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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Bright Light in Public Education

“Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.” — Edmund Burke

This past weekend I had a surprising and pleasant experience attending the awards presentation for the Riverside Unified School District’s History Day. RSUD’s History Day is where students in the district’s K-12 schools submit a history project in one of several formats. It could be a presentation board, a documentary film, a web site, or a reenactment. Each project, however, must be accompanied by a paper written by the student.

National History Day provides an exciting way for students to study and learn about historical issues, ideas, peoples, and events. Started as a single day's contest at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, History Day soon became more than just a day. The first national contest took place in 1980, and the program now operates in forty-eight states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and the Department of Defense schools. Each year an estimated 500,000 students nation-wide take part in History Day contest events. During its history, millions of students have participated and have gone on to careers in business, law, medicine, teaching, and countless other disciplines where they put into practice the skills and knowledge gained during their History Day experience.

During the 2012-2013 school year, History Day invited students to research topics related to the theme, Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, and Events. As is the case each year, the theme is broad enough to encourage investigations of topics ranging from local to world history, and from ancient times to the recent past. To understand the historical importance of their topic, students have asked questions about time, place, and context; cause and effect; change over time, and; impact and significance. They have considered not only when and where events happened but also why they occurred, what factors contributed to their development, and what impact they had on broader history. In other words, History Day entries go far beyond mere description to include an analysis of information and conclusions about how the topic influenced and was influenced by other people, ideas, and events.

The projects are judged by a panel of judges comprised of teachers from the district, professors from the local college, or qualified volunteers. The judges are not allows to judge projects from the schools they represent. The projects are evaluated with 20% going towards the quality of the presentation and 80% towards the content and research effort of the student. Each student submitting a project is required to appear before a panel to give an oral presentation on their project and then answer questions from the panel of judges.

The judges are looking for the students understanding of the project and what the project corresponds to the theme for the year. They want to know how and why they choose their project, how the project fit the theme, how they did their research, and what the influence the project had on the world or the United States. They are also looking for projects where the parents might have had too much input. The projects are supposed to represent the work effort of the student, not the parent or a teacher.

The students are permitted to pick any event in history as long as it fits the theme. There are no restrictions or influence from the schools or districts. It’s totally up to the student to choose a project, research it, write a paper, and prepare their presentation.

There are three levels of history project submissions: Elementary school level — students in grades 4 and 5. These students are required to submit projects on presentation boards only. The next level is for middle school students in grades 6-8. This group is permitted to present their projects on presentation boards, documentary films, or web sites. The third group is for high school students, grades 9-12 who may use any format including reenactments.

The three winners from each level and category advance to the county level where they compete against other school districts in the county and those winners then move on to the state level. The winners of the state level the advance to the national level in Washington, D.C. There are monetary awards for the winners at each level ranging from $100 dollars at the county level to $10,000 dollars at the national level.

Some of the projects representing this year’s theme were:

  • The D-Day Invasion
  • Gettysburg
  • The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings
  • Mosquitos versus the Panama Canal
  • Brown vs. Board of Education
  • Women’s Suffrage
  • The Discovery of DNA
  • The 1848 Irish Potato Famine and the Effect on Immigration
  • The Battle of Stalingrad
  • The Tet Offensive
  • Henry Ford, a Turning Point in the Industrial Revolution
  • The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
  • The Attack on Pearl Harbor
  • The Bolshevik Revolution
  • The Battle of Tsushima
  • The Transcontinental Railroad
  • The Treaty of Versailles
  • The Internet Revolution

Yes, there were quite a few repetitive projects devoted to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This was expected by me as our K-12 public school curriculum, as formed by the NEA, focus on this as the beginning of American History. But, surprising, there were many other diverse topics where the student moved away from the NEA progressive curriculum. To my disappointment, however, there was only one student project that addressed the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, or the Constitution as a turning point. Perhaps there will be a few at the County level.

Both of my granddaughters were participants and winners. My youngest granddaughter’s project was entitled The California Gold Rush and The Remaking of America. She is a 4th grader and this was her first attempt at entering a History Day project following her older sister, a two-time winner. Her thesis was that “the California Gold Rush caused rapid population growth and led to California becoming a state very quickly. This led to the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, and also resulted in further division between slave and non-slave states, which led to the Civil War and the remaking of America.” Not bad for a 4th grader. No, her father did not pick the topic, but I am sure he assisted her with the text and graphics. The judges gave her high marks on the placement of the text and graphics on the board and the ease of reading.


My youngest granddaughter Helin with her history project presentation board

My eldest granddaughter, an 8th grader and experienced History Day participant and winner took another path. She prepared a video documentary on the passage of the 16th Amendment — the Income Tax — and the progressive views of Woodrow Wilson. She did do the research on her own, although her father gave her a book by Ron Paul on the morality of the corrosive income tax. In talking with my granddaughter she told me it was difficult to fine positive views on the progressive income tax. This is a very difficult subject for an 8th grader to tackle. She did a great job in preparing her documentary video, and the judges were impressed to the point of awarding her first place in her category and grade level. Perhaps I have a granddaughter in training to be a Libertarian.


Aylin and Helin posing with their blue ribbons

My prejudice not withstanding I thought the National History Day program was a proper exercise in our public education system. Today there are too many young people and adults who have graduated from our K-12 public school system and even our universities that have no basic knowledge of our national history. Too many believe history began yesterday or even those that do some knowledge of our history are ignorant of the cause and effects of those events. This is due to the way history is taught in many of our schools. We have teachers that are either incompetent to teach history or teach according to their agenda — usually progressive leftwing. They prefer to indoctrinate students in history rather than allow the student to research and learn from primary, secondary, and tertiary sources. This takes time and effort on the part of the teacher something many of them are unwilling to give.

The RSUD History Day Program is a bit on sunshine on a dreary K-12 public education system. Those students who participated will remember their experience for the rest of their lives and hopefully will have learned how to separate the wheat from the shaft when it comes to learning history in their future scholastic endeavors.

Next year’s theme will Rights and Responsibilities. I can barely wait to see what the students will focus on.

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