Friday, March 24, 2006

Cowgirls and Cowboys

Well, I don't spend my day in serious study. I teach children who have difficulty with reading how to enjoy reading. This month the topic is cowgirls and cowboys.

The children always ask why they are called cowboys and cowgirls. If you ride a horse, why would you be called a cowboy? What do the cows have to do with it?

Fortunately my first teaching job was in a high school in a small town in central B.C., just outside the Douglas Lake Ranch, the biggest ranch in British Columbia. Cattle are allowed to run free in this part of B.C., which means that if they cross the road in front of you, it is up to you to stop, the cows have right of way. They don't have to stop, look both ways, and point, either. Twice a year the cows are rounded up by the cowboys.

On sports day, we all went off on our prearranged sporting activity. Mine was to go with a group of teenage girls on a trail ride to a remote lake where we built a fire and ate lunch and enjoyed a lazy afternoon, and then back to groom and feed the horses, before returning home. I was given a graphic description of branding calves and other realities of ranch life.

So now my younger students read about Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley every year. Sometimes I get bored with these two heroes but their stories are well-written at the grade 2 level and what more can you ask for.

Bill started working for the Pony Express when he was 14 years old to earn money to support his widowed mother. He carried the responsibility of the family on his shoulders. The letters he sent home to his mother minimized the dangers he experienced and the excitement of his daily encounters with risk and hardship - robbers, wolves, cougars, weather, illness - you name it. The children love it.

Annie Oakley took her deceased father's gun from the house when she was 9 years old and went out to hunt for food. She supplemented the family diet with fresh meat, squirrels I think, but later minks and foxes, whose skins she sold for income to buy clothes and books for herself and her siblings. She too learned her trade, that of being a crack shot, without her mother's full consent.

Both of these characters stepped into an adult role at an early age. Fortunately for Annie, a few years later an older sister gave her a chance to live in the city where she was discovered and became famous, eventually touring in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

I bring in a bunch of furs - beaver, mink and wolf - given to us by trappers, and a beautifully carved wooden rifle. Usually this is no problem, the fur trade is part of our curriculum and a beaver skin was a unit of currency in Canada at one time. Nontheless many teachers are astounded to learn that some people in the north continue to make a living from furs, although this has its ups and downs.

One year I had the whole Annie Oakley display up in my room, the hat, vest, bandana, skins, gun, boots, rope, etc. especially for our school accreditation week. At the end of the week the visiting dignitaries met with us in the library and we sat in a solemn circle waiting for the word that we had passed.

By chance I sat next to the chair of the accreditation team. She opened with the news that we had indeed passed but it was with 'reservations'. We had to get rid of the 'dead animals'! From her angle she could not see the flush of red that flooded my face but the rest of the room could. I had so lovingly and naively prepared that display just for them. After the team left this instruction was simply ignored.

The children still read these stories every year. They love to hear about children who have stepped up to the plate at an young age. Some of these children have experienced that already, getting up early to feed and dress younger siblings and get them to school. Some have come in as refugees and others are sent here to live with relatives and learn English, while their parents save up funds to move here as a family.

So what has this to do with cows? Lucky for us, nothing at all. I don't have to teach about cows -I have to make these children want to read.

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