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Everest in the classroom


Jesse Jackson once said it was attitude, not aptitude, that ultimately determined altitude.

But these days - because of the combined fortitude of a few educators - students from Howard County schools can ascend to the highest point in the world without leaving their desks.

As part of a program called "Shared Summits," students at several county schools have been following online the exploits of Chris Warner, the veteran mountaineer from Oella who is scheduled to reach the peak of Mount Everest - the world's highest mountain - today.

If he makes it, it is believed he would be the first Marylander to reach the summit of the 29,035-foot mountain.

Warner started Shared Summits to allow students in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia to follow him online, all the while sending him questions, and using his climb as fodder for classroom lessons.

If he makes the summit, he will take a digital picture and send it to participating classrooms by computer.

As the owner of Earth Treks Climbing Center in Columbia, Warner became especially acquainted with teachers in Howard County.

Two teachers in particular - Wilde Lake Middle School math and science teacher Bob Keddell and Ilchester Elementary School third-grade teacher Hillary Sandberg - have developed ways to use Warner's climb not just to teach their classes, but also to help other teachers in the county do the same.

Keddell has developed a 3-inch-thick binder of lesson plans that helps teachers use mountaineering - Warner's climb in particular - to instruct kids in math, science, social studies and language arts.

"This is a bunch of crazy teachers trying to make sense of Chris' vision," Keddell said. "He's on mountains all the time. And it's also a chance for somebody like Chris Warner, who really is an educator, to really connect with teachers."

Keddell said Warner wanted to ensure that his climb would be used as a real part of school curriculum, "not just an extra."

Keddell's version of that vision seems to be working.

In Sandberg's third-grade class, children not only send e-mail to Warner for fun, they read his online journal entries and write about his experiences for class credit. They are also participating in a "Yak that Fact" contest with 20 schools across the area, including Washington and Virginia. The school that answers the most mountaineering, geography and social studies questions correctly will get a visit from Warner, who will share artifacts from the climb.

Sandberg has displays on her walls that read "Climb Mt. Spell Right," and "Summit Mt. Calculate."

The third-graders study mountaineering and the geography and culture of Nepal - where Mount Everest is - and research the culture of the Nepalese.

During a recent lesson, Sandberg's class participated in a makeshift "puja" - a Buddhist blessing ceremony during which mountaineers make offerings to the mountain to assure a safe climb. She asked the children what they would offer the mountain if they were climbing, reminding them that the offering should be near and dear to the hearts.

After his classmates offered teddy bears, Game Boys and lucky charms, Ben Lumsden, 8, said he would give the mountain his little brother.

"Because when I'm mad he comes over and gives me a hug or if I get hurt he gives me a hug," he said.

The class also completed a role-playing exercise in which one child pretended to be a Sherpa - a Nepalese mountain-dweller - and another pretended to be an American climber, attempting to communicate his need for help.

It took four pupils to make the Sherpa, Justin Goodall, understand that they would be unable to climb the mountain because they had headaches and were coughing blood - using pantomime only.

Afterward, Rachel Abremski, 9, said she didn't think she would want to be a mountaineer.

"It seems like it's kinda hard," she said. "And it's dangerous. And it's hard to talk to people you don't understand."

But she added that the Warner-related lessons were riveting.

"I always want to come and learn about it," Rachel said.

On the middle school level, Keddell said, a similar lesson would involve bringing a pup tent to class, climbing in with a "Sherpa" and a "climber" and having to explain, without using the word "pizza", that you would prefer to eat that cheese treat than Nepalese porridge.

Keddell said the lessons are in line with the county's curriculum and can be used throughout the year.

This year is special, Keddell said, because if Warner hits the highest peak in the world, the children who have been following the climb all year will feel as if they have made it to the top as well.

"It's just a natural to have someone like Chris, who's a local hero, working with us on this," Keddell said.

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