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National History Day contest: Where history is hip

  • McClatchy Washington Bureau
  • Published Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at 10:32 p.m.

— Not many 14-year-olds know where Hurtletoot, Northern Ireland, is.

“It’s a path and two farms,” says Nicole Crumpler, a rising high school freshman from Coppell, Texas, near Fort Worth.

“Just a little place,” said her twin sister, Erin. “It’s nothing.”

The farm town, just outside Belfast, is only a speck on Google Earth. But for the Crumpler girls, who traced their lineage all the way back to that Irish hamlet, its discovery would lead them much further than the Internet.

Hurtletoot ignited a spark for the 14-year-olds, a curiosity that they shared with three of their classmates at Coppell Middle School North. That spark manifested itself into a history class project about Ellis Island, once a major gateway for immigrants, which eventually placed second at the Texas state History Day competition. This week, their journey culminates in Washington.

The chatty teenagers are just five of more than 2,800 middle and high school students from across the country who made the trip to the nation’s capital to celebrate National History Day. Once a quietly noted event, it has grown into a weeklong celebration of history and educational competition for thousands of students every year.

The fact is, most students just don’t know their own history. Less than a quarter are proficient in the subject, according to a 2010 survey from the National Center for Education Statistics. Their generation’s lack of awareness makes the National History Day contest all the more important, program officials said.

“A lot of people complain about the teaching of history in America; it’s not a rote thing, it’s not an exciting thing, it’s directed from above, it’s test centered,” said Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” and one of the speakers. “The fact that these guys are encouraged to do their own projects . . . and actually really do history, as opposed to learn certain facts that they can regurgitate on the tests, is amazing.”

Funded by public and private donors, the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest involves more than 500,000 students around the country throughout the academic year. They are encouraged to create displays, documentaries, performances and digital projects based on primary historical sources.Students must get through regional- and state-level contests to be chosen for the final, national round in Washington.

The festivities began Sunday night at the University of Maryland in College Park and continue through an awards ceremony on Thursday. Project judging took place Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, the competitors toured the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Select students will display their projects at the museum starting at 10 a.m.

It’s the first chance for many of the participants to experience the nation’s capital.

“It’s a big deal,” said James Harris, president of National History Day Board of Trustees, who has been involved with the program for more than 20 years. “In some cases, some of the kids have never left their home city, never left their home state. This opens up a world to them that they didn’t know before.”

The Crumplers’ classmates would agree. Just ask their teammate Rachel Kass, 14, about the impending trip to the Smithsonian.

“They’re going to have to drag me out,” Rachel said.

Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns attributed much of the disinterest in history to education’s growing emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as the STEM approach in the classroom. Programs like National History Day, he said, help spotlight the subjects left behind.

“We live in a culture now that de-emphasizes the importance of history,” said Burns, an advocate for the program who has chronicled the Civil War and the history of baseball, among other subjects. “Here are kids that are in the vanguard of understanding the power, the force of history. That history is the greatest teacher that there is.”

Students vie for awards in several categories, which include scholarships and monetary prizes. But the real benefit, all agreed, is the chance to meet and learn from students who share the same passion.

“That was a part of the project that I thought was great, being able to sit there and converse with someone who also loved history and understood what you’re talking about,” said Rachel, glancing over at her group’s display of vintage suitcases and antique immigrant artifacts, “Because, you know, you can’t just walk up to a random person on the street and start talking to them about Ellis Island.”

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