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Wax Museum Biographies Teach and Entertain!


For the second year, Cheryl Anderson's fifth-graders are performing the "Wax Museum Biographies." The students mentally leave their small South Dakota town -- population 913 -- for such places as the moon, a street in Montgomery, Alabama, or the steps of the White House. Donations for their performances go to charitable activities within the state.

Some pupils at Arlington Elementary School in Arlington, South Dakota, have a dream. Others have "asked not what their country can do for them." Still others have taken a "giant step for mankind."

Cheryl Anderson's fifth graders mentally leave their small South Dakota town -- population 913 -- for such places as the moon, a street in Montgomery, Alabama, or the steps of the White House. For the second year, Anderson has assigned her class what she calls the "Wax Museum Biographies."

The hope, according to Anderson, is for the children to become involved in history while learning citizenship. The students conduct two-minute speeches in front of fellow students and members of the community. Like many actors, though, they work only for money. Drop a nickel in the cans they hold, and these actors begin to play their chosen characters. Without a contribution to the pot, they remain as still as statues in a wax museum.

"I was nervous about giving my speech, but after a few times it was fun to hear a nickel drop in my can," one student in Anderson's class told Education World.


The citizenship aspect comes into play when the children take the coins dropped into their hand-held cans and transform them into checks donated to a charity of their choice. Last year, they gave the money to the community of Spencer, South Dakota, which had been ravaged by a tornado. The money-- which usually ranges from $75 to $125 -- was earmarked to replace trees that the storm damaged.

This year the money was used to buy more trees, but this time they were planted near the school's playground. No, these children are not arborists. Trees were uprooted when another twister ran amok through the schoolgrounds.

"We want the students to learn that being a good citizen is also in doing for others in some way, so the money we earn is given to a project in our community or nearby communities in our state if possible," Anderson said.


The pupils were told to choose any figure from U.S. history to write about. Students collected background information about their historical person from the Internet, encyclopedias, or bibliographies. The lesson was more than a lesson in research and history though. It was also a lesson in writing-- a lesson focused on writing good paragraphs. Each paragraph had to include an introductory sentence, detail sentences, and a conclusion. The students wrote two reports -- one about the character's life and family and the other about his or her contributions to history, Anderson told Education World.

The pupils then had their reports critiqued by an adult and their peers. The "critics" examined sentence structure, word choice, ideas, organization, and voice -- all elements of writing the students had studied -- Anderson said. Then the students typed their reports. Those reports served as the basis for the two-minute speeches that the students would give as their wax museum creations.

"Students are responsible individually for the material, but they work together by giving information to one another when they come across something that relates to someone else's person," said Anderson. She cited as an example the sharing that occurred between students exploring the lives of President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jackie.

Pupils have chosen past presidents, first ladies, civil rights activists such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Christa McAuliffe, and inventor Thomas Edison -- to name a few. Many students get ideas from their social studies textbook, added Anderson.

Click here to view two of the students' speeches as well as photos of them dressed in character!


"The research was hard, but the wax museum was fun," said one pupil. "I learned more about my character or person this way than just learning about him or her in social studies class," said another pupil.

Besides learning about their historical figures, the students find out how fortunate they are to live in the 21st century. "Thank goodness I live now and not back then," noted one pupil.

Anderson said the children practice reciting their reports before going public. When that time arrives, the pupils dress up as their characters, bring in props, and present a display board with their reports, pictures, quotes, and a time line of important events in their historical figure's life.


It's wax museum day, and the students are poised and ready to share. When a visitor to the "museum" drops a nickel into a container, the children recite their memorized speeches.

"We invite other grades, family, friends, and community members to the two-hour presentation," Anderson told Education World. "Students at first are very nervous, but after a few times, they become pros at giving their presentations."

Anderson said the project can be time consuming, "but [students] do an awesome job of bringing in props and designing their own costumes." She cited two special-needs students in the class who were able to participate.

One child, who is confined to a wheelchair and communicates with a Dynavox, a communications device that assists people who have disabilities, created a presentation with the help of an aide. The aide wrote some facts about the student's character, and the speech therapist programmed it into the Dynavox. When someone dropped a nickel into his container, the boy could click play with his cheek switch, and the listener could hear the recorded facts. "He was very proud, and everyone enjoyed his participation," Anderson said.

Another pupil has selective mutism. Her social worker videotaped her at home reciting her speech. She then played the tape on a small TV.

Ryan Francis
Education World®
Copyright © 2001 Education World

Updated 11/5/2001
Updated 9/28/2005