Talk about living history!
That’s exactly what a group of fifth-graders did last week at Westwood Intermediate School. They talked about history.
Who would have known the likes of George Washington, Anne Frank, King Henry III and Cleopatra would gather in Blaine? Kings, presidents, first ladies and more.
But the students did more than talk.
About 75 fifth-graders at Westwood in costume stood statuesque at tables in a makeshift wax museum in the school’s cafeteria until a visitor touched a prompt jolting the character to life.
Wealthy businessman and inventor James Forten was there embodied in fifth-grader Braden Johnson.
A Philadelphia native born in 1776, Forten worked on a ship as a powder boy and later invented a sail to increase the speed of ships. He was an abolitionist who was born a free man and advocated for equal rights for African Americans, according to Braden.
And Braden should know. As part of the assignment, he researched a person who left his or her mark on history. He turned to the Internet to further fill in the gaps. He then created a short speech, detailing the person’s life and accomplishments.
When a visitor came to Braden’s station at the Wax Museum and placed a tiny sailboat in a bowl of water, that was Braden’s cue. He morphed from frozen statue into an animated, talking legend.
“I enjoyed being able to explain to people about the American Revolution,” Braden said. “Especially with things they hadn’t heard before.”
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Braden. At first, eye contact was a bit of a challenge when he talked with people. But the more he spoke, the more courage he mustered and the easier it became, he said.
Braden also enjoyed dressing in period costume, three-cornered hat and all, and becoming “someone I’m usually not,” he said.
To bring more depth to their characters, the students created a visual display packed with historical facts about the person they were depicting.
This is the first time Westwood has presented a wax museum, although other schools in Spring Lake Park District 16 have done so in the past.
So why the wax museum? As if Madame Tussaud’s wasn’t enough.
“Really our goal is literacy and being better readers,” said Matt Gamage, fifth-grade teacher at Westwood.
As part of the assignment, students were to select a person of historical significance from a book found in the school library. They were to read the book and, if necessary, research the character further. Sports figures had to be “bigger than the game,” Gamage said. A speech about the historical figure was to be confined to under two minutes.
Fifth-grader Josh Weber was Francis Marion. Born in 1732 in South Carolina, Marion, also known as the The Swamp Fox, was a military officer in the American Revolutionary War.
For Josh the best part of the assignment was researching Marion. He had never heard of him before.
“I learned never to give up,” he said. Josh launches into a discussion of how Marion had bad knees and ankles. Still, he fought in the war, he said.
Although it was a bit of a challenge compressing his speech into a one- to two-minute time frame, Josh picked up on the speech right away. He rehearsed it at home about 10 times and pretty much had it nailed for the wax museum visitors, mostly family members and fellow students.
In addition to Gamage, other teachers whose fifth-grade classes participated in Westwood’s wax museum were Tiffany Powers and Amanda West.
“It’s engaging, instead of just reading,” West said.
Said Gamage: “It’s just a great way to get them reading things that otherwise might be outside of their interest level.”
Elyse Kaner is at firstname.lastname@example.org