A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Constance Alexander: Conflict and compromise come alive on Western Kentucky History Day

For the fourth year in a row, students from elementary, middle, and high schools in Western Kentucky made the past come alive on History Day. The annual event, sponsored by the Kentucky Historical Society, brought approximately seventy-five youngsters to Murray State University’s Crisp Center in Paducah last week, where they competed for opportunities to showcase their history projects at a statewide event in Lexington on April 21, with the possibility of vying for a spot at the national level later this year.

In Paducah, Friday began with student arrivals and check-in, followed by a flurry of exhibit set-up and other last-minute preparations. Everything was set to go by 9:15, with the rest of the busy morning devoted to judges viewing displays, observing, and assessing individual and group projects. Pairs of judges interviewed the creators of each project about the topics they chose, their research, and what they learned along the way.

Coordinator for History Day activities in the Paducah school district, teacher Ashley Adkins has been singing the praises of History Day ever since she attended a training session at the Historical Society in Frankfort during 2010-11 school year.

“I wanted to get involved from the start,” she said.

Making history high profile at the high school level appealed to her, and she also recognized the value in local students connecting with the statewide competition. In addition, she liked the idea of cultivating kids’ awareness of history from an early age, so their interest could develop and deepen as their skills and knowledge mature. As a result, appreciation of history and recognition of its importance are reaching a wider audience among school kids in Paducah.

“We’re building participation,” Ashley Adkins explained. “All the moving parts are in place.”

Donnie Heath, a teacher at North Marshall Middle School, is also determined to pass on the love of history to his students, and History Day is part of that process. He teams up with 20-year teaching veteran, Barry Stevens, to coordinate a junior historical society at their school, and their efforts are paying off.

“Last year we had four or five go on to the state competition,” he said, adding that one of their students actually went to nationals.

Kentucky Historical Society’s Cheryl Caskey coordinates the Kentucky Junior Historical Society and also National History Day in Kentucky. This year she managed the many details associated with contests in Highland Heights, Morehead, Louisville, Cumberland, Richmond, and Paducah.

In spite of the many details and variables associated with securing judges, coordinating schedules, and preparing forms and information packets for everyone involved, Ms. Caskey’s commitment to the process never wavers. “We’ve doubled in size since last year, with seven schools from western Kentucky participating,” she said.

This year the seventy-five kids from western Kentucky competed in five categories – paper, exhibit, performance, documentary, and website – all reflecting this year’s theme, “Conflict and Compromise in History.”

Topics were wide-ranging, including the Battle of Perryville, the Vietnam War, and the history of school violence in America, to name a few. Research is required, with a directive to use both primary and secondary references. Bibliographies are also a must, with an annotation that explains how each source contributed to the development of the project.

Evaluation of each entry, according to Cheryl Caskey, is part of the learning and skill building process of National History Day. Judges work in pairs to evaluate each entry individually, according to specific criteria about historical quality, relation to the theme, and clarity of the presentation. Interviews are characterized by thoughtful give-and-take exchange between judges and participants, with the purpose not to cross-examine, but to confirm students’ intent and process.

A final rating of each project is reached through consensus by the judges, and the day is capped with an awards ceremony to announce those ready to go on to the state level. Regardless of a project’s rating, all participants are encouraged to continue improving and refining their topics as they hone their skills.

For more information about History Day, contact Ms. Caskey at cheryl.caskey@ky.gov. More information about the Kentucky Historical Society is online at history.ky.gov.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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