For Lake Harriet, a historic History Day

Six students qualify for nationals

FULTON — For Lake Harriet Community School social studies teacher Debra Krawetz, who will escort a remarkable six students to Washington, D.C., for this year’s National History Day Contest, the textbook she teaches in her classroom is just a starting point.

“Most textbooks, I find, are very bland,” Krawetz said.

It’s through primary sources — such as contemporary news reports, photographs and interviews with people who lived the events — that students taste the flavor of a bygone era. They are also essential to a winning History Day project.

When seventh-grade student Sammy Carlson was researching the 1979–1981 Iran hostage crisis for a website she built with classmate Grace Haldeman, they scoured the Internet and good, old brick-and-mortar libraries for material. But that moment in history really came alive for Carlson when she stumbled on a copy of “Bomb Iran,” a briefly popular parody of the song “Barbara Ann,” best known from a 1965 version released by The Beach Boys.

“I had never heard it before,” said Carlson, who added that listening to the song helped her understand the anger many Americans felt during the 444-day crisis. “When I saw it first, I was like, ‘Whoa.’”

That aspect of the competition —the “history scavenger hunt,” as Krawetz put it — is part of what she said makes it such a valuable learning tool. Students do the real work of historians: researching a topic, writing a thesis and digging up evidence to support it.

“It teaches them to think critically, not just take history at face value,” she said.

Carlson and Haldeman, along with fellow Lake Harriet students Samantha Coffler, Kennedy Borman, Nathaniel Larson and Emma Chosy, were all planning to be in Washington, D.C., for the National History Day Contest June 12–16 at University of Maryland at College Park.

The six students making the trip to D.C. this month matched the total number of Lake Harriet students who qualified for nationals over the previous five years. Eight more Minneapolis Public Schools students from three other schools also qualified for nationals this year.

The Minnesota Historical Society’s Tim Hoogland, state coordinator of the History Day program, said while the state record for national qualifiers from one school in one year was “upwards of 20,” the district’s widespread use of History Day in its middle- and high-school curricula, and the attention the competition gets at Lake Harriet, in particular, have made the school “one of the highest-achieving History Day schools in the state.”

Hoogland said, statewide, about 30,000 students from 250 schools enter History Day projects in district competitions each year. The projects take the form of exhibits, papers, theatrical performances and, more and more, documentaries and websites, two categories that appeal to today’s tech-savvy kids.

For Carlson, who described herself as “a techie,” creating a website was a natural choice. She had experience, too: an advice website she created in the fourth grade was “the most popular website in the whole class” that year, she said.

“The whole fourth grade went on that website because it had ChatBox,” a messaging program, she said.

Coffler and Borman also created a website for their project, examining the debate, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, that led to the internment of many Americans of Japanese descent for the duration of the war. (This year’s theme, “Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences,” required each project to present both sides of a historical debate.)

Some of the images on their website reflect an ugly aspect of that era they found again and again as they dug through World War II-era periodicals: the racist caricatures of Japanese, depicting them as buck-toothed and squinty eyed, that were common in contemporary editorial cartoons and popular media.

“They don’t have those in textbooks,” Borman said. “They might have one or two, but they don’t — I don’t know. Sometimes they censor things, too.”

The students also found connections to recent events, noticing that the discrimination faced by American Muslims after Sept. 11, 2001, seemed like an echo of the era they studied.

Chosy, who wrote a 2,500-word paper on the debate to use atomic weapons on Japan to end World War II, found there was more to that event than she learned from her textbook. The show of force was also meant to intimidate the Soviets, she wrote, but instead kicked-off a nuclear arms race.

“That tension led to the Cold War,” Chosy said.

Larson’s website on President Jimmy Carter’s highly controversial, but ultimately successful, effort to push through Congress a treaty returning the Panama Canal to Panama touched on the debate’s role in energizing the modern conservative movement. That aspect of the story surprised even Karin Larson, his mother.

“One of the exciting things for parents is you learn so much from your kids who are uncovering these things,” she said.

A University of Minnesota researcher who had an older son qualify for History Day nationals in 2006, she said the research skill students learn completing the projects were an excellent preparation for college-level studies.

Said Larson: “I really do think that the program itself is very good in helping students learn how to manage a very large project and come out with something very concrete.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]