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Retiring teacher puts on her final ‘Westward’ program

By Bethany Knipp

Fifth-grade teacher LeAnne Thomas became the middle of a mass hug of her 66 students Friday following the conclusion of the 25th annual Westward Movement program.

It would be her last one. The students hugged Thomas after the announcement of her retirement. Thomas, since she began teaching at Marlatt Elementary school in 1989, has helped build an educational and musical program about American settlement in the western United States in the mid 19th century.

“It’s kind of a rite of passage into fifth grade. Every year the fifth-graders look forward to the program,” Thomas said.

On Friday morning, the students dressed in cowboy hats, boots and other western wear in a performance for Marlatt’s kindergarten through third graders.

They sang “Home on the Range,” “50 Nifty United States” and “Buffalo Gals.” They followed with a line dance to Billy Currington’s “That’s How Country Boys Roll,” and they even taught their fellow students and teachers how to square dance.

But between the singing and the dancing, there was a moment for Mrs. Thomas.

“Mrs. Thomas is going to retire this year, and we want to celebrate her and celebrate the fact that this is the 25th annual Westward Movement and I think that deserves a huge round of applause,” music teacher Staci Payne said.

Payne said that to honor Thomas, the kids would sing “Happy Trails.”

Upon that announcement and the students singing, the Marlatt Elementary teachers watching in the audience wiped tears from their eyes.

“Your kids love you, your former kids love you, and we all love you and we’re going to miss you very much next year, Mrs. Thomas, so thank you for everything,” Payne said.

Thomas said her former colleague Sue Carpenter, who retired several years ago, started the Westward Movement program and since then, it’s gotten bigger and bigger.

It’s something that she and the two other fifth-grade teachers, Kathi Stenfors and Sara Schram, along with Payne work together to put on. But the students don’t just sing and dance about the west.

During their social studies period with Thomas, the students simulate the travels from Fort Independence, Mo., to a fictional Hacker’s Valley (set in what would be Oregon).

It’s modeled after the “Pioneers” computer game and much like another game called “The Oregon Trail.”

The students have to get into teams, acquire supplies and use their resources well. If something bad happens like not having enough water, they die.

“I’ve had some cheaters. I mean they get really serious about it,” Thomas said.

The students use everyday supplies to make model covered wagons that are currently on display in the school’s library.

The occupants of the wagons include Barbie dolls and paper animals. One wagon was protected with a soft tortilla cover.

“I teach them that, ‘What were the reasons that the people wanted to move west in the first place?’” Thomas said.

The Westward Movement Program performance, the game and the art the students get to make is all about making the lesson fun.

“I want [students] to remember how fun school can be, and I want them to remember that teachers really care for them,” Thomas said.

A Marlatt tradition, students remember what they learned from the Westward Movement for years to come.

“Mrs. Thomas is — she is just the true definition of what a wonderful teacher is, and she’s gonna be missed around here more than anyone knows, but she’s going to always be a part of the Marlatt family,” Principal Brett Nelson said. She will be a part of the family because Thomas said she would substitute for Marlatt.

As for the future of Westward Movement, she hopes the tradition continues after she’s gone.

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