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London Towne's Wax Museum: Living History

Some 125 students take on personas in culmination of two-month project.

Historic figures came to life recently when London Towne Elementary sixth-graders presented their second annual wax museum.

"It was a two-month project, and it turned out fantastically," said teacher Beth Alessi, whose students were among some 125 total participating. "The wax museum was phenomenal."

But students didn't just dress up and step on stage. First came lots of research and hard work. The project fit into their social studies and writing curriculum and gave them experience digging for information.

Said Alessi: "The purposes were to teach them how to write in first person, creatively, and to research someone of their ethnic background who was also a famous American whom they admire."

Peter Dye, 11, chose Paul Revere for his character. For the museum, he painted a backdrop of a silversmith's shop, wore a special costume and sat on a stool, holding a hammer and a piece of iron.

"I learned that he was a silversmith and, in the Revolutionary War, he did some commanding in Maine," said Peter. "And he was famous for going from Lexington to Concord, Mass., yelling, 'The British are coming!'"

ANDY LEE, 11, portrayed Ellison Onizuka, a crew member of the space shuttles Discovery and Challenger. "Nobody knows who he was, and I wanted to learn more about him," said Andy. "He was special because he was one of the Asian-Americans who went on the spaceships." For the museum, Andy drew a rocket and wore a spacesuit costume.

Erin Balaban, 11, selected Amelia Earhart. "I like planes and she was a really good flyer," she explained. "In my background, I painted a plane and sponged a sky. My friend Ellen had an outfit that I borrowed — an aviator's hat, goggles and flight jacket." Added Peter: "It looked really cool."

As for Taylor Cordle, 11, she chose Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science. "It fit in with my religion, and I wanted to find out more about it," she said. "I borrowed a black skirt and white shirt from my sister, and I curled my hair. My background was a church."

But before the students' efforts culminated with the wax museum, they had to make notecards, scrapbooks and bibliographies filled with information about their characters. Peter found several Web sites about Paul Revere on Google and checked out two books from the school library. Then, to make his scrapbook look old and more authentic, said Peter, "I burned the edges and [hand]-printed the information into it."

Andy said the Internet didn't help him find Onizuka. "So I went to the library, found a reference book and took notes," he said. "In my scrapbook, I put in pictures of a space shuttle, where [Onizuka] was born, in Hawaii, plus a copy of his birth certificate.

Erin and Taylor used both the Internet and library books. "There's a lot of books on Amelia Earhart, so I made copies of photos of her and pasted them onto sheets of black paper, [slightly] larger than the photos," said Erin. "I started with baby pictures and worked up to her job, ending with a poem she wrote, called 'Courage.'"

When researching Eddy, Taylor said the book had more details about her life than the Internet did. "In my scrapbook, I put a picture of her hometown, Bow, N.H., a picture of her dad and a picture of her at 19," she said.

In their bibliographies, students noted each Web site and book they used in their research. Peter said it was the hardest part of the whole assignment for him, "because it was something new and because I had about 15 sources." His favorite part was the scrapbook: "I liked how you could use your creativity, and it was like writing a book."

Erin said the notecards were toughest for her because, at first, "It was difficult finding information about [Earhart's] immediate family because the sources just focused on her." For Taylor, the hardest thing was "putting all the photographs and captions in order in the scrapbook."

BUT THEY all loved being in the wax museum, March 18, posing in costume in the gym for their families and the rest of the school. "It was fun," said Peter. "I liked how the kids said, 'Look, it's Paul Revere.' Although many said, 'Look, it's George Washington,' probably because of the hat."

Erin liked watching people's reactions when they came through the door. "All the grades came through," she said. "And when the kindergartners came in, their faces all lit up with joy and happiness."

Andy said he thinks most of the kids "thought I was Neil Armstrong." But cards placed at each person's feet told who they were and their contributions to the U.S. The museum ran for 90 minutes and, said Andy, "The hardest part was standing up — we only got three, one-minute breaks — and also not changing expression when people tried to make me laugh."

Taylor was pleased because she knew lots of the museum visitors and "kids who knew me as Taylor acknowledged my [historic] person." Erin liked how it all came together and, she added, "Adults took pictures of me, even though I wasn't one of their children."

She said the whole project was a good idea because "normal reports are boring. When you get to do something physical, it's more of a challenge." Taylor said it "actually made the learning fun. If you just read a book about your character, you remember it for a week; but doing this, we'll remember it for a long time."

The wax museum backgrounds — 5x3-foot sections of paper — were either painted or decorated with construction-paper shapes. "When you see it all finished — and all the students with their backdrops, costumes and props — plus classical music playing, it's just an amazing sight," said Alessi. "And it's probably the most quiet they'll ever be, all together."

Most of all, she said, the students were extremely proud to be part of something "so grand" in elementary school. "And that's what makes all the work worthwhile for the teachers — to see how [the children] felt about themselves at the end," said Alessi. "And the kids walking through knew they were there to admire live art."