Students' roles bring history lessons to life

History came to life in Adrine Avedian’s classroom at R.D. White Elementary School Thursday, as costume-clad fourth-graders lined up to rehearse a show they would perform before a live audience that night.

Facing each other in two rows, the students stood shoulder-to-shoulder, dressed as military men, bearded former presidents, famous authors and other well-known and not so well-known historical figures.

Each child had a sign attached to one wrist that said “Push me” above a big black button, which, once pressed, triggered an erudite monologue in the voice of the character they played.

“Welcome. My name is Katherine Edson and I was born on Jan. 12, 1870, in Kenton, Ohio,” said 10-year-old Ashley Nazarian, who went on to paint a narrative portrait of the American social worker and feminist.

Most of the short one- to two-minute speeches contained a brief biographical sketch, as well as key facts indicating the significance of the person in U.S. history.

“I am famous because I wrote two books,” said Farah Ali, 10, channeling the memory of Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote about the harsh treatment of Native Americans and was the author of “Century of Dishonor” and “Ramona.”

Koby Sarissian, 9, used an authentic Purple Heart military medal, which belongs to his grandfather, as a part of his costume for Chuck Yeager a decorated World War II Air Force pilot, who was also the first person to break the sound barrier.

“I shot down lots of planes, but I also got shot down, too,” he said. “And for that I got a purple heart and a bronze star.”

Some of the most renowned of American historical figures also made appearances, including President Abraham Lincoln, played by 9-year-old Jeremy Cabello, who tugged at his costume beard as he delivered his soliloquy.

“I was famous for being the 16th president of the United States and freeing the slaves,” he said.

Some students, like Alyssa Cancilla, 9, played characters who were a bit more contemporary, such as Nancy Pelosi, sitting Speaker of the House.

“This means if the president and the vice president die, I will be president,” she said.

Wearing a softball uniform, Sabrina Ephrem, 10, played Long Beach native and three-time Olympic gold medalist Lisa Fernandez, who is the coach of the 2008 Olympic team.

The novel approach to teaching history that the exercise utilizes is a good way to get students more excited about their history lesson, Principal Suzanne Risse said.

“I think it makes something that makes what could be an abstract idea more real and concrete by dressing up and taking on someone’s persona,” she said. “And that makes it interesting for kids. They’ll be more engaged and wanting to learn about the person they chose.”

And many of the characters contributed to the development of America as it stands today, including Theodore Judah, who was responsible for the Central Pacific Railroad and envisioned having tracks across the American continent.

“I was an engineer with a dream to build a railroad across the Sierra Nevadas,” said Matthew Barnes, 9. “I’m happy that my railroad was built, even though I didn’t live to see it.”

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