Elvis Is In the Building

by Robert Pondiscio
November 7th, 2008

Hats off to the Traut Core Knowledge Elementary School in Ft. Collins, Colorado, where 6th graders transformed their school gym into a living “wax museum” to show off what they learned about various historic people.  The kids created displays, gave presentations to classmates and with the help of parent volunteers, dressed up as the person for others to see. 

The 75 living wax figures in included explorers, presidents, inventors and entertainers including Elvis, Ansel Adams, Marie Antoinette, Jackie Robinson and Sacajawea, and earned the school a write-up in the local paper. 

The characters weren’t exactly made of wax like the famous mannequins at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum; Instead, they were sixth graders dressed in ornate costumes who assumed motionless positions when given the command. The silence was more representative of a library than a gym, and the posed students barely blinked as younger classes in single file lines walked by the 75 exhibits.

“When a person you know goes by and stares at you, it’s hard not to laugh,” said sixth-grader Summer Paulson, who was dressed as Elizabeth Blackwell, the world’s first woman doctor.

That Core Knowledge stuff…all that deadly dull rote learning and drills.


  1. This raises huge questions. If a school that follows progressive principles did this, many critics would howl about wasting time with “fluff and nonsense.” Here a large, interactive, “hands on” project is praised. What gives?

    Comment by Robert F — November 11, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

  2. Dear Robert F.,

    Please know that this project was the culmination of a great deal of study regarding important historical figures. Each student did an in-depth biological research paper and presentation involving their person of interest. This half-day presentation also allowed students to show perseverance and other character qualities as their younger schoolmates walked through the museum in awe as they had their first exposure to these historical figures.

    As the first CK school in Colorado, now in our 15th year, we have learned a great deal about implementation of this great approach to education.

    Core Knowledge does not proscribe a dry and dusty instructional pedagogy! It is vital that we marry the “Papa” of what children need to know with the “Mama” of great instructional strategies. I would challenge you to question any one of our 75 students regarding her/his character, and you would find these students’ depth of understanding of these people’s lives to be astounding–not only in the factual data, but in what made them “tick.”

    What’s more is that through their presentations, I can tell you that each student knows more than a smattering about their colleagues’ historical characters–names many students their age have never even heard of.

    Let’s not throw the baby of good “hands-on” instruction out with the bathwater of rest of the “fluffy” romantic-based progressive ideas.

    To address this further, in chapter 2 of his book _The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them_, E.D Hirsch cites a reference related to the well-known Parable of the Sower from the Bible, not as a spiritual lesson, but as a means to describe how education works.

    In our book study at Traut, much lively conversation was had as we asked the question, “What does each aspect of the parable represent?” For me the seed is knowledge, the sower the teacher, and the soil the child. The harvest of plants is the overall education a child receives.

    I believe this parable can also be used to inform our educational system that a program which offers solid, sequenced, and specific knowledge (such as Core Knowledge) is the only way to start on the path to true educational reform and success in our schools. This perspective is supported by current research in education (Professional Learning Communities (PLC) and Response to Intervention (RtI)), an approach now actively pursued by schools across Colorado.

    The very first of the four questions in the PLC model is, “What do students need to know and be able to do?” Only after that is realized can we answer the other three questions, “How will we know when they have learned it?” “What will we do when they haven’t learned it?” and “What will we do when they already know it?”

    To continue the metaphor, when we use the right seed, even if the soil is poorly prepared, what grows will likely be the plant intended. No matter how much we (the farmers—or sowers (teachers)) till the ground, add integuments, water, and do weeding, if the right seed (knowledge) is not present, then the plant intended (a full education) will not grow.

    The “soil” we use is dependent partly on what we have given to us (what kind of background the child has—how much the families have enriched the “soil,” as well as the basic “mineral” ingredients (IQ, predisposition to learning).

    In education today, much attention is given to early childhood education in an attempt to help offset an increasing number of students who start school unprepared. At Traut, we are very fortunate to have parent partners who do an excellent job preparing children for school! Add to that the work of our expert staff partners and eager student partners, and you have a recipe for success!

    As our expert staff partners further till the soil, they take care to add the “trace minerals, good organic fertilizers,” etc. needed for proper growth. Although they could simply add some kind of “super-fertilizer” to the mix, and thereby get huge yields, the produce from that field will be less rich in flavor and nutrients. In addition, soil that is “shortcut” farmed in this way will eventually collapse, leaving soil that can’t grow anything until it is re-established.

    ikewise, the care given to instructional strategies is critical to a rich and lasting outcome for students. We might get “fast” growth through “quick and easy” or automated strategies, but to get robust and lifelong “plants” (education), we need to use varied and data-driven, time-tested strategies.

    In the end, both the tilling of the soil of the students and sowing of the knowledge seed are crucial components to obtaining a good crop. Similarly, education does not take place without actual knowledge being taught using performance-tested strategies.

    However, without the seed, the crop does not grow. Likewise, without solid, sequenced, and specific knowledge, no learning can take place. With seed only, there may be much waste and poor growth, but at least some plants will grow.

    To go back to the “marriage” analogy, allow me to continue using that comparison to show the need for Core Knowledge. Research shows that a two-parent family is optimum for children, with the mother and the father providing balance in their upbringing. As mentioned above, for children to learn, they need solid, sequenced, and specific knowledge taught through time-tested, research-based instruction.

    To me the relationship between knowledge and strategy is like a marriage—both partners provide the optimum environment for children.
    The question comes up, though, as to which partner in this relationship is the father, which is the mother.

    To illustrate the way I see these roles, allow me to describe a picture a friend of mine had on his wall. In the photograph there is a family on top of an Adirondack peak. The father is seen pointing the way to a distant mountaintop, the goal of their next adventure. Alongside him are two girls, one on his lap, the other standing by, both with their little baggie of mountain mix to eat. The question is where is the mother? Well, who took the picture? Who likely made the snacks?

    So the father may be seen as the far-seeing visionary, reaching out for the future of his children, setting family goals. The mother can likewise be seen as the nurturer, the one making sure the immediate needs of the children are met, and is the chronicler, the recorder of the events and the steps along the way.

    Just as a mother nurtures a child, providing for her needs and well-being, so good instructional strategies feed a child’s learning in a caring and encouraging environment. Likewise, just as a father sets the goal and presses forward with his family, so knowing what students should know and be able to do is necessary for learning to take place.

    To sum it all up and combine both analogies, the best environment for learning is the Papa Seed of a core of knowledge planted in Mama Soil of instructional strategies.

    So then, which comes first, the knowledge or the instructional strategies? Of course both must be present, but just as no plant can grow without the right seed, no true education can take place without the right core of knowledge.

    Probably more of answer than you wanted, Robert, but I thought I might address your concern, as you have hit on a very important point!


    Mark Wertheimer
    Traut Core Knowledge School Principal

    If this kind of philosophical investigation interests you, allow me once again to recommend that you read Hirsch’s books, particularly _The Schools We Need_. There is a long tradition of such exploration at Traut, and you can access many documents related to that at http://www.psdschools.org/schools/traut/governance.aspx and http://schoolweb.psdschools.org/traut/TrautWeb/ParentGuide.pdf.

    Happy hunting!

    Comment by Mark Wertheimer — November 11, 2008 @ 11:59 pm

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