Dressed in fur hats and warm coats, fifth-graders Bryan Jackson and Jerome Barrett were portraying Arctic explorers Matthew A. Henson and Robert E. Peary in a school play in Clinton. In the audience sat James E. Henson, a great-nephew of the African American who was the first man 90 years ago to reach the North Pole.
"That's my baby, Matthew Henson," said Robin Reis, the proud mother of Bryan, 10. "He's always saying he wants to explore. He'll be sending me postcards from the end of the earth."
James Henson was impressed. "That was your son? Good upbringing!" he said.
What had begun as a reading assignment in October had grown to include the play, props, poster and even a World Wide Web site for the 28 students of Lisa McCall's fifth-grade class at Waldon Woods Elementary in Prince George's County.
"It was kind of like a teaching moment," McCall said after Friday's performance. "The kids were asking all kinds of questions. I said, 'This is great,' and we took it from there."
The subject, Matthew Henson, was a native of Charles County who, on April 6, 1909, became the first man to reach the North Pole, ahead of his commander, Peary. Peary, however, was widely credited with the discovery. Henson died in relative obscurity in 1955 after a career as a U.S. Customs Service clerk.
But now, the two men rest beside each other in Arlington National Cemetery, and Henson's story has been made into a movie and into juvenile nonfiction, which is how McCall's class came to learn it. Along with the anthologized story by author Jeri Ferris came a lesson plan, but teacher and students went far beyond that.
Using Henson's story, the students studied geography, biography, vocabulary, history and math. They learned about degrees of latitude and how to make a compass. They wrote book reports. They made costumes, memorized lines, built sets.
McCall invited James Henson, 63, a lawyer and deputy director of the Maryland Human Relations Commission who lives in Ellicott City.
Henson, whose grandfather and Matthew Henson were half-brothers, journeyed to the Arctic in 1992 to visit the villages where Henson and Peary both fathered Eskimo sons. To further his great-uncle's historical reputation, he has a foundation and frequently visits schools to talk about him. But this time, James Henson took a back seat to the students' show.
To simulate the harsh northern conditions, the students opened a classroom door to the outside, blew two fans with streamers, and blinked the lights. They littered the floor with fake snow and puffs of cotton. Even adults in the audience were given a role: They had to crunch bags of cornflakes to create the sound of the expedition passing over ice.
The assignment itself--and the emphasis on standardized tests--also were lampooned in the script. "Can you believe this assignment?" Richard Gentry asked.
"It's a biography," Jontice Small explained patiently.
"Let's pick someone from Maryland. . . . How about Matthew Henson?" John-Paul Williams suggested.
"Matthew who?" asked two boys.
"I was just testing," another replied.
Then all the boys chanted, "MSPAP--remember we eat, breathe and sleep MSPAP in this class!" They were referring to the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, which measure academic achievement.
The half-hour show was mostly live but also part video and part overhead projector. There were five narrators, a host of Eskimos and assorted other characters.
Following the bows, Jontice presented James Henson with the students' book reports that "we wrote on your great-uncle." Then the students had lots of questions, which they had written out on note cards.
In answering one, Henson said he was proud of his great-uncle for applying "what he had towards a wonderful goal, what each one of you have to do, take your natural talents and apply them to some goal in life."
He asked the children, "What kind of hero was he?"
"He was an African American hero," the class replied.
"What country did he bring great honor to?" Henson asked.
The class, with a little prompting, replied, "the United States of America."
For almost an hour after the performance, Henson kept the children's attention, fielding their questions and telling how he, in 1987, first met his Eskimo cousins when they came to Washington, and how he, five years later, paid them a return visit in the Arctic. In the classroom, Henson wore his parka and a cap that said USNS Henson, the name of a naval survey ship.
When it was all over, Henson joined the students and parents in an "Arctic feast" of foods meant to replicate what Matthew Henson ate on his polar quest.
Except in place of walrus, they ate chicken.
CAPTION: Above, James E. Henson talks about his great-uncle, Matthew A. Henson, who was the first man to reach the North Pole. At right, Jerome Barrett, as Robert E. Peary, searches for land in the play produced by fifth-graders at Waldon Woods Elementary in Clinton.
CAPTION: Bryan Jackson, as Matthew A. Henson, holds a U.S. flag at the North Pole.