VIDEO: Einstein comes to life

Living History program helps students connect with figures from the past

No sooner are the chattering, giggling children coaxed to silent attention, than the wild-eyed and frizzy-haired man bursts into the auditorium, takes 15 hurried paces to the center of the floor, stops short, and, looking slightly perplexed, surveys his surroundings.

"Hello," he says, with a thick German accent.

And then he's off again, racing to a table at the front of the Theuerkauf Elementary multi-purpose room to grab a beaker full of clear liquid and a bottle of solution. "I've been looking all over for this, this experiment," he stammers, pouring the bottle into the beaker, causing a fizzy reaction.

He then rattles on a bit about the experiment not doing exactly what he had planned it to do, before stopping himself again. "How rude of me! I haven't introduced myself. Do any of you know who it is that I am?"

A flurry of hands shoot toward the high ceiling. The man calls on one of the students: "Einstein," the boy replies.

"That's right," the man replies. "And who knows what it is that I do?"

Of course, this is not really Albert Einstein. The man wearing the tousled white wig is Ken Boswell, a professional actor with Living History, a local educational program that brings historical figures to life for elementary school children around the Bay Area.

At this presentation, Boswell, channeling an eccentric and energetic Einstein, teaches fourth- and fifth-grade students about the planet's magnetic field, how light travels through space and even gives them an abridged explanation of his famous theory of relativity.

The actor fills the children in on Einstein's early life. His father was an electrical engineer, his mother a professional musician, and he was, well, he was an average student and decent violin player. "I wasn't great. But I was ordinary," Boswell's character says.

Einstein apparently didn't like middle school all that much. He felt the lectures were "rote," and his teachers bored him. This gets a laugh from the students..

"When I was your age, I was just like you," he says.

While Einstein was bored by his middle school lessons, he became fascinated by algebra, thanks to his uncle, who gave the young physicist-to-be a book on the subject. Einstein taught himself algebra and geometry.

"It's amazing what you can accomplish if you are fascinated by something," he tells the children.

After involving the kids in a few experiments using a magnet and compass to explain the Earth's magnetic fields, and using a flashlight and the picture of Einstein sticking out his tongue to show the children just how fast a beam of light moves, Boswell administers a brief quiz.

He ends his presentation on a humble note: "I have no special talent," he tells the children. "I am merely passionately curious. Curiosity has a special reason for existing."

Living History creator Wendy Yee says the closing message is the cornerstone of her program.

"What we try to do is inspire the kids," Yee says. "History comes to life and it builds bigger connections for the children, when they are able to actually see someone in the flesh and actually relate to them."

The five minutes or so Boswell spent talking about his childhood are essential to what Living History does, Yee says. "We like to allow the kids to build connections between themselves and that historic figure."

Boswell, who has been acting since he was 17, says working for the Living History program is an extremely rewarding job.

"It's so much fun to interact with the kids," he says. "You never really know what you're going to get. You never really know what they're going to say.

He says it took about a month of preparation to develop his Einstein character -- getting to know the quirky physicist inside and out. It comes in handy, as working with an audience of children requires a lot of improvisation.

Boswell, who also plays Jonny Appleseed and Abraham Lincoln for the program, says his performances really help children wrap their minds around the lessons they are learning in class.

"There are some very difficult concepts sometimes, and you can make it a little more accessible by having an animated character," he says. "Teachers do their best to make it as exciting as possible. But I don't think it's nearly as exciting as to have the actual historical character standing there talking about their lives, and showing you the things that they've done."


Like this comment
Posted by MV Mom
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Jun 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm

Thanks, Voice, for more reporting on the great things going on at our local elementary schools!

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