An excited, boisterous group of eighth-graders in the first-period language arts class at Kenai Middle School became suddenly subdued Thursday when Assistant Principal Vaughn Dosko arrived with a police officer.
Dosko apologized for the interruption, then pulled aside co-teachers Cyndi Romberg and Allan Miller to explain he had just received a rather disturbing e-mail from the London Museum. The students in the class, who had just been discussing an upcoming writing project, made no pretense of minding their own business.
As some of the students eyeballed Officer Mitch Langseth, Dosko read the e-mail aloud; it said, in essence, that Kenai Middle School was in possession of museum property that had been taken without proper authorization, and that the museum wanted the property returned immediately.
INTERPOL, the international criminal police organization, had asked the Kenai Police Department to dispatch Officer Langseth to make certain that the transfer of property took place.
The property in question was an emperor penguin egg, preserved from a 1911 Antarctic expedition. According to the e-mail, the egg had been packaged with an assortment of polar rocks in a wooden crate and shipped by the National Science Foundation to the school to help the students with their study of polar science and provide them with more information for their writing project.
Only the day before, the students had arranged the rocks, the egg and other related items in a display case in the hallway just outside the classroom. When the students and teachers followed Dosko and Langseth out to retrieve the egg, they discovered inside the locked case an empty space where the egg had been. A few of the polar rocks also were missing.
Although some of the students were immediately skeptical, wondering aloud whether this was just an elaborate ruse perpetrated by Miller and Romberg, an in-class investigation took place. Officer Langseth openly questioned students as their worried teachers scrambled to provide helpful evidence.
With the students’ help, Langseth determined that the last time anyone had seen the egg in the case was 2:45 p.m. the previous day. It was also clear that the fingerprints of nearly every member of the class could be found on the glass of the case. Who then, Langseth wanted to know, could get into the case without breaking it?
Principal Paul Sorenson became a suspect because he was an avid rock collector and had a key to the case.
“He was really, really interested in it!” called out one student.
Dosko himself was a suspect because he loved birds and also had a key.
Another student suspected school custodians, “because they have keys to everything.”
Also called into question were several teachers, including Miller and Romberg. And one student even brought up the notion of a conspiracy against Miller by someone he might have angered at the NSF.
Just before class ended, Officer Langseth wrapped up the display case with a ribbon of yellow crime tape, and Dosko encouraged the students to keep their eyes and ears open for information that might lead to the recovery of what Miller had termed a “priceless” artifact.
Even if the whole egg disappearance was just a prank, Dosko said, no one would be prosecuted if the egg was returned by the end of the school day.
“No questions asked,” he said.
The truth, however, was that most of what the students had been told during first period was a lie.
The rocks were really polar rocks and had really been sent to the class several weeks earlier by the NSF, which had provided the grant money for this English/science/Quest amalgam that 12 schools in Alaska were running in conjunction with 12 schools in Tasmania, Australia.
The emperor penguin egg, on the other hand, was a model, and its theft was a hoax, which the students would discover only after being worked up a little more the following day. After more questions and accusations from students Friday, Debbie Harris, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District arts specialist, wandered into the classroom with a bag containing all of the missing items.
“She came in and said, ‘Oh, hey, I’m returning these,” as if her possession of the items was no big deal, said 13-year-old Madison Cunningham.
Harris claimed that, since she was going to be helping the class with the artwork on their writing project, she “borrowed” the rocks and the egg to do some sketches. She had been out of the building on Thursday when all the fuss had occurred.
Krystal Hamman, 14, who later called Miller the “best fake crier” for his Thursday performance, said that his demeanor changed completely upon Harris’ arrival Friday.
“Mr. Miller started giggling like a school girl when she came in,” she said. “And then they told us everything.”
Hamman and Cunningham said the class was mad at first.
“They’re all role models, and they’re not supposed to lie,” Cunningham said.
But she acknowledged that, even though the teachers had been “tricky” and “kind of mean,” they had created a “cool experience.”
Once they stopped laughing, Miller and Romberg explained they had been trying to introduce the students to the idea of a polar mystery, which was what their writing project with Tasmania would entail.
The project is based on a 2005 pilot program in Australia that produced a book entitled “Hidden Secrets of Skull Island,” which was written entirely by sixth-grade students and is replete with student artwork. At the end of the book is a photograph of all the students who worked on the project and a listing of their names.
Key to the “Skull Island” book and these current efforts is the use of polar science both as an integral part of the mystery and an opportunity to educate readers. Generally speaking, Miller will guide the science aspects of the project, Romberg the language/writing aspects, and Harris the artistic aspects.
According to a press release, the ultimate goal is to use art and creative writing to foster an increase in student engagement in science and technology, and establish exciting new ways for teachers to explore all three disciplines.
For the current effort, 12 books will be created, at first online. The best of these e-books will be turned into hard copies and published. The progress of the books’ creation can be viewed on a project Web site, found at http://iem.tmag.tas.gov.au/.
Of the 12 Alaska elementary and middle schools involved, two hail from the Kenai Peninsula: KMS and McNeil Canyon Elementary near Homer. Of the 10 others, four are in North Pole, four in or near Fairbanks, and two in villages near Bethel.
The KMS students will be working with students at Woodbridge District School, sending sections of their book back and forth with the goal of completing the project by December, when schools in Tasmania dismiss for summer vacation.
Hamman said she was looking forward to the writing portion of the project. “I’m used to writing on my own, but I’m looking forward to meeting new people in an educational way,” she said.
Cunningham, who said that on Friday she was “kind of disappointed” that her class would not be involved in “a whole CSI thing,” is ready now to start on the mystery.
“The first day, I went home and said, ‘Mom, guess what! We’re going to be writing a book!”