By PHILIP COZZOLINO
NARRAGANSETT – Four eighth-grade students from Narragansett Pier School (NPS) will travel to Washington, D.C. this week to compete in the final round of the National History Day Contest, an annual competition aimed at teaching students critical research skills and historical knowledge. The NPS finalists, whose projects focus on the Black Plague, the creation of Israel and child labor, qualified for the national phase of the competition after earning top spots at the statewide competition in the spring.
Each year, eighth-grade students at NPS participate in the National History Day Contest, which challenges middle and high school students across the country to conduct original research and present their findings on a historical topic of choice. Students can work in groups or individually to address the competition’s annual theme through a variety of media including a performance, written paper, documentary film, exhibit or website. Each category has both an individual competition and a group competition. The first and second-place finishers in each category from each state advance to the national tournament. The theme for this year’s competition is “triumph and tragedy.”
Competing on the national stage this week are NPS students Veronica Sabatino, for her individual exhibit on the Black Plague; Jessica Boutin and Sydney Dewey, for their team exhibit focusing on child labor and Lilly Weisz-Nesshoever, for her team documentary film on the origin of Israel. Weisz-Nesshoever’s partner, Ryan Barry, could not make the trip due to timing.
The National History Day Contest engages students by allowing them to relate the competition and research to personal areas of interest. In doing so, students can focus on a topic that is appealing to them.
“I was interested in the Black Plague when I was younger,” said Sabatino. “And learning about it now, I realize why it wasn’t taught in third grade. It was very gruesome.”
“It took me awhile to come up with a topic,” said Weisz-Nesshoever. “I decided to do the creation of Israel. There’s definitely a clear triumph and tragedy there. I’m very interested in that subject because there’s so much present-day influence.”
“We thought child labor laws should be something our schools teach us because it was an important part of our country’s history,” said Boutin and Dewey.
Once decided on a topic, students get to work researching the subject and produce a takeaway, or a thesis of sorts, from the investigation. All that’s left to do is decide how to present their findings. The varied forms of presentation further allow students to experience the competition through a personal and customized lens. For example, Weisz-Nesshoever has been interested in filmmaking and editing since elementary school, and so she and her partner chose to do a documentary film, interviewing Weisz-Nesshoever’s grandmother, who travelled to Israel as a teenager, for the project. For those with an eye for handcrafted art and graphic design, on the other hand, a tri-fold poster exhibition was the way to go, and Sabatino, along with Boutin and Dewey, set to work making their posters packed full of information whilst still maintaining visual appeal.
It was a challenging road to Washington. Back in February, the eighth-grade students competed locally at a qualifying round held at NPS. 22 of the school’s 60 submitted projects, or the top two entries in each category, advanced to the statewide competition, hosted at Rhode Island College on March 23. There, the winning entries from NPS squared off against the winning projects from all other participating schools in Rhode Island. In total, 198 students from across the state competed in the contest.
“We weren’t really thinking about competing against other schools,” said Boutin and Dewey. “We were more nervous about our project and what the judges were going to ask us.”
“States was a really good experience,” said Weisz-Nesshoever. “I also do robotics competitions for school and so I’m used to that kind of a setting. It was a really, really fun day but still very stressful. My partner was super calm and I was freaking out because that’s just me. I wanted to do well so bad because I had worked so hard on the documentary. I get really invested in projects like this.”
In total, NPS students earned top spots in three contest categories from the state competition, with Weisz-Nesshoever and Barry finishing in second place for their group documentary film, while Sabatino took home first place in individual exhibit and Boutin and Dewey earning the best team exhibit.
“I didn’t really think I was going to win at states,” said Sabatino. “But apparently, I had a shot.”
“When the judges called third and second place, we didn’t expect to win, but then they called our names for first place and we were very surprised,” said Boutin and Dewey.
After garnering feedback from a panel of judges at the competition that consisted of professors, community leaders, tournament officials and Rhode Island Historical Society board members, students set to work on improving their projects ahead of the national competition. The competitors from NPS also attended National History Day Contest workshops after the state tournament to receive additional constructive comments.
“I’m editing slower this time,” said Weisz-Nesshoever on tweaking her documentary. “Making everything perfect – taking the documentary apart and putting it back together. I’m chipping away at it every day.”
“We are focusing on our process paper, which is a list of our sources about our topic,” said Boutin and Dewey. “We are also fixing some of the details on our board. We aren’t nervous at all, we are more excited about the trip and the whole experience!”
“I’m taking into account all the suggestions from the judges at the state competition,” said Sabatino. “I feel like I’m an expert on the Black Plague now, I just did so much research.”
While the students will put their wits and creativity to the test against the best of the best this week, they will have been better off for participating in such a competition, whatever the results may be. When asked what they had learned about their area of study, the young historians of NPS provided detailed answers as to how their research had better shaped their interpretation of famous historical events, and how those events could be interpreted as both triumphant and tragic.
“First of all, everyone thinks it was started by rats, but it wasn’t, technically,” said Sabatino on the Black Plague. “It was fleas. Fleas passed the disease onto rats who then gave it to humans.”
“There were actually some triumphs of the plague,” Sabatino continued. “Before it happened, the feudal system was in place and common people were pretty much all slaves. There was no social mobility whatsoever and it was like that because of the overcrowding. There was no middle class – you were either living it up or scrambling at the bottom. People were crammed into city walls of Europe. But the Black Death lead to some elements of the Renaissance and Enlightenment beginning to form. Ideas of individualism and humanism began to spread after. A middle class was formed.”
“The history of child labor laws in this country relates to the theme of the competition this year because of the constant struggle and suffering of the children,” said Boutin and Dewey. “Many died, had serious injuries and/or illnesses. Through the activists and the laws that were established, the government was able to limit or completely ban child labor. We learned about how the children struggled every day and just how many of them affected there were.”
“I knew that Israel was an important place – culturally, religiously, spiritually – but it’s kind of been portrayed as a country that only cares for itself now and is very discriminatory,” said Weisz-Nesshoever. “I think that can be true to some degree, but I think it started out as a very important place and I learned how it important it was in those two or three years right after the Holocaust. [Israel] was kind of the world giving back, the world’s acknowledgment of how horrific the Holocaust was. There were some Arab countries that were completely against it, as were some Jews, who were skeptical.”
The eight-grade scholars from Narragansett will showcase their projects at The University of Maryland throughout the week, going up against some 3,000 other students from schools across the country and Department of Defense schools abroad, before heading back home.
National History Day originated in 1974 in Cleveland, OH, as a way to address serious deficiencies in history education in public schools. The contest went national in 1980, and Rhode Island has been a participant since 1983. Not just a day, NHD is actually a year-long, project-based curricular enhancement program for students studying history in grades 6-12. The contest as a whole is actually international—it extends beyond schools in the 50 states to participating Department of Defense schools in American Samoa, China, Central America, Puerto Rico, Guam, Korea, and South Asia. Over 500,000 students per year compete at various levels, which culminate in the finals at the University of Maryland (College Park) in June each year. To learn more, please visit nhd.org.
“It was a different experience than anything else in school,” concluded Sabatino on the competition. “For me, it was a great way to teach research skills and put them to use. Doing my project was about as much fun as school can get.”