Competition about the past

Students examine `triumph and tragedy' for History Day

January 28, 2007|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Connor Belson, 13, decided to do his History Day presentation on Pearl Harbor.

"I've always been interested in World War II and all the other wars," he said.

He created a three-part board that looked like a brick wall, with torn-around-the-edges sheets of paper meant to represent handbills. With pictures, words and a reproduction of a telegram, he demonstrated why the Pearl Harbor attack was both a triumph and a tragedy for the United States.

"They lost the battle of Pearl Harbor, but they eventually triumphed and defeated the Japanese," he said.

Connor's presentation was part of a History Day competition at Clarksville Middle School last week. All eighth-graders in the Gifted and Talented classes participated, with the best entries going on to the county, then state and finally national competitions, said Shelley Stout, the school's Gifted and Talented resource teacher.

The rules at the local level conform to the national competition, called National History Day and run out of the University of Maryland, College Park. This year, all entries had to be related to the theme of triumph and tragedy.

Students could submit works in four categories: papers, displays, documentaries or performances. In each category, two individual and two group entries could be submitted to the county competition with a limit of 14, Stout said.

At Clarksville, most students submitted displays. They were set up in the media center and judged throughout the day, with students answering questions and explaining their research to the volunteer judges. "They really have to be prepared," Stout said.

Topics included Ray Charles, the Atomic Bomb, the New Deal, Betty Ford, Joan of Arc and the Battle of Gettysburg. Stout said about 55 students created displays, 10 wrote papers, three put on performances and 10 made documentaries.

Stout said the winners would not be known for about two weeks. "What we're looking for is the kids not with the flashy boards, but the ones that dug deep into the research," she said.

One of the judges was Robert Coffman, the social studies resource teacher for the county. He said that nearly all middle schools put on History Day, and he has been going from school to school to serve as judge. Each school can decide which students can participate, he said. There is also a high school-level competition, he said.

Until three years ago, the winners went to a regional competition, he said, but in 2004 the county created its own competition, which will be held March 10. The state contest will be in late April at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and the national contest will be June 10 to 14 at the University of Maryland, College Park.

National History Day was started in 1974 by David Van Tassel, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It became a national organization in 1980, and moved from Cleveland to Maryland in 1992.

Students at Clarksville have been working on their projects since October, Stout said. She helped the eighth-graders choose topics and made sure they would meet the "triumph and tragedy in history" that is this year's criteria.

Students were encouraged to choose topics that interested them. Caroline White, 13, created a presentation about mental illness in Colonial America, in part because she had studied psychology and found it interesting. She used diaries as her primary sources, and she found that mental illness then was less accepted than it is today. "A big part of my research was the Salem witch trials," she said.

Mollie Matz, 13, did primary research. Her thesis was that Jewish teenagers know more about the Holocaust than teens of other religions, and she created a questionnaire to find out if it was true. She posted her results on a board, which included information about the Holocaust.

The triumph, she wrote, was that "Jewish teenagers are very aware of everything that happened in the Holocaust." The tragedy is that non-Jewish teens are less aware, she wrote.

The fact that the presentations were part of a competition seemed to spur the students to do their best work. Connor said he probably put more effort into his Pearl Harbor project because it was in a competition.

"I don't know if I'll actually win," he said. "But if I had just been doing this for school, I probably would not have spent as much effort on it."

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