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Competition inspires students to explore history through art


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Every year for 50 years, some 500,000 middle and high schoolers from across the country have competed in a contest called National History Day, using arts to portray their research stories.

Jeffrey Brown spent a day with the finalists at the University of Maryland in College Park to see how this year they defined the very timely turning points in history.

The story is part of our new series Art in Action, exploring the intersection of art and democracy, and our ongoing Canvas coverage.


Woman: Welcome to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

Jeffrey Brown: It was history brought alive through performance such as this one titled "Turning the Tide of Hatred: The Killing of Vincent Chin," through documentary films, and with eye-catching exhibits on the widest range of topics, including the birth of Children's Television Workshop, how the Dust Bowl revolutionized agriculture, the Manhattan Project.

Some 3,000 students from around the country presenting work based on research topics that had taken the better part of a year to complete.

Cathy Gorn, Executive Director, National History Day: The most important reason why we teach history and we believe that it is absolutely crucial, as important as STEM education is, is because it helps build quality, thoughtful, engaged citizens.

They want to do something a little bit different. So, they get to be creative and present that information in different ways. And that's part of the fun. And it is fun.

How are you doing?

Student: Pretty good.

Cathy Gorn: Nice to meet you.

Jeffrey Brown: Historian Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day since 1982, has developed the organization into an acclaimed international academic program, integrated into curriculum.

Man: The hat is a different story.

Jeffrey Brown: Throughout the year, students met with advisers and honed their skills, then competed in local and state contests before these national finals, where the competition and energy was most intense,as finalists gathered with their families and practiced their lines, and judges scored the displays, all following in the footsteps of thousands of previous competitors over the past half-century, including alumni such as current National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer Caroline Shaw.

High school sophomores Emma Hua Josephine Calzada, And Chloe Crable from Needham, Massachusetts, produced a documentary on the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study.

Student: Their malicious intent was never revealed to the subject and some were never even told they had syphilis.

Jeffrey Brown: From 1932 to 1972, the U.S. government conducted research on nearly 400 African American men with the disease. The men weren't informed of the nature of the experiment. More than 100 died who could have been saved.

The students found echoes to today.

Josephine Calzada, Student: Tuskegee instilled a lot of distrust in Black Americans and marginalized communities in general of the government. So there is still this idea that vaccines, for example, which there's a lot of concern now, that there are nefarious purposes behind it.

Emma Hua, Student: As we did further research, I think the primary sources we saw were really like a lot of images of doctors' handwriting, doctors' notes, and the correspondence between doctors and officials. It was really, like, eerie and it's really uncomfortable to see. And I think that's something that really shocked us all.

Jeffrey Brown: You know, you're also all growing up at a time of incredible divisions in the country and a lot of people fearing for the future, the future of democracy in this country. And I wonder how this project -- did it offer any special insights into that?

Chloe Crable, Student: Looking at what happened in the past and I guess just applying it to what's happening today to, like, avoid making the same mistakes, I think that's one of the main points of studying history.

Emma Hua: Knowing that us as high school sophomores, as 15-year-olds can just do that and make an impact in people's lives, I think it brings me hope that knowing that, like, everyone can kind of make an impact in the world.

Jeffrey Brown: That's music to the ears of Gorn.

Cathy Gorn: They found out that people can make change. Ordinary people can find triumph out of unspeakable tragedy, that they will look for compromise. And they learn that we're all in this together. And that's what democracy is about. And that's what history teaches. In the process, it's teaching, empathy. And, right now, we need a lot of empathy.

Jeffrey Brown: Thirty-year-old Hayden Washegesic of rural South Haven, Michigan, is part of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

We watched as he performed before a roomful of judges, family, and fellow students "AIM: The Natives Fight Back." It tells of the founding of the American Indian movement in 1968 to address poverty, discrimination, and police brutality against American Indians. An actor from age 5, Hayden sees performing as a tool for conveying history.

Hayden Washegesic, Student: I really feel it can be more powerful because it changes every time. It's that one set show. And with acting, I just -- I can kind of walk around, I can yell, I can change it up based on how I feel it'll fit the room.

And I really feel like just performance gives a way more powerful -- a way of showing that and conveying the message.

Terry Kaldhusdal , Teacher: I remember that character.

Jeffrey Brown: Heather Damario of Alaska and National Teacher Hall of Fame member Terry Kaldhusdal of Wisconsin see those light bulbs go off in their classrooms.

Heather Damario, Teacher: They choose something that is of interest to them and they have to show its connection to other parts economic, social and political causes, impacts and changes, which allows them to learn about other parts of history. They learn about different parts of the world, when they look at of the world.

Terry Kaldhusdal : In history, a lot of times, we say, here's what happened. Now tell me what happened. Excellent. You get an A. That's not doing history.

So these kids are digging for sources. Am I trying to train them to be historians? No, I'm trying to train to be more critical thinkers, deeper thinkers. And this is the tool that not only gets them engaged in history, gets them engaged to be deep readers. These are all skills they're going to be using no matter what path they take in life.

Ken Burns, Documentary Filmmaker: You all represent a kind of front line in all of the work that we're doing.

Jeffrey Brown: Also on hand, filmmaker Ken Burns.

Ken Burns: We are trying to tell a true, honest, complicated past that's unafraid of controversy and tragedy, but equally drawn to those stories and moments that suggest an abiding faith in the human spirit.

Jeffrey Brown: Students eager to learn about the art of filmmaking, peppered them with questions.

Student: How do you figure out what to include and not to include in order to convey a cohesive story?

Student: How do you research when you have to look at what isn't being mentioned and draw conclusions about a time period from that?

Jeffrey Brown: I asked Cathy Gorn, if the study of history can bring us together, why is it so much under attack today?

Cathy Gorn: Why is that happening now? Because we're not teaching enough about how we overcome our issues and our problems. We think that there are solutions that are just so easy and there are single answers to things. And history teaches us that life is complex.

We're helping to create informed citizens, informed patriots, not blind patriots.

Jeffrey Brown: In the end, there were winners in many different categories.

Cathy Gorn: Taking home the silver from St. Paul, Minnesota, Zania Hierlmaier.

Jeffrey Brown: The larger hope, the research and performances and other work shown here will have lasting impacts on these students and the rest of us for years to come.

For the PBS "NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the University of Maryland.

Amna Nawaz: And congratulations to all those winners.

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