WASHINGTON _ With a flick of a projector switch in a darkened college classroom, Jennifer Thompson of Aldine, Texas, plunged her audience into a black-and-white world of Cold War history.
On the screen flashed images of America's most famous spy plane, the U-2. With music behind the images ranging from the “Apollo 13” movie soundtrack to the Who, Thompson told the story of the U-2's vital role for the U.S. military in the stand-off with the old Soviet Union, in Vietnam and even now in Kosovo.
“It helped the U.S. overcome Soviet claims of missile superiority, to confirm that those claims weren't accurate,” she said.
Thompson was presenting nine-month's work to a panel of judges at last week's (EDITOR'S NOTE: THIS WAS JUNE 13-17) National History Day competition at the University of Maryland. For her 10-minute documentary, Thompson interviewed the son of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and the son of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. She collected Cold War political cartoons. She gathered letters between Khrushchev and two presidents.
One of the judges was so impressed by what he called “a magnificent piece of research” that he told Thompson, “I can't imagine me at your age finding these people who made history and calling them up.”
Thompson's age? Sixteen years old.
She, along with 31 other fellow students from Chester W. Nimitz Senior High School, showed off their various documentaries, performances and exhibits during National History Day, a five-day event. From the 600,000 who began the journey at local contests, 2,000 worked their way to the national competition. To choose the nation's top history students, professional historians, museum curators, archivists and educators scrutinized their projects and probed the students for even more answers about their topics.
One Nimiz group—Juan Medina-Cruz, 18, and his brother Guadalupe, 17, Wayne Arceneaux, Rica Watts, 15, and Carey Dodd, 17—won second place nationally in the documentary category by recounting the history of the more-than-physical binding ties of the interstate highway system. Each won $1,000 for their work.
“Once we started researching our topic, we understood that it had lots of social, political, and economic effects,” Guadalupe Medina-Cruz said. The group traced how highways created a state-by-state sameness, connected suburbia with urban centers, and earned $14 billion dollars for the US economy.
The group waded through books and periodicals to find sources. Then, like Thompson, they pursued the history-makers for interviews and materials. Among the information and materials they got were about 250 photographs from the Federal Highway Administration and three boxes of research from an author who had written on the interstate highway system. Their bibliography? A hefty 61 pages.
The work didn't stop there. Those who did documentaries learned how to meld software and technology, image and sound, into a coherent, professional-quality film.
The national contest aims to reinvigorate history by bringing students closer to the people and artifacts that made it, said executive director Cathy Gorn. “Teachers are encouraged to use this in the classroom to reform education in general,” Gorn said. “We want them to make primary sources a routine part of teaching.”
The focus on primary sources brought students closer to history than they had expected, especially as they explored Washington, D.C.
After all her work on the U-2 spy plane, Thompson was drawn to the National Air and Space Museum. There she saw an original telegram by Nikita Khrushchev of which she had a copy, Khrushchev's diary and U-2 pilot Powers' suit.
“I interviewed a pilot–Colonel Carmine Vito–and he told me his plane was on display here in Washington,” she said. “I went there yesterday, and it was really weird to stand under that plane and know that I’d talked to the man that flew it.”
Another Nimitz student, Emily McCallum, 15, visited the headquarters of Radio Free Europe, a government-run broadcaster, that she had researched for the History Day competition. Its Washington bureau chief lent her a reel-to-reel player and tape deck and gave her a tape of a recent Russian broadcast FOR her performance.
“I never dreamed I would actually visit RFE headquarters once I got here,” McCallum said. “I was a kid in a candy store running around.”
Students did extensive research, preparation and networking for their projects. Nimitz has grown into a strong contender at all levels of the competition through the effort of its students, teachers and district administrators.
The high school category has seven categories—individual and group documentary, individual and group performance, individual and group exhibit and research paper. Nimitz students reached the national level in all categories except research paper and individual exhibit.
Nimitz High School has become something of a powerhouse at National History Day. Last year, five of the 44 students who placed at the national level were from Nimitz. They placed first in the group media category and received $1,000 each. One student, Gerald Schattle, LAST YEAR won a full scholarship to Case Western University.
In last week's competition, Thompson and McCallum both placed in the top ten in their categories.
All those who earn first through third place win prize money. Part of the students' motivation, said Nimitz U.S. history teacher Barbi Petty, is also the school and district's financial support. For the students who make it to National History Day, the Aldine school district pays for the trip.
“The students don’t have to pay for anything,” Petty said. “Plane tickets, charter busses, vans, meal money, entry fees–everything is taken care of.”
The experience of participating in the history fair, Petty said, prepares them for the real world by building their communication skills and self-esteem.
The students also grow as researchers, Petty said. “Some of them come in as freshman that have no clue as what to they’re doing”, she said, “and by the time they’re seniors, if they stick with it, they’re excellent researchers.”
Nimitz offers a specific class for the event that helps students get ready. They come into the competition savvy of what judges are looking for.
“I'm looking at their reactions,” said Thompson, who documented the spy plane's history. “You're basically selling the project to the judges.”
The students are taught the competition's format and repeatedly interviewed to ensure that they are prepared for whatever the judges might ask and that they make an impression. A set of about 20 teachers from various subjects grilled the students in two 20-minute sessions, Thompson said. The students also underwent informal after-school interview sessions, she said.
Projects had to coincide with the competition's theme for this year, “Science, Technology and Invention in History.”
The group who worked on the interstate highway project said the school's four social studies teachers—Connie Shelden, Barbi Petty, Dale Gossman and Richard Cheplick—were like a sixth member because of the help they offered with the equipment and researching efforts.
“They felt like they’re another set of parents because they spent us so many afternoons with us,” Watts said. From September to December, the group labored after school twice a week. During the spring semester, they stayed every day.
The group, whose documentary made it to the top ten in the nation, did not expect to go this far. “I always knew we were going to get to state,” Dodd said. “But nationals is another story.”
Ultimately, the competition brought history alive for the students in a way that will stay with them permanently, said Glen Keel, Nimitz's assistant principal.
“The Bible says, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,'” Keel said. “These kids have learned to fish. They've developed in themselves the ability and desire to research.”