Students bring past events to life for National History Day contest

2012-03-17T19:30:00Z 2012-03-17T23:25:32Z Students bring past events to life for National History Day contestBy SUSAN OLP solp@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
March 17, 2012 7:30 pm  • 

Paul Revere cleverly used propaganda to help spark the American Revolution.

A trio of Laurel Middle School students made their case for Revere's actions in a documentary they premiered on Saturday morning at the National History Day contest at Montana State University Billings.

The 10-minute piece was one of five documentaries presented to judges by middle and high school students at the regional competition.

About 60 students from Billings Catholic Central High, Lewis and Clark Middle School and Laurel Middle School took part. Regional winners from elsewhere will join the Billings winners at the state contest on April 21 in Helena.

This year, students were asked to base their work on the theme of "Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History."

In addition to the documentaries, students could present a museum exhibit, a website or a traditional paper. Exhibits included a painted display that described the political and religious revolution of "Dante's Inferno," and another that detailed the music of the Harlem Renaissance, complete with an old-fashioned radio playing jazzy tunes.

National History Day has two parts to it, said Dr. Tom Rust, history professor at MSUB. Some of the work is done in the classroom, and students have the option of entering their work in the contest.

"We have about 1,500 students statewide that are doing this in the classroom, but not all participate in the contest," he said. "The contest adds a nice incentive."

The nationwide program, Rust said, is aimed at nurturing interest in historical research and comprehension among students in grades six through 12. In Montana, National History Day lapsed for about 20 years before Rust resurrected it four years ago.

The first year brought two schools and 30 students.

"Last year at state we had 168 students," Rust said. "That's not counting everyone who did a project and didn't compete or didn't go to state."

One student from each state will have his or her exhibit on display for one day at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The top two in each category from both the high school and middle school divisions at the state event will be eligible to take part in the national competition during the second week in June.

"And from each level you can revise your project, based on feedback from the judges," Rust said. "So it's not one and done. You can constantly be honing your skills each time and, in my opinion, that's the best part of it."

Laurel middle-schoolers Paige Hodges, Courtney Hallock and Taylor Ludwig spent the first quarter of the school year researching Paul Revere and his role in inciting the American Revolution. It took them another couple of months to create the documentary.

They showed the video and then answered questions for a trio of the judges. The piece talked about an etching Revere did based on the Boston Massacre that tweaked a few details of the actual event.

He turned an African-American lying on the ground into a white man, the girls said, to garner more of the colonists' sympathy. He changed the name of the Royal Custom House into Butcher Hall.

And he drew British soldier Capt. Thomas Preston as a "villainous character," they said, even though Preston didn't give the order to fire on the civilians.

"It was a catalyst for the fight for independence," Courtney said.

The girls decided to look into that particular incident, Paige told the judges, because their teacher, Amy Caldeira, showed them the drawing "and we wanted to see what was in the picture that made people want to fight."

Caldeira, who brought nine students for the first time to the National History Day, said she hopes to increase that number next year.

"It helps them to learn research, which I think is the biggest part," Caldeira said.

It also inspires the students to go more in-depth into topics that interest them. The students also find out how to approach historical study.

"It helped them learn that you can have a thesis and it can change," Caldeira said. "If it's not following what you thought at first, it's OK to change your ideas about something."

Shane Fairbanks, who teaches European and U.S. history at Central High, has been part of National History Day since Rust resurrected it.

"I love it, I think it's a great learning opportunity," Fairbanks said.

Some of his students have gone onto the national competition, and they truly become experts in their areas of study.

"There's time in our class discussions where we'll get to one of their topics and I will say ‘Hey, you take over,' and they will start talking about what they know, and they really like that," Fairbanks said.

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