Freedom third-graders wax historical with live likenesses of famous figures

February 28, 1994|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

Malcolm X sits on a Persian rug, reading a copy of the Koran.

A few feet away, Elvis Presley has a guitar slung over her -- yes, her -- shoulder, wearing all black, just like in "Jailhouse Rock."

Down the hall, Amelia Earhart is wearing a leather bomber jacket, scarf and goggles.

Actually, there are at least three Amelia Earharts, a couple of Charles Lindberghs, a Chuck Yeager and a Wilbur Wright, probably because the third-graders representing the figures did a unit on flight in their science classes.

This is not the hereafter, but a way to make history come alive for children, say third-grade teachers at Freedom Elementary School.

For the past five years, the third-graders have produced a living "wax museum" of students dressed as historical figures.

Imagine a tourist attraction in which visitors press a button next to a wax figure and hear a brief taped description of the famous person's life.

At Freedom, the figures were real, even if the information buttons were drawn at the annual Wax Museum Day on Friday.

The children had to pick a person, living or dead, to portray. The field was wide open, as long as the person chosen was the subject of a published biography. The youngsters selected figures from among the long dead -- Cleopatra -- and the very much alive -- Mary Lou Retton. A few chose Dorothy Hamill. Current Olympians didn't qualify.

After reading the biographies, the students had to write book reports.

But they didn't stop there.

The reports served as background for performance art. The students had to distill their reports into a few sentences to read when a visitor would press the "button."

"They become the person," teacher Wendy Weaver said. "It gets the kids excited all month long, and it keeps us sane. We have fun doing it.

"To kids, writing a report is boring."

The wax museum was primarily a language-arts lesson.

"This is the first time they've had to pull everything together in a report," Ms. Weaver said.

The project crossed into other subjects too, Ms. Weaver said.

, Teacher Liza Starkey teaches

mostly math and science this year and inspired a lot of students to choose scientists -- Galileo, Jonas Salk, Marie Curie -- as well as aviators. She also included time lines, dates and age calculation in the students' math lessons.

Museum visitors included parents, grandparents and other students and teachers. When they

found a character who interested them, they pressed the "button," and the student wax figure would recite the speech, usually four or five sentences.

In most cases, the button was a drawn one. One student, Michael Pickett, had a functioning buzzer rigged by his father, Larry Pickett of Eldersburg.

"My dad, he wanted to make a real buzzer. He wanted to hear my buzzer," Michael said.

Amid the Abraham Lincolns and Davy Crocketts, Michael was dressed as Dr. William Beaumont, one of the more obscure figures in the museum.

"I knew that he did a famous experiment," Michael said.

The student was intrigued by Dr. Beaumont, who had a patient with a war wound that left his abdomen open. The 19th-century doctor conducted gastric experiments by stringing pieces of meat and vegetables and placing them in his patient's stomach. Dr. Beaumont concluded that humans digest vegetables faster than meat, Michael said.

The children did their best to look like their chosen figures, but were not intimidated if they did not share a natural resemblance.

Melisa Hudson made for an atypical Elvis impersonator in her black outfit. She made no change to her chestnut brown hair except to pull it up in back.

Kyle Thompson, who is white, donned some light brown makeup, glasses, suit and tie to transform himself into Malcolm X.

"There were no black kids in [my class] and nobody else was dressing up as a black American, and it was Black History Month, so I dressed up as Malcolm X," Kyle said.

Students in other third-grade

classrooms chose African-Americans, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson.

D'Angela Woody, who is black, portrayed writer Maya Angelou.

"I like poets," D'Angela said.

While most students read one biography, Kyle read three about Malcolm X.

"My speech is a whole page, and it's all memorized," he said. In a short version, he described Malcolm X:

"At first he told blacks to hate whites. Then he went to Mecca, the holy city in Saudi Arabia, and when he returned, he preached peace," Kyle said. "He's a great black American."

Several girls chose to portray male historical figures, but most found noteworthy women: Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea, Mother Teresa, Eleanor Roosevelt, ballet dancer Evelyn Cisneros and Molly Pitcher, who fought in the Revolutionary War. She got her nickname for carting water to soldiers, said Mary Bellin, who portrayed the woman warrior.

Riley Patterson chose to be Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman doctor. "I want to be a doctor," Riley said.

Lauren Jennings found the allure of ancient Egypt and the prospect of a female ruler to be a combination hard to resist.

"I thought Cleopatra was very interesting," she said.

Lauren wore a white dress made from a sheet with gold sequined banding, serpent earrings and a gold cord around her head.

"She lived so long ago," Lauren said. "I just got so interested in her I wanted to find out more of her life."

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