Five Falcons advance to Nationals in History Day competition

May 1, 2014 — by Michelle Leung

Sophomore Jennifer Chen stared unseeingly out the bus window at the long trip ahead of her and ran through her script quickly on April 25.


Sophomore Jennifer Chen stared unseeingly out the bus window at the long trip ahead of her and ran through her script quickly on April 25.

The bus hit a bump. “In 1882 — ” Chen lunged forward to catch her falling papers. “In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.” 

It was a bright Friday morning in Saratoga. Half munching on snacks that history teacher Kim Anzalone had brought for everyone, half singing along to Disney songs, Chen and 11 other students in the two small buses were on their way to Riverside.

It was approximately the eighth annual History Day for the Falcons, and the 12 students traveled to the state competition in a convention center on April 26-27 with librarian and History Day coordinator Kevin Heyman and Anzalone.

It was going to be a long journey.

When the team arrived six long hours later, Chen began to assemble the white framework of her backdrop for her skit, draping the red cloth over its skeleton, retaping fallen objects onto the cloth and all the while murmuring her lines to herself.

She recalled the time she spent working on History Day: a day at Angel Island, days at various other museums, dozens of hours at archives and still more hours researching online. She was the only competitor in the presentation category that the school sent to states as well as the youngest competitor.

Her project this year was more serious than the performance she did about Disney's animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” last year.

"This year, [my project] is more of a political issue," Chen said. "It's more related to myself and my heritage, because I am Chinese, and learning about my ancestors makes [History Day] more meaningful."

Five students made it past the Riverside state competition, to the national competition in Washington, D.C., on June 15-19, beating 30 other teams in each of two categories. Junior Max Chang, who made a website on Miranda rights, and juniors Jasmine Deng, Minda Lee, Michelle Leung and Vivian Roan, who made a group website on the Vietnamese boat people, were state champions and qualified for nationals.

In addition to the national qualifiers, four were state finalists: juniors Nathan Fotedar, Mahir Jethanandani, Neel Kattumadan and Vivek Murthy, who worked together to create a group website about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich.

"It's cool because we got see this really nice convention center and there are no parents," junior Minda Lee said. "We have the buses with the LGSUHSD logo and there's a really strong sense of [the Falcons] as a team."

Although Chen didn’t make it to nationals, she loved going to Riverside.

“I chose to do History Day, since I enjoy researching," Chen said. "It's so fun to travel to different museums, archives — and historical sites to do research and learn about the past. Also, it's amazing to meet professors, authors and experienced people to learn about my topic."

For the History Day competition, students research a topic connected to this year’s theme, Rights and Responsibilities. They then create a website, performance, exhibition or paper; either as an individual or as a group. During the judging process, two to three judges examine a project and interrogate the participants on their process and material.

Although more students had qualified for the states competition, conflicts with the scheduling of the National History Bowl competition, a violin competition and other commitments meant that several students could not participate in the state History Day.

History Day requires as much as 50 hours of research — and at least another 20 hours of work putting together the project. Students unanimously agreed that working on History Day, however, was worth any such difficulties.

History Day gives participants countless new experiences. For example, Roan, a national qualifier who competed in the group website category with a website about the Vietnamese boat people, encountered a microfilm machine for the first time while doing research at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose.

"It was really cool to see the old technology," Roan said. "It's an experience I would never have experienced without History Day."

Chang, another national qualifier who created a website about Miranda rights and competed in the individual website category, liked seeing the connections between different parts of history.

“The greatest thing about History Day is that it forces you to dig deeper and deeper into historical events,” Chang said. “Every event is intricately tied with so many prior events, and it is not until you really take the time to analyze these events in great detail that you realize how related the event is to topics of the past and present.”

Although presenting a project in front of a panel of three judges can be nerve-wracking, Chang felt that his judges were welcoming.

“I was not sure exactly what to expect for the judging round,” Chang said. “[Heyman] told me just prior to my interview that the questions asked differ from judge to judge. But fortunately, the judges were all really inviting and calm, and we shared a few laughs during the interview which really calmed the environment down.”

The trip to Riverside this year included a college campus tour of UC Riverside, which many of the juniors, who will be applying to colleges in just months, particularly appreciated.

Students also visited novelties such as Casey's Cupcakes, which won the Cupcake Wars, and Heroes, in which customers were encouraged to throw peanut shells on the ground.

Students even watched a late night showing of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

“My participation in History Day was unequivocal to any other national competition I've faced,” said Jethanandani, who created a group website about Dmitri Shostakovich. “[Choosing a topic we we're passionate about] really allowed flexibility in exploring history.”

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