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The City Journals

McMillan third-graders learn more about historical figures

May 07, 2018 04:23PM ● By Julie Slama

McMillan third-grader Gavin Wignall portrayed the poet Shel Silverstein at the school’s biography fair. (Kiera Van Beekum/McMillan Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

It was a day like no other. American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlona, Jesus, a first-century Jewish preacher and the central figure of Christianity and others were in attendance at McMillan Elementary School as part of their A Day at the Museum program.

These, and other people in history, were portrayed by third-graders and a handful of fourth-graders as part of their research projects, said third-grade teacher Kiera Van Beekum.

“It’s a program where students learn what a biography is, research on the internet or in a book, and create their portrait, timeline, write a paper and give a one-minute speech dressed in the part of the person they researched,” she said.

Each class may have its own twist. For example, Van Beekum’s third-graders had to research someone that nobody in her five years of assigning the project had done before. A split class of third- and fourth-graders had the older students concentrate on Utahns, tying it into their Utah history curriculum. 

After a parent program, families, students and school district administrators wandered through three classrooms and the library full of famous, and some not as well-known, people in history.

In one classroom, third-grader Julian Ochoa wore a stovepipe top hat portraying the 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln.

“I learned he helped finish the Civil War and stop slavery,” Julian said.

Close by, classmate Abdullah Shatud portrayed Daniel Boone.

“He was an explorer in what is now Kentucky,” he said. “He killed lots of people using a gun in one hand during the Revolutionary War.”

Abdullah said that he initially wanted to portray Mark Twain and Albert Einstein, but he couldn’t find a book at the appropriate level.

“Daniel Boone was a legend even in his own lifetime. That’s pretty cool,” he said.

Leticia Escobedo, outfitted as an astronaut, told museum guests all about Sally Ride.

“She grew up liking Nancy Drew, James Bond and Superman,” she said. “She liked the Dodgers and was the only girl on her baseball and soccer teams. She earned her bachelor degrees in physics and English and also got her master’s and doctorate degrees. She was a scientist, becoming the first American female in space, and a writer of the book, ‘To Space and Back.’ She was pretty amazing.”

Some students pursue their interests, such is the case of Teona Baird who in her swimsuit and goggles, portrayed hall of famer Gertrude Ederle, an American Olympic champion who became first woman to swim the English Channel.

“I like being on the swim team and wish I could do what she did,” Teona said, unphased as she stood close to other giants, John Glenn, Ghandi, Presidents Grant and Ford. “I learned a lot. She set a record for swimming in the New York Bay, she broke and set world records at times faster than men had swam and how she was successful at swimming the English Channel after her first attempt didn’t go well." 

Third-grader Zoe Kap is a fan of the Little House books so she researched author and pioneer Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“She didn’t write her first book until she was 66,” Zoe said. “I learned she only had one daughter who survived and she became a writer, too.”

Classmate Grayson Belk portrayed Bob Marley. 

“I like reggae music; my whole family does,” he said explaining why he chose to represent the Jamaican singer-songwriter who learned to play the guitar at age 14. “In 1977, Bob Marley had skin cancer and he was given three weeks to live, but he lived four more years before dying at age 46. Kids still carry on his music.”

In the library, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bushnell listened to Mary Blair, also known as third-grader Lily Matsumori, as a Leonardo da Vinci look-alike listened.

Blair was an American artist, animator, and designer who was prominent in producing art and animation for The Walt Disney Company, drawing concept art for such films as Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and Cinderella.

“She used very bright colors and her imagination,” Lily said. “She was one of the first women artists to work in the Disney Studio, but she was reluctant until she was told that she could work on the ride, It’s a Small World, that would bridge cultures. She later left Disney and wrote books.”

Her classmate, Jude Maughan, was strumming his brother’s guitar after he learned about American blues singer-songwriter and musician Robert Johnson.

“He learned the harmonica and then the guitar,” he said. “I listened to his music and it’s really inspiring. He became more famous after he died at age 27.”

His classmate, Gavin Wignall, portrayed the poet Shel Silverstein.

“He’s one of my favorite authors,” Gavin said. “I learned he played baseball, but he wasn’t very good. He was expelled from the University of Illinois for poor grades so he served in Korea and wrote for the Stars and Stripes. Even with his setbacks, he became really successful having his books translated into 30 languages and selling 20 million copies. I learned he never gave up.”

Fourth-grade teacher Cris Baker said this is a project they remember.

“I have students coming back to me and are still able to tell me everything about who they were,” she said. “What they don’t realize is all the skills — research, reading, writing, speaking — they’re learning in the process. Through learning about who they are and their classmates are, they’re gaining more interest in history and aren’t even aware[LL1]  of how biographies can do that for them.”