Five middle school students who participated in the state National History Day contest the weekend of April 30 have qualified for the national contest in June.
Students participated at the school, regional and state contests, which put their research and presentation skills to the test across multiple formats. The theme of this year’s contest was debate and diplomacy.
Miller Middle School eighth grade students Andre Craig, Keane Hammond and Mira Quayle won first place in Denver in the performance category for their depiction of a husband’s and wife’s unjust trials during the Salem Witch Trials.
Nora May, St. Columba Catholic School student, won first place in the individual performance category for her project about the unification of Italy titled “Debate vs. ‘De-Brawn,” which juxtaposed Italy’s first prime minister’s unification efforts with those of a rowdy war hero.
From Escalante Middle School, Kara O’Donnell took second place in the individual performance category for her performance of “Women’s Suffrage: The Debate and Diplomacy of the 19th Amendment.” Students Naomi Verow and Abby Shadid took third place for their group documentary, “Jesselyn Radack: The Debate with the Government Over the American Taliban,” and are serving as alternates.
John Hise, regional director of the National History Day contest and Escalante social studies teacher, said in an interview on Thursday that the competition focuses on the ideas of student voice and student choice.
Students get to choose the subjects they want to research and the format they want to present their argument through – historical essays, individual or group performances, documentaries, websites and poster board exhibitions.
Because students have so much autonomy in deciding how they approach the competition, they become invested in their projects, Hise said.
“We started in September and some of those kids that made it to state probably revised sixth or seventh versions of the stuff they are working on,” he said. “To get a kid to sustain in an academic endeavor like that is kind of unheard of.”
Roberto Javier, Escalante Middle School English and social studies teacher, said the school has been successful in having students reach nationals for about the last eight years.
“That drafting process, I mean they’re writing college-level papers because of that constant, ‘Let’s look at this sentence, let’s look at the focus,’” he said.
May, an eighth grader, said she drew her primary research from an Italian book of poems her grandmother, who lives in Italy, recommended to her.
“She referred me to this book called ‘Poesia,’ or poems,” May said. “It’s a book of poetry by an Italian soldier who fought in the (war), the unification of Italy, who also happens to be my great, great, great, great grandfather.”
May said she enjoyed the competition but that it takes a lot of hard work. She plans to participate in the national contest, which is still virtual this year. So she will record her performance and submit it online. She said she chose the performance category because she has enjoyed participating in school plays.
Hise said another aspect of the competition that benefits students is its emphasis on asking questions and looking at topics from multiple perspectives. He said a focus of his and Javier’s this year was elevating that process by getting students to think about what questions they should be asking in their approach to research.
“The second place performance by Kara O’Donnell was a great example of that,” Hise said.
O’Donnell gave a performance about the women’s suffrage movement; specifically, she looked at figures from the movement who may not get as much attention as other key figures. She referenced Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for example, but then she compared her role to that of Sojourner Truth.
“And those are super important things for us to be thinking about in our own times and making sure that we at least understand there are different views on the same topic, and that hopefully through that process we can find some solutions to our own problems that we have,” Hise said.
O’Donnell said Truth, an African American woman, was constantly told she wasn’t really a woman because of her skin tone. O’Donnell also researched Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, a Native American from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, who was earning less money than white people in her office while she served as the head clerk of the Office for Indian Affairs.
“I’d like to add how supportive this group is this year,” she said, referencing her fellow Escalante classmates. “While I was doing my performance at the state level, everybody came and watched, and that was awesome.”
Sarah Whitehurst, Miller Middle School social studies teacher, said she is “incredibly proud” of her students who participated in the contest, with one group winning the group performance category for its project on the Salem Witch Trials.
“It’s really impressive, especially at an eighth grade level,” she said. “What they produced was really quality work so I’m really proud of them.”