Everyone knows who Elvis Presley is, but they may not know that when he was young, he was bullied for bringing a guitar to school. The story of Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his own ear is a familiar one, but the fact that he initially thought he’d be a preacher would be news to most people. Roselyn Franklin isn’t a household name, but might have been if a group of men hadn’t taken credit for her important work in the field of DNA.
These are just some of the interesting facts that Sag Harbor Elementary School fifth-graders discovered while working on their biography projects over the past few weeks. The culmination of that effort was on display at the school on May 26, when the students engaged in their favorite part of a project that has been a school tradition for more than 20 years.
In an outdoor setting to comply with COVID safety guidelines, the students posed as “wax figures” of their biography subjects, dressing up and getting in character (but remaining as still as possible, of course) while standing alongside other fruits of their labor, including works of art related to their chosen subject.
It’s a tradition that started 25 years ago by now retired teachers Nina (Landi) Dohanos, Nancy Remkus, and Debbie Jacobs, along with Cathy Tyler, who now works at Tuckahoe School.
While some changes needed to be made to accommodate COVID, fifth grade teacher George Kneeland said the students were thrilled to have the chance to show off their hard work to parents and visitors to the school on May 26, especially after a year when schools have been very limited in what activities and events they could host on school grounds.
“It’s extremely exciting,” he said, days before the presentation. “The wax museum and kindergarten buddies are two of the biggest things they look forward to each year, and they haven’t been able to do kindergarten buddies this year. The wax museum has become such a staple of the school, so I’m really happy we were able to make the most of it.”
Mr. Kneeland explained that while the students look forward to the project, it is a labor of love, and a process that does more than make them an expert on a historical figure.
“We’ve worked them hard,” he said, adding that the students receive feedback throughout the process of doing initial research, putting together a report on their subject, editing that report, and pulling all the elements of the presentation together. “They get so excited to get dressed up and turn into a wax figure, and at the end when they reflect on the process and all those painful moments of perseverance, it turns into a lesson that they can persevere through a fun but challenging experience.”
Mr. Kneeland added that being able to showcase their work to parents and other visitors helps make the students feel “valued.”
In speaking to students in the final week before the presentation, it was clear they were passionate about their subjects and had taken ownership of the project.
Rosy Hernandez-Cruz said she chose Vincent Van Gogh because she loves art, and was excited to create a replica of his famous Starry Night painting. She said it was interesting to discover that VanGogh wanted to be a preacher, then worked in his uncle’s bookstore before finally becoming an artist. The story of cutting off his ear is well-known, but she pointed out that VanGogh suffered from depression, and also that he would often choose to buy paints instead of food. She said he only sold one painting before his death at the age of 39.
Luca Jauffrineau did his project on Benjamin Banneker, an African-American who was famous for many things while living in the 1700s. He fought for equal rights, and also invented the first wooden clock. Luca said it was interesting to discover that Banneker — who was born in Maryland and was never enslaved — helped map out the area that became Washington, D.C.
Theo Robinson was putting the final touches on his costume for a transformation into Elvis — black leather pants and a black leather jacket were part of his attempt to look like the famous singer when he performed in his televised comeback special in 1968. Theo, who is into guitar and music, said it was interesting to discover that Presley lived in a small two-bedroom house when he was young, and had a brother who died when he was just a few days old.
Reine Honts chose former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, saying she admired her for several reasons.
“She is very brave, and she does not care what other people think because she knows she’s doing the right thing, and I think that’s incredible,” she said. Reine said she enjoyed doing both the painting and the research portions of the project — and added that she particularly liked that she got to order a gavel as part of her costume.
Giovanna Papazian loves science, which is part of the reason she chose Rosalind Franklin, a British scientist whose work was crucial is discovering the structure of DNA and who also contributed important understanding the field of virology. Franklin lived and worked during the earlier half of the 20th century, and encountered sexism; several male scientists received credit for a lot of the work she did, which Giovanna said was a motivating factor for her in choosing Franklin. (Franklin finally received the Nobel Prize for her work, after her death).
“I chose her because I wanted people to know more about her, because men got credit for her work,” she said. Giovanna said she admired that Franklin was undeterred by the fact that there were barely any women working in the scientific field at that time.
Mr. Kneeland said it’s rewarding for him, as a teacher, to watch the students become experts in their chosen subject and gain a deep level of interest and engagement with their subjects.
“It’s amazing the ownership they have,” he said. “The kids almost morph into the character, like an actor or actress taking on a role. It’s pretty impressive.”