Pupils relive era of serfs, knights

History: Fifth-graders at a Westminster school explore the past with a `wax museum' exhibit.

May 13, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Visitors to Robert Moton Elementary School this evening should easily find the school's "wax museum" exhibit. It's in the classroom with the castle walls.

Fifth-grade pupils at the Westminster school are showing off their knowledge of the medieval period with costumes, sets and scripts emulating the people, places and events that defined the Middle Ages.

"It is really interesting to see the clothes and how different everything was," said pupil Jane Sussman -- who, dressed in vibrant velvet robes that denoted royalty and wealth, portrays Eleanor of Aquitaine. "I like seeing how people lived and what they thought of their lives."

In period attire, the pupils portray knights and kings, monks and nuns, merchants and peasants. They built a castle and drawbridge, made models of medieval weapons, and researched culture and cuisine. They will serve refreshments in keeping with the theme, including tarts and honey mead, with no alcohol.

It all started with Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and questions about travel, food and lifestyles.

"I would not have been able to make those long pilgrimages," Jane said. "They couldn't bring much with them, and they had sickness and robbers."

Bridget Dukehart, fifth-grade teacher, guided the class through research, helped make costumes and lent several props for the exhibits. The effort meant delving into myths and legends, and historical facts.

"We researched medieval times to supplement our understanding of the books we were reading," Dukehart said. "This really made a difference for the students. Much of what they knew about the time was related to Lord of the Rings, and that does not quite give the right image."

Dukehart and her fifth-grade teacher colleagues used historical events to interest pupils in reading, writing and research.

Teacher Joani Zincon, whose fifth-grade class preferred the more modern tale of the Titanic, said, "The idea is to use historical fiction and nonfiction to help children understand events."

Dukehart's pupils initially found medieval culture confusing.

"They could not understand the social structure, especially how the serf was tied to the land and could not leave," she said.

Serfs Sarah Lambertson and Suprit Singh wore the plainest clothing.

"They worked in the fields with no breaks so they could feed the nobles," Suprit said. "They probably got sick pretty quickly."

As the palace cook, Ashly Ballantyne said she would have probably cooked all day and not gotten anything to eat herself.

"I would have to mix dough, roast wild animals, and I would sure miss electricity," she said.

Life was not much easier for knights. Allen Selby and John Jayman made scale models of catapults, battering rams and a four-pronged spike called a caltrop, the medieval versions of "long- and short-range weapons," the boys said.

"I would not want to be a soldier then," John said. "Everything was superpainful."

Allen said, "These guys had to become squires on their 5th birthday, just so they could learn to fight in a war. And they had to learn to use really heavy swords."

Josh Campbell, another knight, said, "The hardest thing is putting on and taking off armor."

Nathan Wagner, a knight who added storytelling to his repertoire, said, "One thing's for sure: There were more battles then."

Visitors can "activate" the still scenes by dropping a few coins into a tin. The actors will then deliver a brief tale or two. The proceeds will go to the school's playground fund.

Tommy Lucas, who pasted his script to the back of his shield, will describe how his knight archer instilled fear in hamlets throughout Europe. Kaleigh Yarbrough will brew fragrant herbs and reveal recipes for curing broken bones, toothaches and fevers.

Val Barata painted cardboard silver and fashioned a suit of armor with a dragon emblazoned on his white tunic and on his shield. His helmet had narrow slits for his eyes.

"My mom helped," said Val, who dubbed his character Sir Valiant. For his scene, he describes a battle that is going badly and ends his presentation with, "I must hurry off so I can defend what is left of the castle."

The program will run from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the school, 1413 Washington Road. Information: 410-751-3610.

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