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When the Babe Met George Washington

Students’ Research Brings Historical Figures to Life


It looked a little like several dozen time machines had collided inside the East Elementary gymnasium.

Benjamin Franklin flew his — or in this case, her — kite back and forth as Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen, posed for photographs. Airplane pioneer Wilbur Wright showed off the homemade scale model flyer he made with his dad, as 16th century Portuguese circumnavigator Ferdinand Magellan wielded the paper version of the sword many believed struck him down.

Taking their wax museum roles very seriously are Theodor Seuss “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, Wilbur Wright and Ferdinand Magellan

Young recent Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai told visitors about her efforts to promote education among girls in her native Pakistan, while next to her, Anne Frank spoke about what it was like for a Jewish teenager to go into hiding in Germany during the Holocaust. Beside them, first female American astronaut Sally Ride crouched inside a cardboard rocket and waved. And first U.S. President George Washington could not tell a lie: that wig was just too itchy to wear for long.

Taking on the personas of historical figures was the goal of the second annual fifth-grade wax museum at the school, during which fellow students and parents filed through for a one-stop, multi-century history lesson.

Teacher Kristi Mercer said students worked during school hours for six weeks to research the person they chose and prepare for the museum. Each prepared a brief speech that they delivered when visitors pressed a “button” on the table in front of them. Students also made posters that detailed their chosen person’s life and his or her historical significance.

Mercer said the project aligned with the language arts curriculum as it involved reading, writing, grammar, spelling and speaking. “But the real learning comes in the form of planning, collaboration and cooperation,” she said.

“All in all, my desire is that the day is memorable, that they feel proud of what they did, and that they gain an appreciation for the hard work it took to meet their goal,” Mercer added. “I want them to know and experience that the whole event was not instantaneous success, that it took time and perseverance.”

This East student researched Evelina Cruz Lopez

Student Becomes the Teacher

Elementary school “wax museums” are a great way for students to show teachers what they have learned about historical figures. And sometimes, teachers end up learning something new, too.

Fifth-grader Kristie Goree chose someone teacher Kristi Mercer had never heard of: Evelina Cruz Lopez, a Puerto Rican immigrant who lived in the New York City neighborhood of El Barrio, better known as Spanish Harlem.

“I ended up reading the whole book myself,” Mercer said.

Kristie said she found Evelina’s biography in the school library.

Evelina was a 12-year-old born in 1922 who came to the U.S. without her mother and two siblings because they could only afford to send her. She learned English quickly and because of that, helped her neighbors in many ways, including to secure food and government assistance during the Great Depression. While helping her neighbors, she saved enough money that not even two years after her arrival, she was able to meet the rest of her family at the immigration docks.

“She was famous just for having the courage to be helpful and caring to ensure people could eat. No Nobel Peace Prize, just kindness and leadership at a young age,” Mercer said. “It was definitely a story my students could appreciate and understand. And this could happen just as easily in the communities of our kids today.”

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She 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 or email Morgan.

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