Classroom 15

Classroom 15

How the Hoover FBI Censored the Dreams of Innocent Oregon Fourth Graders

Edited by Peter Laufer
Foreword by Ann Curry

A result of an investigative report by tenacious University of Oregon journalism students, Classroom 15 tells the story of how the dreams of fourth-grade students at the Riverside School, Roseburg, in rural Oregon timber country, were crushed by the prevailing Red Scare, McCarthyism, state and societal censorship, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The book is a remarkable example of experiential learning techniques and successes and is a prime tool to teach by specific example the pragmatic processes of student-conceptualized research, employment of the FOIA, and shoe-leather journalism.

PDF, 222 Pages


December 2020

£21.50, $28.00

EPUB, 222 Pages


December 2020

£21.50, $28.00

  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
  • Series
  • Table of Contents
  • Links
  • Podcasts

About This Book

The teacher of Classroom 15, known fondly as Mr. McFetridge, assigned a pen pal project in an effort to take geography lessons outside of the classroom. Imagining a place as far from Oregon as they possibly could, the students wrote letters to nine- and ten-year-old counterparts in the Soviet Union. Janice Boyle, the class secretary, reached out to Oregon’s Congressional representative, Charles O. Porter, seeking assistance connecting with peers in Russia. Representative Porter forwarded the letter to the Secretary of State Christian Herter and a week later the students received the shocking and disheartening news that their benign request had been needlessly denied. In the wake of McCarthyism, the Eisenhower administration subverted the assignment, fearing Communist propaganda would infect the innocent minds of eager Oregon schoolchildren. 

The students’ plight quickly gained national attention with stories running from the Roseburg News-Review to the New York Times. The publicity didn’t miss the attention of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. His agents investigated. They traveled to Roseburg, collected evidence, and took it back to the Bureau’s regional headquarters in Portland. The public reaction was swift and unrelenting. The teacher and the Congressman were attacked by outraged Roseburg citizens, the school board, and enraged Americans across the country. 

Despite the U.S. government’s best efforts, the news reached Russia and the front pages of Pravda. School children from the Soviet Union flooded Douglas County with letters to their Roseburg counterparts, most (but not those found by the authors) were confiscated by authorities. As quickly as the Riverside pen pal initiative materialized, it was quashed.

Born out of a University of Oregon investigative reporting class exercise based on an erroneous New York Times “On This Day in History” column, journalism student curiosity evolved into passion. In the same vein as the fourth-grade class from 58 years before, the voracious class of reporting students doggedly pursued the untold story: An FBI inquiry, a 68-year-old Janice Boyle living in a Las Vegas suburb, a file of letters in Cyrillic script stashed in a cedar chest tucked away in Sisters, Oregon – all leading to a reminder of government repression in the 1960s that resonates in contemporary international affairs. 

The book is a remarkable example of experiential learning techniques and successes. The work is a prime tool to teach by specific example the pragmatic processes of student-conceptualized research, employment of the FOIA, and shoe-leather journalism. The book takes an unexpected and deep look at the Red Scare and censorship, societal and state censorship that is reflected in public discourse today.

Classroom 15 is a page-turning adventure story told with the voices of the empowered, tenacious University of Oregon journalism students who took the nascent story and demonstrated their unwavering devotion to the journalistic process by telling the tale. 


“It is a fascinating tale, all the more remarkable because it was written not by a single author but by a class of journalism students. The book will appeal to history buffs (not just professional historians but average readers interested in history). It will appeal to readers who like a mystery – who stopped the pen pal project and why? It will appeal to journalism students, who will learn how a story can be divided into parts for different writers and reassembled. I think it will appeal to readers who just like a good story. And for those, like me, who remember the McCarthy era it will bring back some chilling memories.”—Roberta Ulrich, veteran Oregonian and United Press International journalist; author of Empty Nets: Indians, Dams and the Columbia River

“This project is solid work of forensic journalism, unearthing Cold War history and geopolitics by using the case study of a small Oregon town and innocent schoolchildren. Adding new insights available in our contemporary post–Cold War context gives the reader a way both to look back at the folly of the past and understand future pitfalls driven by ideological rigidness and fear.”—Markos Kounalakis, PhD, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and McClatchy newspapers foreign affairs columnist

“Two Oregon classrooms, separated by seventy miles and sixty years, are brought together by a brief New York Times clipping. An engaging mix of investigative-reporting and storytelling, Classroom 15 uncovers a long-forgotten footnote in Oregon and Cold War history (I never thought I’d see Yoncalla and Rostov-on-Don in the same sentence), while raising important questions about our current national politics. Hats off to the intrepid student journalists at the University of Oregon who have brought this fascinating story to light.”—Tom Booth, Director, Oregon State University Press

“Peter Laufer and his talented journalism students provide a suspenseful narrative of American kids wanting Soviet pen pals. Through the lens of memory and hindsight, this book illustrates the tensions that governed the Cold War and, ultimately, it is a testimony to the value of cultural exchanges.”—Rósa Magnúsdóttir, Associate Professor of History, Aarhus University and author of Enemy Number One: The United States of America in Soviet Ideology and Propaganda, 1945-1959.

Classroom 15 is a revealing illustration of the techniques and impact of experiential reporting. This consequential human-interest story is documented with a local and international mindset in its core, which transcends cultures and political systems.” —Juan-Carlos Molleda, Dean, University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication

“Peter Laufer is a consummate writer, erudite and ever-observant. He has the rare ability to communicate with disparate audiences through his writing. Classroom 15 is a prime example of that talent.”—David P. Burns, Professor of Multimedia Journalism, Salisbury University

Classroom 15 has all the twists, turns, and international intrigue of any political thriller. It’s the gripping story of a government that’s lost its moral perspective because of fear and xenophobia. The warnings here about authoritarian overreach are as resonant today as they were at the height of the Cold War. It’s also the charming story of ‘a group of kids [trying] to do what they do best: to make friends.’ An absorbing and penetrating book.” —Keith Scribner, author of The Oregon Experiment and Professor in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film at Oregon State University

Author Information

Peter Laufer, PhD, holds the inaugural James Wallace Chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication where he was awarded the Marshall Prize for teaching innovation. A former and longtime global correspondent for NBC News, Laufer reports on borders, identities and migration. He has covered the requisite wars and earthquakes, coups and elections.


No series for this title.

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Ann Curry; Introduction, by Peter Laufer; Dramatis Personae; Chapter One Children as Victims, Children as Peacemakers, Zack Demars; Chapter Two Janice 101, Maddie Moore; Chapter Three Hoover’s G- Men Come to Town—Sort of, Zack Demars; Chapter Four Janice’s Teacher, Amelia Salzman; Chapter Five Roseburg Then and Now, Carol Kress; Chapter Six A Time of Fear, Madie Eidam; Chapter Seven Behind the Curtain, Isabel Burton; Chapter Eight The Decades-Old Dossier, Zack Demars; Chapter Nine Progress and the Press, Julia Mueller; Chapter Ten Classroom 15 Today, Vaughn Kness; Chapter Eleven Nastya Has a Cat Named Chris, Zack Demars; Epilogue: The Process, Hayley Hendrickson and Zack Demars; Afterword, Scott McFetridge; Editors, Authors and Contributors; Acknowledgments; Index.


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