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Hagerstown students bring historical figures to life in ‘wax museum’

Imagine a room packed with some of the most famous figures throughout human history. George Washington and James Madison rub elbows with Judy Garland, Kobe Bryant and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And they don’t just stand around silently: With the push of a button, they’ll tell you about their life’s work.

That was the concept behind an annual fifth-grade class project at St. Mary Catholic School in Hagerstown, known as the “Wax Museum.” After several weeks of research and preparation, students dressed up as their given historical figure, stationed themselves around the school’s gym on May 24 and prepared to educate the museum’s guests. 

Philomena Ortiz, a fifth grader at St. Mary Catholic School in Hagerstown, dressed up as “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder at her school’s ‘wax museum,’ May 24. (Courtesy St. Mary Catholic School, Hagerstown)

It’s a tradition for St. Mary fifth graders that dates back many years, according to their teacher, April Nitzell. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, they’d resorted to doing the project entirely from home in recent years. This was the first class that got to partake in it live and in person since 2019.

The project also includes written and oral reports, helping students work on their writing skills and introducing them to citing sources.

“Some of them are sad stories. Some are shocking. But they’re all beautiful in their own way,” said Nitzell, who’s spent more than 20 years as a teacher and four years at St. Mary. “It’s pretty heartwarming. I was proud to watch the students tell these stories and bring the past alive again.”

The part everyone looks forward to is the creative component. In addition to the costume, Nitzell provided large cardboard panels for students to design their own backdrops, such as a collage or flag. “Henry Ford” put together a cardboard automobile, while “Betsy Ross” sat in a rocking chair with a basket of yarn at her side.

A few students took personal “field trips” with their families to do research about their figure. Nicholas Cabezas went to Fallingwater in Pennsylvania for his project on architect Frank Lloyd Wright, giving him the inspiration to turn his cardboard backdrop into a replica of the famous house.

The entire school was invited to spend some time in the gym, interacting with the wax figures. Then the fifth graders’ families came for the last half-hour of the school day.

“I taught them to be like wax people. You stand there and you don’t activate till someone pushes your button,” Nitzell said. “They really do get into their parts. Everything is done in first person, because the whole goal is for them to become that person and internalize and really get to know who that historical person was.”

Nitzell encouraged her students to use what they had at home, borrow or share instead of buying an abundance of supplies. Philomena Ortiz of Hagerstown did her project on “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

“For my costume, I borrowed one of my mom’s old dresses that she had when she was little, and me and my brother made the backdrop together,” Ortiz said.

Peyton Gullickson, also of Hagerstown, chose Orville Wright for his project because flying had always fascinated him. He made his own Wright mustache out of paper. 

“I definitely learned more than what I knew about him, that’s for sure,” Gullickson said.

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