Lake Harriet students make history

School's torrent of History Day winners is academic high point

For an already squirrelly bunch, sitting in auditorium seats together only stoked the enthusiasm of Lake Harriet's 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders. One after another, each of their History Day projects were winning, and they couldn't stop cheering.

"We were so surprised, we just kept on screaming for everyone," said Clare Eisenberg, a 6th-grade finalist.

Of the 20 projects submitted by Lake Harriet Community middle school students, 19 were finalists at the Minneapolis regional event. Finalists go on to the statewide competition on May 3.

History Day is a national competition for junior and senior high students. It requires students to produce an in-depth research project, paper, exhibit, theatrical performance or a video documentary on a historical event, theme or person. The projects, except for the paper, can be done individually or with a group.

Lake Harriet social studies teacher Robin Polson runs the school's History Day program and is impressed with how polished her students' projects were.

Using video cameras, voice recording and a software program called iMovie, Lake Harriet students filmed and edited historical documentaries. Using relatively simple software, many of the documentaries have the look and feel of something produced by professionals for public television.

Ted Lynn-Klimenko and Ari Mitchell's documentary "Berlin Wall: The Iron Curtain Comes to Life" begins with historical music downloaded and converted for video. To solemn narration, the camera pans over a map of Germany.

As she watches, Polson shakes her head.

"It's unbelievable the time these kids put into this. All of the editing, and they're improving it for state," said Polson.

City pride

Lake Harriet's success is part of a larger picture. Minnesota is known nationally for strong History Day competitors, and in the last three years, city schools have taken many top state honors.

Last year, Minneapolis students totalled 16 percent of History Day participants statewide, but won 21 percent of the awards. Maybe that overrepresentation isn't staggering, but the city isn't always competitive by statewide academic measures.

One explanation for the city's success is support from the Minnesota History Center through a Cargill Foundation supported grant -- the Youth History Initiative (YHI).

For the last three years, YHI has provided Minneapolis with a History Day curriculum, plus classroom assistance from professional historians. Mentors (graduate-level history students) also help students.

Since the Initiative started in 2000, participation has grown from 1,800 students to 4,484 in 2003.

Schools with multiple regional finalists all participated in YHI's collaboration. Those included Southwest's Anwatin Middle School, 256 Upton Ave. S.; Anthony Middle, 5757 Irving Ave. S.; Lake Harriet Upper, 4912 Vincent Ave. S.; Southwest High, 3414 W. 47th St.; and Windom Open, 5824 Wentworth Ave. S.

Lake Harriet's Polson said the city's success is because students have total control over their project's type and subject.

"They feel real ownership over their topic -- it's fun to see them so involved. They become more knowledgeable than their teacher," Polson said.

Lake Harriet's winners spanned topics from a video documentary about union conflicts in Willmar to a group performance on children in Russian orphanages.

Polson admits that Lake Harriet's demographics -- almost entirely middle class with college-educated parents -- help high participation.

Parent meetings, Polson said, were well attended. "Well, everything here is well-attended," she said.

For Lake Harriet's 6th-graders, History Day was their first research project ever. Clare Eisenberg's mother, Mary Cajacob, attended Lake Harriet's parent meeting to help with her daughter's first big project.

"It's hard for kids to learn how to budget their time, to research and figure out what information to include," she said.

And students weren't given class time to work on their projects. Polson did provide a weekly after-school club for kids, even after projects were due, to help polish them for state competition.

Cajacob said she was overwhelmed with the quality of student work at the regionals.

"I have to say how proud I was of Minneapolis Public Schools at that ceremony. The diversity of kids in that room that produced professional-looking exhibits. They filled the gym and cafeteria floors. I was so proud," she said.

The statewide History Day competition takes place at the University of Minnesota on Saturday, May 3.