Virginia History Day: Projects tackle Rights and Responsibilities

Virginia History Day Logo

By Lisa O. Monroe

On April 26, some 250 excited and nervous students will stream into Thomas Nelson Community College’s Historic Triangle Center to present the culmination of a year of work.

It’s Virginia History Day (VHD). The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the Virginia State affiliate to National History Day, will be hosting the state wide competition for the 17th year.

There, in front of their families, their teachers and approximately 70 judges, students from grades six through 12 will show off many, many months of hard work, meticulous research, analysis and interpretation to master their chosen topics. To get this far, they must have placed in the top two at one of eight Virginia district competitions.

Those who make the strongest impression on the judges at the state level earn the right to compete at the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day (NHD) contest from June 15-19 in College Park, Md.
(See results from the Virginia History Day.)

The competition certainly made an impression on Chris Ours. His subject – Eugenics – became something more than a passage in a history book when the project put him face to face with someone who experienced it.

“To actually speak to someone who had experienced it really made the topic personal,” said Ours, whose VHD involvement helped shape his educational path.

Each year topic is based on a theme. This year, the students tackle “Rights and Responsibilities in History.”

This year’s competitors hope to join other NHD winners who have gone on to larger success. Former winners include Caroline Shaw, a New York-based violinist and vocalist who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music; Alex Wagner, host of MSNBC’s political analysis program “NOW with Alex Wagner;” and Guy Fieri, celebrity chef and Food Network host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” “Guy’s Big Bite,” and “The Next Food Network Star.”

“Through NHD students develop college and career ready skills that last a lifetime,” said NHD Executive Director Cathy Gorn. “The students and teachers who have worked with National History Day can attest to the impact the program has on them. It not only teaches students about the past, but helps place current and future events into context, bringing to life the importance of quality history education. These students will emerge from this program with a greater understanding of the events and people who shaped their lives and the world as they know it today.”

Ours, now 27 and a resident in pediatrics at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, is one of several Virginia winners who have gone on to win at the national level. He and Jason Moran, then sophomores at Albemarle High School, won in 2003 for their documentary on the Eugenics movement, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in the forced sterilization of people considered unfit to reproduce.

“There were a lot of skills that we had to learn and develop,” Ours said. He cited research and analysis, along with the use of primary sources.

In the course of their research, Ours and Moran connected with a Roanoke journalist who had written about forced sterilization in Virginia. With her assistance, they located and spoke to people who endured such procedures.

One was a man who had been sterilized against his will while living at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, Ours said. It sparked a keen interest in bioethics, which continues to be very important to him as a doctor.

After high school, Ours double majored in philosophy and biology at The College of William and Mary, and then received his medical degree at New York Medical College.

The skills he learned through VHD and NHD were a great asset in college, he said, and were at a much higher level than what he learned in his advanced high school classes.

Rachel Moore, a sixth-grade history teacher at Hornsby Middle School in James City County, has eight students competing at VHD this year. She has taken part in the competition as a teacher for five years and was also a judge for several more. And last year, she received the Teacher of the Year Award for VHD in the junior division.

“My students are so inspired and learn so much from VHD, but they think it’s just a history project,” she said. But above and beyond that, she said her students learn important skills in research, communication, time management, working as a team, and giving critiques in a positive way.

“The analysis is what makes this different than other projects they do in school,” she said. Students not only do extensive research on a project, but must ask such questions as: “Who were the stakeholders? What were their opinions? What were their differing viewpoints?”

Katie Hipple, 14, a freshman at Warhill High School in James City County and one of Moore’s former students, said she came away with an appreciation for the enormous amount of resources necessary to do such an in-depth project. The annotated bibliography for her eighth-grade project was 40 pages long.

She and her friend Alexa Fitzpatrick competed in the Group Exhibit category in the junior division, which is for sixth-eighth graders. As seventh graders, they won first place in both district and state competition for their exhibit on Louis Pasteur and the Germ Theory.

In eighth-grade, they won a specialty award called the Mary Bicouvaris Award for Outstanding Research in Virginia History for their exhibit on John Galt and his reforms at Eastern State Hospital, a public mental institution in Virginia.

Katie and Alexa looked at the progress and reforms implemented in mental hospitals since America’s first hospital opened in Williamsburg. The building that housed the hospital is now Colonial Williamsburg’s Public Hospital Museum.

“It was cool to see how things were back then,” Katie said. She and Alexa used for their research included Trish Balderson, manager of museum education for Colonial Williamsburg, and Dr. Frederic B. Tate, a psychologist at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg.

Katie says she’s always liked history, but after doing the NHD projects she is much more intrigued by it.

“There’s a buzz about everything” the day of the state competition, said Aaron Wolfe, who coordinates the state competition with Tab Broyles, the director of teacher development for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which sponsored Virginia History Day for many years.

In the final days leading up to the competition, Wolfe – a production associate in Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Education Media – is doing everything from creating signs and schedules to running the registration system and finalizing the judges.

He recruits judges from all over Virginia, working to “get a mix” on each panel. They are museum curators, content experts, teachers, college professors, and technical experts. About one-third of VHD’s volunteer judges work for Colonial Williamsburg.

Competition categories for the students include: Individual Documentary, Group Documentary, Individual Exhibit, Group Exhibit, Individual Historical Paper, Individual Performance, Group Performance, Group Websites and Individual Websites.

Broyles said that having such a wealth of available expertise is tremendous for students who discover what a valuable resource it can be if they continue competing in the event.  “You’ve got professionals judging and giving students input and feedback,” she said.

The judges are closely matched to each category, she explained. For example, Doug Marty, Colonial Williamsburg’s IT director,  judges websites, while Balderson, manager of museum education, judges exhibits.

At the state level, the top three students in each category are awarded prizes, with the top two advancing to the nationals. There are two divisions: the junior division for sixth-eighth-graders, and senior division for ninth-12th grades.

Students who are researching colonial topics can find a wealth of information through Colonial Williamsburg’s vast resources, including the well-informed curators, archivists and first-person presenters, the NHD says.

Virginia History Day is on Facebook and Twitter. In the fall, Wolfe says he uses these social-media outlets to alert students and teachers of new online resources and digital collections. He also tweets photos and updates during the state and national competitions.

“I like the way that it works and lets me interact, especially with the high school students who see it as part of their social activity,” he said.

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