RALEIGH, N.C. - Nicole Thompson's third-graders can tell you all about the penguins and killer whales that populate Antarctica.
They know about the months of darkness that grip Iceland each year, too, and the fine tea that grows in Darjeeling, India.
The Greenbriar Academy children have learned those facts - and countless more about countries large and small - thanks to a simple e-mail message from Thompson that has raced around the globe and brought more than 20,000 responses in six weeks.
"It's crazy, just crazy," said a bemused Thompson. "At most, I thought we'd get about 2,000 replies."
In early December, Thompson sent a note to about 100 people, mostly her own friends and relatives or those of her students' parents. She asked the recipients to forward her e-mail to people they know in other states or countries and to urge those people to write to her class.
She hoped the exercise would make geography lessons more fun, and more personal, for her students at Greenbriar, a small private school in Bahama, N.C.
As messages started pouring in, Thompson realized she had greatly underestimated the power of the Internet.
By last week, messages had arrived from every state in the United States, from more than 80 other countries and from each of the seven continents. A chart at the front of Thompson's classroom listed each nation she and the children had heard from. As more messages arrived, the children colored in each new country on a world map.
Some of the messages were just three or four lines long, but a few correspondents wrote pages about their whereabouts.
The children heard from a missionary in Tonga, an English teacher in Mongolia, a business owner in Israel and a civilian worker at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
One of the most interesting notes, Thompson said, came from a carpenter named John Ackley living at a research station in Antarctica.
"I am at McMurdo Station, which is about 800 miles from the South Pole," Ackley wrote. "Temperatures are not too bad this time of year. Over the past three weeks, it has been around zero to 35 above zero."
Ackley sent photographs of killer whales and other life found in Antarctica as well as shots of his surroundings.
The children proudly displayed some of their newfound knowledge in a recent class.
"I know where Mongolia is," said 9-year-old Hunter Frank. "It's easy to find on the map. Russia is even easier."
The kids talked about the faraway places they'd like to visit now that they've learned about them.
"I want to go to Antarctica," said 8-year-old Caitie Attarian. "I also want to see Greenland. I just think it would be really neat."
Thompson initially planned to end the project when the children had heard from all seven continents, but her new goal is to collect messages from every country recognized by the United Nations.
"It's been so amazing," Thompson said. "The kids are thrilled with this. They just can't wait to get to class."
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