ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ7) — For Highland Park Elementary School third grade teacher Chwanda McLaughlin, history lessons are not relegated to the history books.
When we meet her Monday afternoon in her classroom, she is dressed in a brightly colored, printed dress and head wrap. She joins her students in singing a rap song about ancient Greece.
In songs, books and in costumes, McLaughlin makes history come alive.
"I was like, I'm gonna make a Dr. King shirt and I thought, 'well, maybe tomorrow I'll do a Rosa Parks shirt,'" she said. "And then I thought, 'well, why don't I just dress as Rosa Parks?'"
McLaughlin came in costume, encouraging students to guess who she was before sharing Parks' story. But she didn't want to stop there.
"The planning process?" she said, laughing and looking at her dress. "This look came together this morning, so it's day by day."
Today, she's Maya Angelou. But every school day this month, she's dressed as a notable black figure from the past and present, including Jesse Owens, Bessie Coleman, Diana Ross and Serena Williams -
each character coming with a lesson or a book to accompany them.
"They have to guess," she said of her students. "I'll give them a clue or I'll have a prop and they'll immediately pull out a computer and start Googling and start to figure out, so they're guessing all day long."
The props at the front of her classroom include a plane for Bessie Coleman, Olympic medals for Jesse Owens and a placard with Parks' arrest number.
"It is fun," said Principal Mark Crummey. "It's just fun that she's actively living out our history for these kids."
Crummey said it's not just her class who's on board. Other students are invested in the day's surprise.
"So the more that you can do things like this that keeps students guessing and excited about coming to school and just be in class and see what's coming up from Mrs. McLaughlin," he said, "it's just a great thing."
Crummey said he and other teachers are also learning about each of the people McLaughlin portrays. She said she's learning, too. Plus, she feels like her students are taking note in all the right ways.
"I had a student that said, 'You know what? Tomorrow I'm going to come in dressed like a famous basketball player," she said. "So that was personal to me because I'm like, wow it's really, you know, it's really making an impact."
But for her, the greatest lesson of all is in teaching her students to play the role they were born to play.
"In making it relate to themselves," she said, "these are obstacles that these people had to overcome and so teaching them that, that they have to overcome adversity and be who you want to be."
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