It’s Showtime for Student-designed Production

Fifth-graders Offer Annual Musical

Chimney sweeps, including Holly Grzelak, Grace Piotrowski, and Annie Norman, in foreground, rehearse “Step in Time” from “Mary Poppins”

Trenton Brink twirled around wearing a purple jacket and top hat as he sang the gentle opening lines of “Pure Imagination,” from the book and movie “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.”

The pressure is on for the Knapp Forest Elementary fifth-grader and his classmates: He will open the upcoming school music finale as Willie Wonka, the beloved proprietor in search of an heir to his make-believe world of all things sugary. And it’s part of a production the students conceived and created.

As in past years, fifth-graders at the school will attend music classes at the middle school next year. And in what has become a tradition at Knapp Forest, that means they are preparing for their final, epic elementary performance.

Willie Wonka, aka Trenton Brink, has his mic adjusted by music teacher Judith Stroh
Willie Wonka, aka Trenton Brink, has his mic adjusted by music teacher Judith Stroh

As a culmination of their elementary music experiences through concerts and musicals, music teacher Judith Stroh’s fifth-grade students design and produce their own show, called the Fifth Grade Finale. The project-based learning experience means students brainstorm show ideas, choose songs, decide on costumes and help with staging.

The result is an hour-long performance that could draw up to 800 people to the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center. The 85-student show includes singing, dancing, multiple costume changes and totally independent staging between each selection.

“I went to it last year and it looked like really hard work, but I knew it would be fun,” said Madine Whitmer, who plays Mary Poppins in one act. “We get to make all our own choices with this show.”

Chimed in cast mate Halle Koelzer: “If it’s our solo, we have to memorize the words. (Stroh) won’t be in the audience to help us. We’ll be all on our own. If you mess up a move, you just have to act like it’s part of the dance.”

Stroh started the fifth-grade finale when she taught music at Godfrey-Lee Public Schools.

“The students enjoyed being part of the decision-making process, which increased their enthusiasm to perform,” she said. “This is a totally different beast. All I am is a guide.”

To prepare for the six weeks of before-school rehearsals, students are led through the process of developing a theme, making musical selections, working within a budget for music scores, costumes and props, and helping with choreography and performance groupings.

“It’s a complete joy to watch my students during this process, and it’s become a tradition kids in younger grades look forward to,” Stroh said. “We’ve had older students come to the performance wearing their T-shirts from previous years to show that ‘Yeah, I did it too.’ ”

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Project-based Learning Primer

Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio

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