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Bringing history to life with a tap

Fifth-graders emulate heroes in living wax museum

Posted: February 23, 2014 - 1:00am
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Camille Varner strikes a pose as she portrays Amelia Earhart at the Fifth-Grade Wax Museum at Auke Bay Elementary School on Thursday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Camille Varner strikes a pose as she portrays Amelia Earhart at the Fifth-Grade Wax Museum at Auke Bay Elementary School on Thursday.

Still as statues — or wax figures — scientists, writers, artists, politicians, athletes, explorers, entertainers and more lined the hallways of Auke Bay Elementary School. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln was a little shorter than history recorded, and Cleopatra was certainly well-preserved — as was King Tut, but that’s to be expected — but that’s because they were really fifth-graders performing as the culmination of a six-week research project.

A tap on the shoulder brings a figure to life. Louis Armstrong removes the trumpet from his (actually her) lips. Isaac Newton drops various objects. Every figure recites a speech of about two to three minutes.

JoAnn Jones, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, organizes the annual wax museum, which originated with Susan Skiman Jones, who is currently teaching in Kenya.

Skiman Jones said the wax museum at the school started about a decade ago as part of the curriculum in a fourth-fifth class to read and reflect on biographies, an attempt to engage everyone in the class. The students were to pick one person they were interested in.

Jones said she and other fifth-grade teachers over the years have made it a point to encourage students to choose a person “who has made a positive contribution to society, to the world.”

The main source for research must be a book. Skiman Jones said that’s to make sure students don’t choose a “cool uncle that traveled to Canada,” when the goal was to have the students research, not just share.

Jones said the students must find two other sources, which can be other books, publications or websites.

It became a wax museum when a visitor to the classroom mentioned seeing it done that way at a high school.

“(I) talked with the class and they were excited about this,” Skiman Jones said. “We initially performed for our reader buddies, who loved having their buddies all dressed up. Then we opened the ‘show’ for the parents.”

Today, fifth graders perform for the entire school during the morning, then perform it again in the evening for parents and family.

The performance is the recitation of a speech the students have typed (sometimes with help from parents), made up of six paragraphs of seven sentences each, based on their research. The speeches are memorized — one Amelia Earhardt admitted to staying up late and falling asleep practicing her speech — and students wear costumes and have at least one prop.

Jones said the students spend six weeks researching, writing and preparing for the presentations.

“I’d say it’s their biggest project of the year,” Jones said. “I don’t know that they’ve had one quite this big (before) — it’s about a six-week project.”

In completing their comprehensive projects, students utilize a number of skills in subjects including reading, writing and history, they practice organization and time management, and learn how to research a topic.

Jones said the school’s librarian, Cheryl Wittig, has been helpful in stocking the library with age-appropriate books on popular historical figures.

There are a lot of figures that show up year after year, and some that may be featured more than once in a given year.

There were two Neil Armstrongs, two Amelia Earharts, two Walt Disneys, a couple Abe Lincolns and Anne Franks, plus Dr. Seuss, Steve Jobs and Rosa Parks showed up twice, more twins included Cleopatra and Helen Keller.

Jones said Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor, pays a visit each year.

Gabe Miller emulated Louis Pasteur, based on a book he’d enjoyed from his own collection.

Amanda McDowell chose Harriet Tubman, who also shows up most years.

Maybe the toughest to costume may have been Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the movable type printing press, Jones said.

Miller and McDowell opened up about working on the project.

Miller said he worked on it “quite a bit, for the last three nights I’ve maybe done an hour of practicing my script, reading it to my family. We’ve been working on it for about six weeks. You have to do a lot of stuff to prepare for this 45 minutes of wax museum.”

During the 45 minutes in the morning, then another in the evening, the students may recite their speeches several to possible a dozen times, sometimes for individuals, often for groups.

McDowell said, “The first time I did it, I’m like, ‘Wait, what’s this again?’”

Concentration and practice paid off, though some students got stage fright. McDowell said her knees locked and she nearly fainted.

McDowell said she would probably go home and practice more before the evening presentation.

Miller’s advice to future fifth-grade wax figures was to “probably pick something that you sort of know or that you like, or something that you’re interested in so you have fun doing it.”

He also said to “be creative with your costume and your props and stuff.”

Whether they realize it or not, students had a lot to learn from the project, whether from the figures they studied or from the work itself.

McDowell noted that Harriet Tubman made a big promise and kept it, something she admired and would be honored to do herself. Miller said he wasn’t sure he could fill Louis Pasteur’s shoes — “He was pretty amazing, so it’s pretty hard to be like him,” he said.

Even while the students are striving to be like Martin Luther King Jr. or Albert Einstein, they are picking up some habits that will help them whether they go down in history or not.

Jones said the students are all in their last year of elementary school and ascending to middle school in the fall. The goal of the project is to prepare them with good habits for their next step and beyond.

“They’ll get projects that are assigned and not due for many weeks,” Jones said. “Hopefully this skill will carry on. They’ll know they have to keep working on it.”

Skiman Jones, who has introduced the project to her teaching abroad, said: “We don’t remember many specific things from elementary school, but elementary school should be the foundation for future interests (and) learning. This little project is a way to cement that foundation. Learning should be interesting and fun.”

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