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History Day Diary From an Outstanding Educator

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As the 2012 Louisiana History Day contests near, I have been reflecting on the growth of students who participated last year.  Some of them I have worked with again this year.  Some have moved on to college.  One story that I keep coming back to is the story of a group of girls from Southwood High School in Shreveport, LA led by Summer McCall, an inspiring educator who came through the Minnnesota History Day program.  The excitement, insight, and mood of these students made last year’s contest season a rewarding one for all of us at the Museum.  Summer shared her experience at Southwood High School with me and has given permission to share it on the Blog.

For most teachers, the New Year begins in August, but for History Day teachers it begins in June when the theme for that year is released.   The school year of 2010-2011 was particularly poignant for me for a number of reasons.  First and foremost, I decided to introduce History Day to Southwood High School in Shreveport. The following is a diary, of sorts, which chronicles my History Day experiences-both personal and professional-for one year, 2010-2011.

 June/July/August:  School is on hiatus and so am I until the National History Day organization releases the new theme for this year’s contest, “Debate and Diplomacy.” I have to double check the definition of “diplomacy” and immediately wonder if it also has to be debatable. I also worry the kids will take the theme “debate” too literally.

School starts. I sell History Day as the Social Studies Fair, but kicked up a notch. Before I go too far in my recruitment I have to get to know my students better and show them what kind of teacher I am. (Note: I am strong disciplinarian with a lot of love for History and my students!)

I need music for my opening credit:  I’m thinking the theme from Rocky, but it might be too cliché.

 September:  I call the History Day coordinator, Nathan Huegen, and tell him I’m interested in joining the contest this year. He sends me some information and offers any help I need. I continue to sell History Day, but decide to call it “History Club.”

 October:  I borrow a slogan from Minnesota History Day (my alma mater) and paste flyers all over the school asking (ahem, begging) the students to join History Club and “Take a Bite out of Time.” I realize this slogan is a bit cheesy, but the kids seem to embrace my inner nerd.  In the classroom, I tell my students they will travel with this program, minimally to New Orleans and hopefully to Washington D.C. Many of my kids have never left Shreveport and I know travel will appeal to them. Shameless tactic? Maybe. Does it work? Absolutely!

Over 40 students attend the first meeting.

I find out I am pregnant and due in June…during the History Day National Contest.

The Rocky theme song is on repeat in my car.

 November:  I inform the students that History Day is work … a lot of work. They will eat, sleep and dream about their projects by the time we start competing in March.

Fifteen  students remain in the History Day Club. I am not upset by the dwindling number of participating students: It actually is a relief to me, introducing History Day to the school is overwhelming enough. As a teacher, I guide the students towards their research, but there is a lot of direction and coordination that goes on between librarians, parents, principals and everyone in between.

I give the kids a deadline until Christmas Break to choose a topic for the theme “Debate and Diplomacy.” As expected, the kids have a difficult time understanding the theme and gravitate towards topics like the atomic bomb and abortion. Nathan, the state History Day Coordinator, sets up a presentation for my students to discuss and elucidate the theme and rules. It definitely helps and the kids and I start looking at History textbooks for ideas.

We decide to sell “Gobble Grams” at lunch to raise money for our inevitable trip to New Orleans! The Grams consist of a tootsie pop and a personal message that students and teachers can send to one another. They sell for a quarter and we make over $200, but I know our fundraising is going to have to be kicked up a notch.

 December: The kids choose their topics. One group wants to do abortion and talk about why it is bad. How do I navigate this one?  I guide them toward a more historical view of the topic and introduce them to the writings of Margaret Sanger and the debates surrounding the women of the 1920s. Another group decides they like jazz. We investigate a Louisiana History book and discover that the place where Louis Armstrong started playing music was called Storyville, a place where racial, gender and class issues boiled.  A couple of other individuals want to study the Holocaust (a fascinating, but popular topic among my students) so I help them focus on propaganda during World War II and the Japanese internment camps in the southwest United States. Finally, a student says she wants to study children, so we center her research on child labor laws during the Progressive Era. Whew!

I ask them to visit a library in town, over Christmas break, and collect five secondary sources.

 January: The bad news is that the Margaret Sanger group catches a bad case of senioritis and appear to be AWOL. The good news is that most of the groups found something on their topics, which in turn gets them more excited about their projects. Two students want to complete a website, while the others choose the exhibit category. I feel like we are on a roll, but we need more sources! I try to steer the kids towards the primary sources used by our secondary sources and it works! Soon they are investigating the Library of Congress and looking up original New York Times articles. Google is temporarily retired.

My husband deploys to Afghanistan and I’m pregnant, so I decide to spend most of my free time on the weekends in the downtown library with my students! My intentions are met with a mix of trepidation, mild enthusiasm and eye-rolling. We begin bi-weekly meetings, once in the classroom to discuss research and once in the library.

Then the “Great Basketball T-shirt Disaster” hits. The boy’s basketball coach offers us the opportunity to sell his t-shirts before the games and keep 100% of the proceeds. Three months later, the students and I end up spending our lunches running around the cafeteria coercing people to buy t-shirts for a “good cause.” We make $150, mostly thanks to the Principal who buys t-shirts for the entire marching band. 

February: We begin meeting three times a week to complete all the necessary components of the History Day projects. Many of my students learn how to write an annotated bibliography for the first time while completing a research log for their process paper.

Meanwhile, we learn we will be competing against the two best high schools in the city. Instead of letting this get my students down, many of them gain momentum. The Storyville group’s research takes off as the girls started spending weekend afternoons at the LSU-Shreveport library knee deep in primary sources.  

 March: Regionals! We end up working after school almost five days a week to gear up for the first contest. I am down to five students losing all but one of my seniors to the aforementioned virus. I feel like Mr. Schue from Glee, pumping my kids up to beat the Warblers at Sectionals. Honestly, I’m also nervous to compete against the best schools in the city.

The kids are so excited they arrive before me. We spend the day touring the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum and practicing their interviews. I’m a proud stand-in Mom as we easily squeak by the competition (because they didn’t show up). We are now on our way to New Orleans! I give the students a week off, but tell them they are given an opportunity … to redo their projects and make them better. Cue teenage groans now coupled with thinly veiled smiles.

April: We continue meeting after school five times a week, going through their projects and possible questions they might be asked. I am sitting on my classroom floor with my students (seven months pregnant) when the impossible happens, my students become researchers. I look around the room and all group members have their heads either stuck in a book or a laptop. The Storyville group calls a History professor to ask some questions about their topic and are told they are completing “college level” research. I will never be able to repeat the emotions we all feel after this compliment. The History Club is a ragtag group of kids, many of them not on the route to college: the transformation of these students in one year is nothing short of remarkable.

New Orleans or Bust!  Some of the parents get lost and we end up pasting Storyville’s title on their exhibit in the breakfast room of our hotel, but we pull through and take away wins at the State level. The competition is fierce, but my kids will soon be traveling out of Louisiana for the first time in their lives. I try not to be an overbearing third parent and let them do their interviews by themselves, but I hear my students did very well. The kids and their parents are ecstatic and ready for the next chapter!  Back in Shreveport, the Caddo Parish School Board honors the students for their work and outstanding achievement. At school, more than a hundred students tell me how much they love History (some whisper) and how they would like to join my History Club.

I wish I could climb a set of stairs, and pump my fists in the air, but my pregnancy is catching up with me.  Four days after I return from New Orleans, the doctor puts me on bed rest for the remainder of my third trimester and the school year. I hate to not finish out the competition with my kids, but the baby and my health take priority.

May/June:  I do my best to organize the trip to D.C. for my kids from home, but I leave it in the hands of another History teacher and the state coordinator, Nathan Huegen. Somehow it all comes together and the kids have a great time in Washington. The students had so many good things to say about their experience in the History Day program. They learned invaluable research skills that will carry them into college and beyond.

On May 20th my daughter, Dottie Layne, arrives three weeks early at 5 lbs. 11 oz and 17 inches. She is healthy and perfect.

I decide to take the following year off teaching to focus on my little peanut, but I will be back when the next new year begins … in June, when the day the new History Day theme is released!

Exit music: “Eye of the Tiger” by Survivor.

This post by Southwood High School History Teacher Summer McCall and Louisiana History Day Coordinator Nathan Huegen

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One Response to “History Day Diary From an Outstanding Educator”

Dr. Beverly Anderson says:

This is an absolutely fascinating case study of how one teacher expected success from her students and they delivered.

I grew up in the 7th Ward of New Orleans in the 1950s and have been an educator for my entire adult life. Inspired by my fifth grade teacher, I recently published my research on how my community and school impacted each other. I ended up doing several interviews with my former classmates. I can relate to how these Southwood students lived and breathed their research!

Congratulations, Southwood High School and Summer McCall!

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