Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District

Wax Museum Brings Black History Figures to Life

Mar. 13, 2018 -- "I knew it," said a Boulevard second grader as he made his way through the Black History Month wax museum in Toni White's third grade classroom. "I knew it. Dr. King lives."

He had just pushed a button and a student statue quickly morphed into the famed civil rights leader, providing facts about Martin Luther King’s life and accomplishments.

Ms. White's class was joined by Karla Morson's third grade, Stacey Cohen and Karlene Sa'ad's second grade, Sherri Bellini's fourth grade and Michele Dawson's fifth grade classes in this effort. The entire student body was invited to visit the wax museum classrooms during a school day, while parents and the community enjoyed the opportunity at the school PTA's Soul Food Café on February 22.

"I had students who were completely engaged and excited about this assignment who normally struggle to stay motivated," said Ms. White. "And kids who completely surprised me by coming in full costume with multiple props."

The project took several weeks and was approached differently by each grade level, despite the shared goal of learning about significant African Americans. In the upper grade classrooms, all students chose or were assigned a famous scientist or inventor. "We really wanted them to expand their knowledge of famous African Americans beyond the usual suspects," said Ms. Bellini. In addition to old standbys like Garrett Morgan and George Washington Carver, her students learned about the lives of doctor Charles Drew and Thomas Canon, who invented the tactical optic fiber connector, a machine used by troops during military battles to communicate.

"It's fun because we get to interpret somebody's life who changed their community," said fourth grader Danielle Gates. "I got the guy who invented the rotary lawnmower!"

In Ms. Sa'ad's second grade class, the only parameter was that each chosen individual had made history in some way. "The kids had to work hard to determine if the person they wanted to study had actually made history."

Male student as W.E.B. DuBois 

Some of what they uncovered was surprising, such as the rapper Migos, who is tied with the Beatles for having the most singles on the charts at one time.

Ms. Cohen's second graders first determined what they hope to be when they grow up and then selected a famous African American from that category. The little girl who hopes to be a professional basketball player became Sheryl Swoops; Selia Ross, who wants to be a pediatrician, researched Helen Nash. "I'll wear a white coat and bring in a telescope," she said before quickly correcting herself. "Not a telescope! A stethoscope!"

Student as Sheryl Swoops 

Jhournie Cooper, who hopes to be a singer, was struggling to choose between Aretha Franklin and Andra Day so Ms. Cohen played her recordings of each singer. "I love Respect," said Jhournie, "but I really feel this song, Rise Up. It's more spiritual, that's who I want to be." 

Student dressed as Andra Day 

After choosing their famous person, students used the internet and library books to conduct research, write out a speech and practice actually becoming their person for the wax museum exhibit. Many children had to rewrite their original drafts replacing "he" and "she" with "I."

Students were eager to dive a little deeper in the lives of people they've long admired. Third grader Alannah Payton studied Oprah Winfrey and was most impressed to learn that the media mogul has given away $80 million to charity. "It made me think where I would give money if I was rich," she said. "Like to homeless people. My dad always gives them some money to buy food, but it would be nice to be able to give away huge amounts."

Third grader Janae Blanton, who was Madame C. J. Walker, captured the emotions of her classmates prior to their presentations: "I feel everything: shy, happy, nervous, excited."

Female student doing wax museum presentation 

Fifth grader Jayani Tyus thought that "The grownups will be a tougher audience because the little kids are easier to impress." It turns out fellow students, parents and teachers were all impressed by the work the students put into this effort.

"We wanted them to understand that they can become whatever they want to become in life," said Ms. White. "Even if they come from a difficult background, they all have possibility."

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