Gras. I only thought it was a parade."

Those students know plenty about Mardi Gras now, Hensel said, "and I think they've had fun doing it."

Last week Hensel's classroom was decorated in purple, green and gold, which have stood for justice, faith and power since the celebrations of medieval times. There were Mardi Gras masks, costumes, streamers and signs saying, in Cajun French, Laissez Le Bon Temps Roulette - "Let the Good Times Roll."

On the agenda were shoe box "parade floats," King Cake, advertisements that would lure people to the Mardi Gras celebrations, and persuasive essays to principal Stan Trapp on why Mardi Gras should be a school holiday in Florida.

The Mardi Gras unit involved other teachers on the Achievers Team. Students would solve Mardi Gras word problems in math, and in science classes students would chart Mardi Gras weather for the past 150 years.

The green, purple and gold markers were in high demand in Hensel's classroom last week as students worked together on visual timelines depicting the history of the annual celebration.

Teamwork was a priority for those who worked their way from the beginning - 1699, when signs of the pagan tradition was brought to the United States by French-Canadian explorer Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville - to now.

"The French came over and started the whole thing," said Jessica Viola, 12, as she worked on her poster with Kevin Clark, 13.

The Mardi Gras lesson unit and all the activities that went with it got high marks from 12-year-old Chelsea VanDenkooy, who said, "It's really cool."

"It's something new so I didn't know anything about it before," Jessica said. "It's better than just sitting here and working on normal stuff."

But whether students knew it or not, they were likely digesting some of that "normal stuff."

"All the activities are focused on Florida state standards," Hensel said. "Through this they're reading nonfiction with the history of Mardi Gras. They're getting all the standards and benchmarks that are required. The great thing is the kids don't think they're learning anything. They think it's all fun and games because it's Mardi Gras."