Emma Hansen was surprised to learn that there are young people in Russia today who admire Joseph Stalin, who ruled the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years with an iron fist.
Hansen, a 15-year-old 10th-grader from Patterson High School, discovered that young people in Russia admire the World War II era dictator because he turned his country into a global superpower.
“He also ruled by terror and was responsible for a lot of deaths,” said Hansen, who was one of a few hundred students competing Saturday in the History Day event in Patterson. “He could’ve done all those good things he did without hurting so many people.”
That was the purpose of this weekend’s competition – to immerse students in history and give them an opportunity to study subjects they wouldn’t typically encounter in their regular curriculum.
“They take a minute to relive history,” said Samia Merza-Fillpot of the Patterson Joint Unified School District. She is the local competition’s coordinator.
Hansen said she always has been interested in World War II era historical figures, and Stalin stood out to her as someone she knew very little about. Not anymore. Like other students at the competition, she conducted extensive research and created a display board with important details about her subject.
But creating a display board is just one of the categories available for students. They also could create a documentary, an exhibit, a historical paper, a re-enactment performance or a website. Or a combination of those categories.
Merza-Fillpot said the students have to be accurate in their portrayals of historical figures and events. The students are encouraged to thoroughly research their subjects, or it can cost them points in the competition.
“They have to be really careful with their words,” Merza-Fillpot said. “They have to be very concise.”
Being accurate, citing sources and creating a concise demonstration is the result of thorough research, a skill the students will need when they move on to college. That’s the other benefit of History Day, Merza-Fillpot says: helping prepare students for college.
This is the second year Stanislaus County students have participated in National History Day. The competition started with about 5,000 students this year, which was narrowed to a few hundred competing Saturday at Creekside Middle School.
The competition is open to any students in the county from fourth through 12th grades. Two overall winners from Saturday’s event will move on to the statewide History Day competition in Riverside County later this month.
This year’s theme for the competition is “Leadership and Legacy in History.” As long as the students stick with that theme, they can pick any aspect of history throughout the world. This year’s competitor topic choices included Cesar Chavez, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Anne Frank and the space race.
Volunteers, including Newman Mayor Ed Katen and Patterson Mayor Luis Molina, worked as judges at Saturday’s competition. “I was really impressed by the kids and their knowledge of the subjects,” Katen said.
The event also included live performances by professional actors portraying Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.
Hakili Smith, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Creekside Middle School, chose to compete in the re-enactment performance category Saturday. He wanted to display his acting skills by portraying Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
Incarcerated, King wrote the letter in response to a public statement of concern and caution by eight white religious leaders of the South. It stands as a classic document of the civil rights movement.
Smith, the Creekside middle schooler, found the civil rights leader showed a lot of strength, even after he was shoved into a jail cell and warned that his acts of civil disobedience were unwise.
“Usually people will break down in that situation,” Smith said after his performance. “It takes a lot of courage to sit down and write down a letter. And those were some powerful words.”
Aheli Patel, 9, and Kiana Kim, 10, found inspiration in their subject, Malala Yousafzai. They created a display board on the schoolgirl who lived under Taliban rule in northwest Pakistan.
Yousafzai wrote an anonymous diary about her desire to remain in education and for girls to have the chance to be educated. Shot in the head by the militants, she survived to become, at 17, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Patel, a fourth-grader at University Charter School in Modesto, said she recognizes it would have been very difficult for her to live the life Yousafzai has lived. But she said she discovered a lot of courage in Yousafzai’s story.
“We both learned that age and circumstances do not matter,” Patel told the judges. “But what does matter is a very powerful vision and a strong voice.”
Patel and Kim chose Yousafzai as their subject because she represents a peaceful effort to provide education to students throughout the world. They displayed a photo of Yousafzai reading a book while recuperating at a hospital from her shooting injuries.
“You have to speak up for what’s right,” said Kim, a fifth-grader at University Charter School. “Malala doesn’t quit.”