The Past Comes to Life at Vermont History Day

April 12, 2016

On Saturday, April 2nd, I had the pleasure of being part of the judging team for Junior Performance Entries at Vermont History Day, held at U32 High School in Montpelier. The knowledge, hard work, and creativity of these students as they dramatically took on the characters of historical figures were exciting and impressive. As explained on Vermont Historical Society’s web site: “Vermont History Day, affiliated with National History Day, encourages students to study history and share their knowledge through a variety of project choices such as displays, web sites, papers, and performances.  The program is open to Vermont students in grades five through twelve and home study students ages 10 to 18. Working individually or in small groups, students choose a topic related to the National History Day annual theme, which in 2016 is Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History. The topic can relate to Vermont history, US history or world history.”  The Coolidge Foundation awards a cash prize each year.

The Vermont Historical Society’s Victoria Hughes and all who work with her had every step covered for this detail-filled day that involves several hundred students. After receiving instructions and judging packets, teams of volunteer judges from all over the state, proceeded to their assigned rooms. Nellie Bly, Explorer of the World and of Women’s Roles, Emma Renaudette, was waiting in a floor-length dress, complete with bustle and lace collar, for our team of three. She gave each of us her process paper and bibliography (required for all entries) and then began an impassioned dramatization as Nellie Bly, as if interviewing for a job. She told of her work as a reporter and showed us books she had written. Especially dramatic was her work going undercover as an inmate in an asylum to experience and report on the conditions and treatment of the mentally ill, and the changes that resulted. Nellie Bly’s voice strengthened as she gained momentum in telling her story. Yes, she did travel around the world in just 74 days!

Next came Antonio Stradivarius in period costume, Nick Trevits, who set up a workbench and tools in his violin shop. Stradivarius began by beautifully playing his violin, then set it down to tell us details of his life and explain the changes he made in the type of wood, other materials, and construction of his violins. Presenters answer questions from the judges, often having to do with their choice of topic, how it relates to the theme, and decisions and challenges in completing their projects.

Abagail Hunter entered in dance costume. She briskly set up a news booth as she was to play two parts, dancing as Martha Graham, then switching to a reporter (scarf draped around her neck) telling us of Graham’s dance philosoghy and innovations, then back to Ms. Graham dancing. After our post-performance conversation with Abagail ended, we three judges glanced at each other and commented on the power of the performances of these middle school students.

Enter Hannah Poginy and Annika Socia, dressed as rough and tumble young newsboys ready to tell us of  about The Newsboy Strike of 1899. They stayed in character throughout their good-hearted banter as they told of the difficulties of the work, uncertainty of a life that forced them into child labor and how the group’s decisions to buck the powerful newspaper owners resulted in change. Their research was impressive as they cited actual newspaper accounts of the era and pointed out the discrepancies of the musical Newsies.

Sam Coe, Jude Coe, and Aidan Poginy, burst upon the scene in costume and set up their ship outline and put swords and other props in place to create the story of Magellan at Sea. This was another vigorous performance with each actor playing multiple roles. When we asked them afterwards how they worked together on their research and planning, another terrific aspect emerged. It turned out that Magellan at Sea was originally just two actors which proved to be not enough for so many parts. After those two recruited another, they then shared their learning with him. Students teaching students with such a purpose in mind, wonderful! We think the boys must have had a good time with the sword play too.

Gabe Wescott, Bryanna Gloss, Ruth Dailey, and Amber Baptie quickly set up music stands and instruments, props and costumes to be ready for their musical and dramatic performance of How Records, Radio and Television Helped Jazz Encounter More People. The group’s technique of announcing in unison each new stage of technolgy and music was effective in keeping the audience on track of the eras. Gabe narrated us through the development of these changes and all four actors changed costumes and played musical samples of jazz from each era. All of this is under ten minutes, the time limit for each performance!

In our discussions with these young students after each performance, it was apparent that their teachers and parents were essential as mentors in the process of going from ideas to research and then perfomance ideas inspiring more research to enactment. One can only imagine the steps along the way. Scholarship and polished performance does not just happen.

After the final performance, we three judges independently filled out our score sheets which would be used in the final ranking. We wolfed down a quick lunch provided in the cafeteria, then shared our scores, sometimes convincing each other of some aspect not previous considered. ALL our groups had such knowledge, commitment, presence, and heart that went into their research and performances that we spent quite some time arriving at our final ranking.  Judges also list the entries eligible for the many awards given out. (Must receive a Superior or Excellent.)

I’m pleased that it so happens that our “Newsboys”, Hannah Poginy and Annika Socia, from St. Paul’s Catholic School, won the Coolidge Prize! This is a cash prize and a copy each of the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge. Coolidge Intern, Rob Hammer, stayed to present the award. He noted how excited everyone was. There is a lot to be excited about – what a wonderful way to give students the problem solving challenge of investigating and doing history!

–Diane Kemble, Education Director

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