Modesto students talk a little like pirates while learning a lot

naustin@modbee.comSeptember 19, 2013 

— Belay them doubts, matey, thar be pirates about and the cap’n says they be teaching kids plenty.

First-graders at Martone Elementary spent their day swashbuckling, buccaneering and calling, “Fair winds!” as a farewell salute to visitors. But behind the plastic eye patches, head scarves and wide grins, a lot of serious work got done.

Kids searched their room for vocabulary, like “barter,” “belay” and “blimey,” using paper telescopes, then wrote down every one they found. They played a dice game that made them add, sneaking in math-facts practice. A word search puzzle made them track their letters.

P.E. set sail with calls of “Climb the rigging,” sending giggling kids scurrying up a pretend ladder. “Rats on deck!” meant curl up and rock. “Row your boat!” required finding a partner to face, sitting and pulling back and forth.

“It’s a day for imagination, tying imagination into learning,” said teacher Chris Wright. His favorite part, he said, “is the happiness on their faces.”

“They’re so excited,” said teacher Erica Middaugh, before calling her kids to “the dinner line,” which on other days is just the line to go back to class.

Middaugh and the other three first-grade teachers use a pirate theme all year, giving special attention to Sept.19, International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Teachers and students dress up for the day. There are eye patches for anyone without a costume, but what really sells it is the attitude.

Young scallywag Saaid Santoyo Hernandez came decked out in black pants, a jaunty headscarf and a clip-on hoop earring. It’s all part of the Halloween costume he’s pulling together, he said.

“You can find treasure – aarrrgh!” said Micah King as he filled up a page with pirate words.

Every kid in Jennifer McGrath’s class got pirate names for the day. Giggling galore greeted Mad Rat Ned Head, Spike Whitebeard, Shark Bait Barth and Squid-lips Tuna Breath.

“It’s something different to do – using our standards, but with a pirate feel,” McGrath said. It takes extra time, but, she added, “It doesn’t feel like work because it’s fun.”

Precisely, said Principal Richard Radtke. “They’re so excited to do the work. Math, reading, vocabulary – all their studies they’re supposed to do, but they do it in pirate. To an adult, it’s schooling,” he said.

The switch to pirate language brings English learners and struggling students into the mix – it’s new to everybody, he noted.

“There’s not one kid that’s not working. This is getting so much work done in just a matter of minutes,” Radtke said.

“It’s how school should be.”

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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