What can you learn from a hamster?

If the hamster is an elementary school classroom pet named Humphrey, the answer is, actually, quite a lot.

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"The World According to Humphrey" is the first in a series of books told from the viewpoint of the hamster, as written by Betty Birney. The book is the winner of many state book awards, including the Maryland Black-Eyed Susan Book Award in 2005-2006, an award voted on by Maryland school students.

During February, the students, faculty and administration of Manchester Elementary School have been immersed in "The World According to Humphrey." The book was selected for the school's inaugural One School, One Book program, during which everyone in the school reads the same book at the same time.

On the evening of Feb. 10, more than 200 people came to the school for Activity Night with Humphrey. The evening was broken into three different time blocks — 6:30 to 7 p.m., 7 to 7:30 p.m., and 7:30 to 8 p.m. — for students to spend at different activities.

Activity sessions were offered in multiple classrooms. Some students put their artistic skills to work, drawing Humphrey using video prompts on how to draw a hamster. Other classrooms were used for joke-telling, with students encouraged to read jokes out loud from any of the joke books that had been placed in the rooms from the school media center.

Experimentation was the theme in the gym, as teams of students dumped bags of recyclables onto the floor to create a maze for Humphrey. In this STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics — activity, each team had to design a functional maze that a hamster could actually go through without escaping.

Humphrey, himself, was not available for maze testing, so the faculty members brought robotic hamsters to each maze to do the testing. After an initial run, students had time to revise and improve their mazes for a final test run.

"I've never seen the kids so excited about recycling," said Nicole Wylie, as she watched her son Brayden Wylie, a first-grader, work on a maze. "He has a guinea pig at home, and he asked me if he could make a recycled maze for it."

The most popular part of the evening appeared to involve the milk and cookies, however. Students could go to the cafeteria, vote for a favorite colored-in Humphrey picture from those submitted by some of the students, and settle in for a snack.

Second-grade teacher Crystal Arndt handed out the ballots for the picture voting.

"I'm surprised at the number of kids that are reading it and really getting into it," she said. "To see everybody engaged and coming out tonight — this is great."

During cafeteria time, students got to hear that day's chapter from "The World According to Humphrey," read by the evening's special guest reader, Manchester Elementary Principal Martin Tierney. Seated in a rocking chair, Tierney read out loud to the students sitting on the floor and to the family members seated at the cafeteria tables around them.

To get ready for the storytime, Robin Sczepucha, of Hampstead, pulled three copies of "The World According to Humphrey" from her tote bag to hand to second-grader Natalie Sczepucha and kindergartener twins Kaylee and Michael Sczepucha.

"As soon as we get home from school every day, that's what they want to do is read," she said.

Jennifer Macneal, a seventh-grader at North Carroll Middle School, accompanied her parents and three younger siblings to the activity night and settled in for the story. With Brandon Macneal in fifth grade, Nathan Macneal in third grade and Arianna Thompson in kindergarten, the family has been spending a lot of time focused on Humphrey.

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"I think it's really cool for the whole school to have a book to read and have an activity night to go along with it," said Jennifer. "I've actually read one [of the books] when I was younger, and I'm starting to hear them reading it at night."

As part of Tierney's guest reader duties, he read the same chapter three times over the course of the evening. He didn't seem to mind, though.

"It was enjoyable to see the kids listening intently and so engaged," he said. "We're getting lots of conversations with the kids during the day. They're posting a lot of pictures on the PTA Facebook page."

Tierney said school officials intend to make the One School, One Book program an annual affair.

"It's our first year, but this will become a yearly event," he said. "It's not just the kids who are into it, but the families are into it as well."

The winners of the coloring contest were announced by fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Katherman after the activity night. One winner was chosen for each grade.

The winning pictures belonged to Gabrielle Detota, from Erin Thomas' kindergarten class; Cassi Lewis, from Dawn Paxton's first-grade class; Lauren Vickers, from Bonnie Stevens' second-grade class; Lexi Larson, from Jen Cuneo's third-grade class; Mason Poole, from Jen Katherman's fourth-grade class; and Carissa Poore, from Jen Fitzsimmon's fifth-grade class.

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