Social Studies

Students Reunite With Holocaust Survivor at National History Day Competition

By Jessica Brown — June 18, 2015 5 min read
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College Park, Md.

In a crowded hallway at the University of Maryland, Elly Berkovits Gross, 86, embraced five costumed high school students one by one and thanked them for their work.

Gross is a Holocaust survivor. The students, freshmen at Risco High School in Risco, Missouri, had just finished acting out her life story for a panel of judges at the National History Day competition.

The June 15 performance was less than 10 minutes. But for these students the experience—the months of research and preparation capped off by Gross coming from New York to watch their live performance—will stick with them for life.

“It’s not every day that you can just go meet a Holocaust survivor,” said Whitney Bixler, 14. “I thought it was pretty life-changing. It was pretty cool.”

Their project, “A Survivor’s Tale: The Legacy of Elly Gross” by Whitney and classmates Nathan Burnett, 14; Eric Myers, 14; Mackenzie Myers, 13; and Garrett Young, 14; was just one of hundreds of immersive history projects being judged this week at the National History Day competition. The projects explore the historical impact of events and individuals from Adolph Hitler to Pablo Picasso to animation partners William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Teachers and contest organizers say National History Day is one of the best ways to teach history because it puts students in the driver’s seat.

National History Day, founded in 1974, is a program for students in grades 6-12. Students—either individually or in groups—spend months researching a topic of their choice. They must document their use of primary and secondary sources and create bibliographies. They showcase their research by creating a documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or a website. They then present their project to a panel of judges. The weeklong National History Day competition is preceeded by smaller local and state contests. The winners move on to the national competition which wrapped upThursday, June 18. Nearly 3,000 students competed this week. The winners were announced Thursday.

Founded in 1974, the program has grown from a contest of a few hundred students to an initiative that involves more than a half million students and more than 30,000 teachers, organizers said. This year’s contestants come from all 50 states, Washington D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and international schools in Central America, China, Korea and South Asia. The champions can win scholarships and other prizes.

Rocking Chairs and Wigs

Visiting University of Maryland’s student union building during the competition is a bit like being backstage at a high school event that’s part talent show, part job interview, and part exhibit hall. In the performance wing, a group of girls dressed like Rosie the Riveter, complete with World War II era wigs and makeup, waited nervously to begin their performance. Meanwhile other students shuffled up and down hallways toting armfuls of PVC piping, huge cardboard or wooden backdrops, and furniture to prepare their sets.

In another area, smartly dressed students in skirts and suits took turns explaining their papers to the judges like business professionals making a sales pitch.

Another section of the building was full of tables holding rows upon rows of elaborate project boards. Some even had lighting and moving parts.

Executive Director Cathy Gorn, who has overseen the program for 33 years, said National History Day is more than just a research project or a contest. It is an experience that helps prepare students for life.

“They go out and act as historians would. They go into archives and museums and do oral history interviews, and all that fun stuff that gets you into the raw ingredients of history,” she said.

“When you study history you learn research skills, thinking skills, writing skills, presentation skills. All those types of skills ... are things they’ll apply no matter what discipline they study, what job they come up with. As citizens and contributors to their community, they will need those skills.”

Gorn has been involved with National History Day for 33 years. Every year brings new favorite projects.

She said several years ago a group’s National History Day documentary on the 1964 “Mississippi Burning” civil rights killings in Philadelphia uncovered new evidence that was used to re-open the case and convict Edgar Ray Killen for the murders.

The program won the National Humanities Medal in 2012 for its impact.

The National History Day program also meshes well with Common Core State Standards, Gorn said. “It really is the same thing,” she said. “You have to learn to look for original sources and look at topics from multiple perspectives.”

Should It Be Mandatory?

Many educators feel that social studies topics, including history, often get pushed to the back burner in favor of math, English, and science. National History Day this year comes amid many changes in the social studies arena. Some states are revamping their social studies standards to include more civics education. Some are requiring students take a citizenship test to graduate. The Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum framework recently underwent a controversial overhaul.

Some schools require all students participate in National History Day, Gorn said. Others don’t offer it at all. Gorn thinks the program works best when it is incorporated right into the curriculum. But some history teachers caution against making it mandatory.

“I think making things like this mandatory, though, kind of pushes kids away,” said Risco history teacher Kelly Patterson, who oversaw the Holocaust group. “It takes the fun aspect away from it for the kids so I just offer bonus points and have a lot more participation than one might think for a small school.”

More Than Just a Grade

For the students, it often ends up being about more than just a grade.

“It has changed my whole perspective on the Holocaust,” said Risco student Nathan Burnett. He said it was eye-opening to learn that many of the victims were children, their age or younger. “I thought it was just a bunch of adults being killed, but it was kids, too.”

The students met Gross last year while visiting the Holocaust Museum during the 2014 National History Day competition. They knew immediately they wanted to use her for their 2015 project. For this group of students, the idea was unfathomable—being ripped from your family at age 15, and being imprisoned and starved.

“There’s no way I would have survived,” said Mackenzie Myers, 13, who portrayed Gross in their performance.

They read a book Gross had authored about her experience, tracked down news articles and other Holocaust documents and interviewed Gross through phone calls and email. For the students, the project became a way of making sure Gross’ legacy continued.

When Gross heard they were putting on a performance about her, she traveled from New York to Maryland to see it.

“Even if I would have to walk, I would have walked here,” she said.

Video and photos by Jessica Brown

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.