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Meet your neighbor: Class takes students back in time
JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Teacher Joe Astle talks with Patrick Kerns while students work on a Montana history project. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Bench Elementary fourth-grader Dana Nava surveys the tepee village that he and classmates made while working on Montana history projects. Abbie Hensel makes adjustments in the background.

A row of tepees lines the hall outside Joe Astle's fourth grade classroom at Bench Elementary School.

Inside, students are putting the finishing touches on their 58-page books about Montana. The two-month unit covering Montana's history, geography, and government is coming to a close, but Astle's students aren't sure they're ready to say goodbye to some of the interesting characters they've met along the way.

They've followed the journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and tracked Chief Joseph's 1,600-mile trek across Montana to seek freedom in Canada. They studied Jim Bridger and Lt. Col. Armstrong Custer, and read about the Montana gold rush and the Transcontinental Railway.

Evan Knutson said he related most to Sacajawea, who helped guide Lewis and Clark.

"She had a baby, Pompey, who reminds me of my little sister who is six months old," Knutson said.

Mike Lang said he was impressed with Sacajawea's strength.

"Once, when York was steering the boat and it sort of tipped, she saved all their gear with the baby strapped to her back," Lang said.

The students will have a chance later this spring to visit Pompeys Pillar as part of a school field trip. Astle said the students related to many of the historical figures they studied partially because of literature they read in addition to studying the history of the state.

"We read several books, including 'Naya Nuki: Shoshoni Girl Who Ran' who escaped her captors and returned to her tribe in Montana," Astle said.

The students also created a state map showing geographic features and designed their own miniature tepees out of tag board and brown paper bags.

"The other thing they enjoyed was all the information we had on the Nez Perce," Astle said. "They couldn't believe their flight was real and that it happened here in Montana."

Sharifa Al-suwailem, said she enjoyed drawing symbols on her tepee.

"I liked being able to design my own tepee, putting it together and stuff," Al-suwailem said.

Kurt Klein, who teaches a fourth- and fifth-grade combined class, put together the Montana book about six years ago using materials he'd gathered over the years as a history buff. Each year, when he teaches it to his own fourth-graders, he changes it a bit to fit the class.

Klein said sometime this spring he hopes to take his class to Two Moon Park to form plaster casts of animal tracks. He hopes students will find animals similar to those that Lewis and Clark saw during their journey nearly 200 years ago.

Jaci Webb may be reached at 657-1359 or at