By Sarah Burghardt
Sun Focus Newspapers
Columbia Academy students, along with nearly 400 middle school students from around the metro, showcased their capstone social studies projects in the ‘Museum’ of History Day on March 23 at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
Through a partnership between the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society, Minnesota History Day is an interdisciplinary research project competition for students.
Students were free to choose a format for their project, including creating an exhibit, research paper, website, documentary or performance, and a topic under the 2017 theme: “taking a stand in history.” The projects require months of in-depth research, finding a variety of sources and figuring out how to write and present the information in an engaging and concise manner.
The Columbia Academy students agreed, the project was stressful.
Jon Arias and Devani Montes Pliego, both eighth graders at Columbia Academy, said they didn’t really know where to start. The duo originally had started with the idea to research Brown v. the Board of Education, which led them to another landmark case: Mendez v. Westminster. The case challenged the legality of Mexican remedial schools in California after Sylvia Mendez was turned away from a public school for “whites only.” Her father, Gonzalo Mendez then took four Los Angeles-area school districts to court and won a class action lawsuit at the trial and appellate levels of the federal court system. In its ruling, it deemed separate “Mexican schools” for Mexican American students to be unlawful. Eight years later, some of the same arguments were used to win Brown v. Board of Education.
Pliego said it was difficult to get started. “We didn’t know where to start, we didn’t really know anything about it the first two weeks,” Pliego said. She and Arias then attended a Hulabaloo, a History Day-sponsored research open house at a local library or the University of Minnesota, where students are able to receive one-on-one help.
“It really helped us a lot. We asked the librarian and she helped us find primary sources like newspapers from the actual court case,” Pliego said.
With a sigh of relief, Pliego and Arias said all the hard work was worth it in the end.
“At the end, you just feel so great about yourself because you finished a big project that takes months to do,” Arias said.
Pliego nodded in agreement. “And it felt really good when we finally got to regionals.”
Eighth grader Olivia Sarkinen chose a website as her project format for Edith Cavell.
An avid reader, Sarkinen learned about Edith Cavell over the summer when she was reading a book about women heroes of WWI.
“She was a nurse and involved in espionage, so she was very interesting to me,” Sarkinen said.
Sarkinen described herself as a flowery writer, and chose to design a website rather than an exhibit because of the longer word count.
Valerie Barrera, Iona Burton and Tenzin Dolkar, eighth graders, did an exhibit project on Christine de Pizan, an Italian French late medieval author. They focused on Le Livre de la Cite des Dames, or the Book of the City of Ladies, Pizan’s most famous literary work. Pizan is known for supporting the rights of women and female achievement by telling a story of an allegorical city of ladies. In the story, famous females throughout history are used as building blocks in the city structures and also add to Pizan’s argument that women are valued participants in society.
The students were inspired by Pizan’s work. Barrera said she enjoyed researching this topic because it was empowering and gave strength to women at a time when they needed it.
“We believe that she should be more known for what she did and what she changed in society and how men thought,” Barrera said.
Participating in these in-depth research opportunities help middle school students to prepare for high school and college courses in the near future.
“I think this is one of the greatest things that our students do academically during the school year,” Columbia Academy Principal Duane Berkas said. “I’m always so excited to see their final projects but its even more exciting just to see how hard they work.”
Berkas said many students stayed late into the afternoons on school days, and even worked away during the weekends and spring break.
“It’s the whole gamut, it really is rigorous academics, but driven from their own interests,” Berkas said.
The project first began at the school level, then depending on how many students from the school participate, a certain number of students are selected to move onto the regional competition. Determined by a panel of judges, students and their projects then move onto State History Day to be held on April 29 at the University of Minnesota. State winners are then eligible to compete at National History Day in Washington D.C. in June.
Contact Sarah Burghardt at [email protected]