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Move Over Halloween --
Here Comes Historical Figure Day


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Historical Figure Day, a celebration held at a middle school in Moorpark, California, serves as an alternative to the traditional Halloween hoopla. Bringing together a unique collection of such personalities as Socrates, King Tut, Napoleon, Sacagawea, and Levi Strauss, this school-wide event takes on epic proportions! Find out how Mesa Verde middle schoolers get into character and bring the past to life. Included: Teacher Mike Winters shares project details, and students voice their reactions to a great learning experience.

Ten Ideas for Historical Figure Day Projects!

1. Write a journal that recounts important events in the figure's life.

2. Create an interview with the individual and read it, record the conversation on tape, or videotape it with a friend.

3. Using paint or other art media, make a portrait of the figure.

4. Write a poem about the experiences of the figure, and record it as a song.

5. Design a Web page that highlights facts about the figure.

6. Write a play about a pivotal moment for the historical figure.

7. Make a scrapbook of "mementos" from the life of the figure, and explain their significance.

8. Write and record the figure's "will" on videotape.

9. Build a model of an important location for the figure.

10. Create a board game based on the experiences of the figure.

"So many times in history classes, great emphasis is put on learning dates and places of important events, but many times we lose the personal side of what happened," teacher Mike Winters told Education World. "The goal of Historical Figure Day is to show students that the people who have changed the world throughout history were just normal people like you and me."

During the Halloween season, students and staff at Mesa Verde Middle School in Moorpark, California, dress up as significant figures from the past. Historical Figure Day is the culmination of nearly two months of research for the students, who choose or are assigned a figure for study. The characters are historically significant and representative of the time frame that each grade level covers during the school year. Sixth-grade students study ancient civilizations, seventh graders examine European history, and eighth graders investigate United States history to 1945.

As Winters, who teaches eighth-grade history, explains: "We hope that by participating in past events, students will learn not only about their historical figures' lives and achievements but also about the times when those people lived. Although it sometimes is a lot of work for the students and parents -- and teachers too -- I think that it is a really fun time for all!"

UP CLOSE WITH AN ICON

In preparation for Historical Figure Day, students have a few weeks to research their chosen individuals and find sources of information, such as books, encyclopedias, and approved Internet sites. Students take on two to four assignments, depending on grade level, that help them develop a deeper understanding of the significance of their historical figures. Assignments may include

  • Design an illustrated time line that lists ten important events in the life of the historical figure.
  • Develop a map that shows dates and locations where the historical figure accomplished important events in his or her life.
  • Create a day that celebrates the importance of the historical figure; include a catchy name for the day, a date to celebrate it (selected because of its significance in the figure's life), a slogan for the day, a logo, and the events to celebrate on that day.
  • Write a biographical sketch that describes the life and achievements of the historical figure.
  • Give a first-person speech in costume; the speech should describe the character's life and achievements.

All students are required to dress as their characters on Historical Figure Day and remain in costume for the entire day. Some of the figures students have portrayed include Socrates, King Tut, Napolon, Sacagawea, King Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Levi Strauss, the Wright Brothers, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

HISTORY IS HAPPENIN'

As with any assignment, Winters says, some students simply view the day and the assignments as "more work." Many rise to the challenge, however, and really get into the learning experience, finding out as much as they can about their chosen historical figures.

"It is really neat to see when a student goes above and beyond and does his or her best job on all aspects of the day," Winters stated. "A large amount of credit also goes to the parents of our students. Many times, they are one of the motivating factors behind getting the assignments completed and the costumes made. Without them, Historical Figure Day would not be as successful as it is."

According to Winters, there have been many memorable moments during Historical Figure Day. "One event that really stands out in my head is the story of one of our eighth-grade students, whose historical figure was Abraham Lincoln," Winters said. "He was a good student, but he didn't have the resources to get an awesome costume. He, therefore, asked if he could borrow some black construction paper, of which he meticulously fashioned a stovepipe hat. He used an old black suit jacket and pants for his costume and, the morning of Historical Figure Day, he used a black marker to color in a beard on his face. Every year, I tell my students about this resourceful young man and try to stress the fact that you don't have to have a lot of money or resources to be successful in life; you just have to use your brain and try your best.

"To this day, I still wonder whether that marker was permanent," added Winters. "For his sake, I hope that it was not!"

GOING BACK IN TIME BRINGS HISTORY FRONT AND CENTER

One aspect of Historical Figure Day that all students seem to enjoy is wearing appropriate costumes. The students also agree that although the occasion offers educational benefits, it is predominately fun! A few eighth graders shared their ideas about the day with Education World.

Ashley said, "On Historical Figure Day we dress up like a historical figure and give a speech on him and his life during history class. All students participate in grades 6, 7, and 8. I have been Trung Trac, Mary Queen of Scots, and Jesse Owens. My favorite is Jesse Owens because he was brave and had many accomplishments."

"We study a person for a couple of months, and we do little projects about our person, like maps and essays," explained Nick. " I have been Dariush the Great, Ferdinand Magellan, and Joshua Chamberlain. My favorite is Dariush because he had the most interesting info because he conquered land. Historical Figure Day is fun and a good way to learn about someone."

"It is a very fun way to learn about the past," said Leah. "I chose Dionisia, Joan of Arc, and Lucretia Mott. I liked Joan of Arc because she was a hero and she was a strong leader. I like to see the way people dress on Historical Figure Day."

Lauren said, "I have dressed up as Hypatia, Marie Antoinette, and Levi Strauss. My favorite is probably Levi Strauss because I had actually heard of him before I chose him."

"I have been Pan Chao, Mary II, and Anne Hutchinson," Melissa stated. "I think my favorite was Pan Chao because I thought it was awesome how she was one of the very few women writers in China. I think the best thing about Historical Figure Day is when you dress up and perform your speech."

Another student, Tyler, said, "The best thing about Historical Figure Day is being able to learn about history in a fun way instead of just taking notes. It is fun and kids enjoy it. I have been Achilles, a great Greek warrior. I have also been Genghis Khan, a Mongol leader. Presently I am Edgar Allan Poe, an American writer. I enjoy being Poe the most. That is because he led a very interesting life."

KEEPING UP 'APPEARANCES'

Winters says that organization and excitement are the keys to success with this school "holiday." If teachers want students to enjoy the day and the activities, they must have very clear guidelines and describe them in detail, letting students know what is expected. Enthusiasm is also very important. Winters believes that if the students see that the teachers are excited about the day, they will be excited too.

"In the last few years, we have been re-evaluating the purpose of Historical Figure Day and have tried to make it more enjoyable for the students," said Winters. "We have cut down on the number of assignments and have focused on assignments that will teach students not only about their historical figures but also other aspects of our curriculum. Some of those other areas are geography, putting events in chronological order, proper essay format, and art."

Judging by the positive comments from students, it appears that the teachers' efforts have positive results. Staff members recently opted to continue the observance, which has been held since the 1980s. Historical Figure Day in Mesa Verde is here to stay!

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