Students took a long, hard look at unpleasant history, seeing their chosen heroes and villains in a different light. In the end, they said, they learned a lot about today’s conflicts and even themselves through projects done for the National History Day competition.
“After a while, it wasn’t about a grade. It was more about you learning about yourself,” said eighth-grader Ariel Escobar, taking a deep breath after showing her exhibit at Creekside Middle School on Saturday. After three months or more of research and work, students showed off their exhibits, papers, documentaries, websites or performances to judges and family members.
For her project, Ariel chose the Freedom Writers, an empowerment program started by a Long Beach high school teacher to reach at-risk students. “I learned that attitude and outlook affect outcomes in life,” Ariel said. She said she liked being able to pick a topic and run with it, but heard kids grousing about the workload. “We were constantly writing,” she said with a shrug.
The push to join National History Day came from Patterson Unified School District Superintendent Phil Alfano, who used it as a teacher years ago. “It’s very Common Core; there’s a lot of critical thinking,” he said between sessions listening to student presentations.
“I saw a lot of growth,” said sixth-grade teacher Lia Phillips-Cisneros. “They can speak of the process they went through. They had to analyze sources, dissect sources, summarize. There are a lot of skills they had to have or acquire to complete their projects.”
Two of her students, Omar Ortega and Isabella Justo, created a website for their project on the Mexican Revolution. The two guided a panel of judges through the timeline and other exhibits, talking about the rights and responsibilities of wealthy landowners and peasants. “It was like dominoes, how they oppressed the lower classes. They took away their rights and responsibilities,” Omar said.
The rights of children during the Industrial Revolution captured the imaginations of Leilani Barradas and Rebecca Magana. “We were like, wow, we complain about homework and they had to work all day long,” Rebecca said.
The national contest lets students select any subject matter, tying it to the theme: Rights and Responsibilities. “It gave students choices and allowed them to learn. It showcased their talents,” said teacher and parent Steve Porras. “They learned to collaborate. Sometimes they encountered a hitch and had to figure a way around it or through it.”
The projects required students to do an annotated bibliography, sorting research into primary and secondary sources. For her project examining gay rights, eighth-grader Aliah Taylor said that part was the toughest.
“There was mostly opinion. It was really hard to find primary sources,” Aliah said. She said she researched both sides of the argument, but found anti-gay hate speech disturbing. “It was really hurtful, not something I would think any human being could say about other people,” she said.
High school junior Heaven Olmos also encountered views she never expected, defending Nazi doctors. “They conducted experiments harming people, but they actually thought they were doing something to help people, by creating a master race,” Heaven said with a shake of her head. Her project, a documentary video, focused on four doctors doing particularly gruesome work, contrasted with medical ethics in the Hippocratic oath.
The Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81 held revelations for Roberto Virgen, a senior. The failure of attempts to free the hostages, he said, “woke up America, made it change its way of thinking. Even a world superpower is not always successful.”
Heaven and Roberto are both students of Patterson High School history teacher Jayne Lobao. She and other Patterson teachers went to a National History Day event last year in Fresno County, sitting in a gym packed with cheering teens and families. “It was like a rally for history. They were so excited about history,” Lobao said.
Patterson youths not only discovered history this year, they also made a little, as the first participants in what judges and organizers said they hope will become a Stanislaus County tradition.
“It’s tremendous,” said Patterson Township Historical Society President Carol Scoles as she scored essays against a rubric. “The kids are enthusiastic. It’s very cool to see.”
“These are excellent. They have things I didn’t know – the kids taught me something,” said fellow judge Vivian Ratliff. “They did their homework.”