Imagine your elementary school gym teacher as the unsinkable Molly Brown, replete with flowing dress and purple-plumed hat, and you'll start to understand how enthusiastically Laurie Gaudreault throws herself into her annual physical education class built around the Titanic.

And now, as the April 15th 100th anniversary of the luxury liner's demise recaptures imaginations worldwide, Gaudreault continues to create an ever more compelling environment that transports students at Adams 12's McElwain Elementary to a bygone era.

"It's taking a piece of history and making it multi-sensory for the kids," said Gaudreault, now in her 12th year of turning the ill-fated voyage into an opportunity for both inquiry and exercise. "Every year I try to incorporate another dimension."

Alex Arellano,10, a fourth grader at McElwain Elementary School, in the Adams 12 district, wears glass celebrating the one hundred years after the sinking
Alex Arellano,10, a fourth grader at McElwain Elementary School, in the Adams 12 district, wears glass celebrating the one hundred years after the sinking of Titanic,Tuesday, April 10, 2012. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

The week-long activity consumes the entire gymnasium and employs nearly every piece of equipment, as well as reading materials, props and costumes.

Kids begin the class in a corner of the gym where Gaudreault has displayed books and photos. She introduces them to the basic historical elements of the tale — all while in full costume and seated on a suitcase, ready to embark.

Students then put on red or blue "life vests," receive tickets for first-, second- or third-class passage and board the ship, in the form of a thick gym mat. Gaudreault explains the types of passengers who populated each class of ticket.

And then she releases them, one by one, to begin an elaborate obstacle course. They step across a balance beam, swing by rope to a "lifeboat," jump rope, putt a golf ball, climb, crawl and perform a variety of other physical activities before reaching the end — where they sign their names as survivors to a drawing of the ship.

The soundtrack from the popular movie plays in the background.

Gaudreault's natural interest in the story of the Titanic prompted the first elementary versions of the unit. Public acclaim for the movie added to interest in the account of the supposedly unsinkable ship that struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and lost more than 1,500 of its 2,224 passengers.

"It started out as just a game," she said. "Then I thought I could incorporate so much. I saw how interested kids were and it became more of a desire for me to show them all they can learn from a historical point of view."

With McElwain's designation as an International Baccalaureate candidate school, focused on inquiry-based education, the hands-on approach seemed even more relevant. Gaudreault began collecting costumes — some from other teachers, others that she scored on a shopping spree at Goodwill.

Oscar Reynoso, 11, center, dress as Captain Edward J. Smith of the Titanic, reacts with other fourth-grader students at McElwain Elementary School, after
Oscar Reynoso, 11, center, dress as Captain Edward J. Smith of the Titanic, reacts with other fourth-grader students at McElwain Elementary School, after learning he did not survive the ship sinking, Tuesday, April 10, 2012. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

"You throw costumes at the kids," she said, "and the whole dynamic of the activity changes."

Once students have completed the obstacle course, they head for a corner of the gym to pull on the period clothing associated with actual passengers, from the captain to tiny children — and even a dog. The kids not only dress up, but learn about their characters from a folder of research information.

At the end of the class, the kids open their "ticket" to learn if their character survived.

For next year, Gaudreault may add a culinary dimension to the experience, having the kids dine on white tablecloths with good china — a glimpse of the luxury that defined the vessel on its maiden voyage.

"For people who don't know about the Titanic, it's a chance to remember what it was," said 11-year-old Cheilynn Morgan, who dressed up as Millvina Dean, the last living survivor of the tragedy. "I've been here since kindergarten, and now it feels like a tradition."

Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739 or ksimpson@denverpost.com