Reading & Literacy

Soaring Passion

By Robert C. Johnston — October 29, 2003 12 min read
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The centennal of the historic Wright brothers flight is bringing educators and flight enthusiasts together.

High school reading specialist Cheryl Martinetti knows how to get a project off the ground.

Take the outline for her reading-strategies course last spring at South Western High School in Hanover, Pa. It started something like this: Students will read “Dreams Come True: Story of the First Flight,” the serialized story about the Wright brothers that was slated to be published by the local Evening Sun as part of its Newspapers in Education program.

Her syllabus also called for students to research and answer the questions that were to accompany each newspaper installment. For the final activity, Martinetti wanted to motivate students throughout the 14 weekly installments of the story.

That’s where things really got interesting.

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Read the accompanying story, “Kids in Flight.”

“I asked the kids what they thought would be a good closure activity,” recalls the teacher. “They said, ‘Not a test. Take us flying.’ ”

As seriously as Martinetti takes her students’ perspectives, that request was a stretch. Still, she promised to look into the idea.

As the project unfolded in the coming weeks, Martinetti discovered what teachers across the nation are discovering: This is the best time in 100 years to expose students to flight—regardless of the curricular area. As the United States gears up to celebrate the centennial of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s epochal flight on Dec. 17, 1903, their story is ripe for use in history, science, or mathematics—or, as Martinetti found out, for motivating students to read.

Teacher’s Guide
The following is a sample of Web sites with information and curricula on the history and science of flight:

The Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studiesoffers a Web site for educators, complete with lesson plans and visual aids on the Wright brothers: lesson_plans/wright

The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission was established by Congress in 1998. One of the panel’s many roles is to provide educational materials to help commemorate the Wright’s flight:

The National Coalition for Aviation Education represents government, industry, and labor to promote aviation education activities at the local, state, and national levels:

What’s more, when people who are passionate about flying are united with the wealth of new teaching material on the subject, well, the sky isn’t even the limit. That was how the final chapter of Martinetti’s project on the Wright brothers came to life on a crisp, early-fall morning in a hangar here at the York Airport, on the outskirts of this small, south-central Pennsylvania city.

“You have a really good closure activity that is imaginative, exciting, and what they want,” Martinetti says, standing just inside the hangar. “It’s just amazing how the students would help one another because they had something to look forward to.”

Suddenly, several airplane engines buzz to life, drowning out Martinetti’s voice. Her students begin crowding toward the hangar’s gaping doorway. It’s time for the final activity—just as her students requested.

As the 100th-anniversary celebration of engine-powered flight draws near, the momentum is building to make the occasion a quintessential teachable moment.

Recently, the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies sponsored Teachers’ Nights in three cities, dedicated to the Wright brothers and the history of flight. More than 3,000 teachers attended the events, where they received teaching materials and talked to aviation experts.

Sophomore Alan Cornbower is among the student passengers in a flight over the York, Pa., area, the culminating activity of a months-long project on the Wright brothers and the history of aviation.

Sophomore Alan Cornbower is among the student passengers in a flight over the York, Pa., area, the culminating activity of a months-long project on the Wright brothers and the history of aviation.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

More than 2,200 of those educators attended the after-hours event at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where they previewed a new exhibit on the Wrights and the history of flight before the show opened to the public Oct. 11.

“We have to celebrate this anniversary. It’s a voyage of the mind,” says Jean Lewis, a 4th grade teacher from Falls Church, Va., as she takes a break from marveling at the Wright Flyer, the world’s first successful engine-powered airplane. It has been moved from its perch high in the museum atrium to ground level for the exhibit. “I can see going back to school on Monday and saying, ‘I want a field trip down here.’ ”

Other teachers who were just as enthusiastic about the inspiring setting and the attention being lavished on them by the Air and Space Museum were not optimistic that they could bring the event back to their classrooms.

Cary Gill, an elementary school math teacher in Arlington, Va., attended the event with his fiancée, a 5th grade English teacher. “We were just talking about how a lot of this stuff would complement what is going on in the classroom, but it won’t happen because we’re so concerned about preparing for the [Virginia Standards of Learning exams],” he says. “We have to cover what’s on them, and not the Wright brothers.”

Stephanie Norby, the director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies, often hears concerns like Gill’s. Still, she is encouraged by the popularity of the center’s new Web site on flight-related information—which was designed with teachers in mind—and the 10,000-plus visits it has had since going online this past summer.

“We analyzed the material that was out there and looked at what we could do as a complement,” Norby adds. “For example, with [academic] standards that focus on critical thinking, we ask students, ‘How do you even know that the flight was made?’ ”

Schools are finding a variety of ways to get more directly involved with the anniversary as well.

A week after the Oct. 6 opening of what is being billed as “The Weather Contest of the Century,” more than 200 teachers from 36 states had signed up their students up for a competition to forecast the weather at the Dec. 17 re-enactment of the Wright brothers’ flight in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Author Mary Maden gives a presentation on the Wright brothers to students from South Western High School in Hanover, Pa., in a York Airport hangar.

Author Mary Maden gives a presentation on the Wright brothers to students from South Western High School in Hanover, Pa., in a York Airport hangar.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

The U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission and the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia are sponsoring the competition. Entries will be accepted through Nov. 17. Participants have access to lesson plans on weather and aviation to guide them.

Likewise, the Wild Blue Wonders middle school flight education program is enjoying the highest interest it has seen since its inception in 1999. The group’s national contest, which has students devise flight plans and then try them on a computer-simulated flight, saw participation leap from 30 teams last year to 160 this year.

Sponsored by the Oshkosh, Wis.-based Experimental Aircraft Association and the Ford Motor Co., the program provides curriculum material, the Microsoft Flight Simulator computer program, and local experts to help in class or after school.

“It was very hard to convince teachers they could do this by themselves. But when we came up with a whole group of people who could help, it became a team effort that was a whole lot easier,” said Fred Nauer, the director of Wild Blue Wonders and a vocational education teacher.

He is also working with Wisconsin school officials to provide a live video feed from the re-enactment to classrooms across the state.

Before attempting their flight, Wilbur and Orville Wright had a big decision to make. Who was going to pilot the machine they had developed over the past three years in what they hoped would be the first successful venture to sustain machine-powered flight? To choose, they flipped a coin. Orville won and, as a result, he is the one pictured maneuvering the unwieldy machine for the 12-second, 120-foot flight over the sand dunes near Kitty Hawk and into history.

It’s one of the many anecdotes that author Mary Maden loves to tell students in the near-daily bookings she has in schools and libraries this fall up and down the East Coast. She uses it to break the ice with the 85 South Western High students seated in folding chairs in the York Airport hangar at the end of last month.

Maden wrote “Dreams Come True,” the timely serialized story being published by scores of Newspapers in Education programs across the country—and even one in Australia. To her, the Wright brothers’ story is one of pursuing dreams. It is one of the messages she hammers home with her young audiences.

Pilot Craig Johnston briefs students before taking them up in his plane.

Pilot Craig Johnston briefs students before taking them up in his plane.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

She grew fascinated with the story of the former bicycle-shop owners from Dayton, Ohio, after moving with her husband to Kitty Hawk 20 years ago. The dreaming geniuses inspired her to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a published author.

“Don’t tell anyone,” she confides to the teenagers. “But sometimes I go up to the sand dunes and talk to them.”

Maden then explains to the attentive students, who are ringed by the small airplanes in the hangar: “The Kitty Hawkers liked the Wright brothers, but thought they were nuts. It’s like someone coming into your community and saying they’re going to build a time machine.”

Her presence is just one of several serendipitous outcomes of the Evening Sun‘s local Newspapers in Education program. Nationwide, nearly 1,000 NIE programs work to bring newspapers and related lessons to some 106,000 participating schools.

Martinetti hadn’t planned on her students’ being able to share an hour with the author. For this, she has several people to thank, starting with Laurie James, the earnest coordinator of the Evening Sun‘s Newspapers in Education program, and a former teacher. After choosing Maden’s story from the growing list of serialized stories that are available on various themes, James sought out Maden during a family vacation to North Carolina in the summer of 2002.

“I met Mary and her husband for brunch,” remembers James, who’s always looking for new ways to promote the use of her newspaper by local schools. “I think it was one of those kindred-spirits kinds of things. We really enjoyed each other’s company.”

Maden accepted James’ invitation to come to Pennsylvania for a week to visit schools where students had read Maden’s story through various NIE programs. That plan was nearly blown away in September by Hurricane Isabel, which left the author’s beachfront home without a patio and made it impossible for her husband to drive her.

Enter the Gettysburg Barnstormers.

Henry Hartman, the president of the Gettysburg, Pa., pilots’ club, had made it a family ritual to read each Evening Sun installment of Maden’s book. Hearing that her trip to Pennsylvania might be canceled, he arranged to have a member of the Barnstormers fly her up from Kitty Hawk at the group’s expense.

It was just the latest gesture by the Barnstormers to advance the project. Hartman had already arranged, through James, to have several local pilots available to take the 85 South Western students up for short flights following Maden’s presentation.

“I got my kids into reading this story. We cut out all the installments and saved them,” says Hartman. “Over the years, money had been donated to the Barnstormers, but we never had a good idea for how to spend it. This came up, and it was like a light bulb going off. We said, ‘This is it.’ ”

Finally, the moment arrives. The engines are revved up, and last-minute instructions are given to the students. Nearly a century after the Wrights’ plane first took to the air, the anticipation of flight is still palpable.

Sophomore Devin Nicholson is the first to step onto the wing of the six-seat Piper Cherokee, easing his way into one of two black-leather seats in the rear of the plane. To reach this point, Nicholson admits he had to overcome anxiety about flying for the first time, not to mention his mother’s reluctance to sign his permission slip.

In front of him is classmate Ruby Mercado, a chatty freshman and veteran flier who purposely picked this plane and this seat so she could watch Nicholson’s face in flight.

Intrepid sophomores Josh Snyder and Kevin Fredrick round out the list of student passengers.

Mary Maden, left, and Laurie James, a local Newspapers in Education coordinator, joined forces to give students at South Western High a lively lesson on flight.

Mary Maden, left, and Laurie James, a local Newspapers in Education coordinator, joined forces to give students at South Western High a lively lesson on flight.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

The captain of the craft is Craig Johnston, a 32- year veteran pilot who knows firsthand the power that flight can have over youngsters. He is the regional director of the EAA’s Young Eagles Program, which seeks to give 1 million youths between 8 and 17 airplane flights by the Dec. 17 anniversary.

“I remember one mom, who came to me in tears after her daughter’s first flight,” he says. “She said that she had spent thousands of dollars on ballet lessons, and the moment her daughter hit the ground, she said, ‘Forget ballet, I want to get flying lessons.’ ”

While today’s results will be a little more mixed, none of the students wants to trade places with their earthbound classmates as Johnston soars with them 2,000 feet over South Western High at 150 miles per hour.

The students chatter nonstop into their headsets during the 20-minute flight.

“Dude, like look at this farmland. It’s sweet.”

“You’re so close to the sky.”

“Yeah, and it better stay that way.”

“I think I’m going to be a pilot!”

Then, without warning, Johnston noses down just enough to give his passengers the momentary feeling of zero gravity—similar to the sensation one gets from the front seat of a plunging roller coaster.

“Oh, help me!”

“Holy crap.”

“Oh, my God!”

“This is cool.”

Joe Ault, a sophomore at South Western High, reacts during takeoff from the York Airport. It was his first plane ride.

Joe Ault, a sophomore at South Western High, reacts during takeoff from the York Airport. It was his first plane ride.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

As Johnston turns back toward the runway, Fredrick announces to his friend Snyder, “Look, the Eiffel Tower.”

Snyder bites. “Where?”

Fredrick guffaws. “I knew I could get you.”

Back on the ground, each student passenger gets a certificate of completion to go with the day’s unforgettable activity. James, Maden, and Martinetti are there to greet them. By most accounts, the flights are a huge hit.

Then there’s Mercado, who started her flight by suggesting to Johnston that he take the plane for a quick trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

“So, Ruby,” an adult asks her, “You still want to fly to Disney World?”

“Yeah,” she responds, nodding her head. “On American Airlines.”

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