Birchwood students head to Maryland for history competition

Next month, an eclectic group of students from Birchwood School will attempt to make history at an event that celebrates the same diversity the West Park private independent school embodies.
The National History Day contest, set for June 12-16 at the University of Maryland campus, invites 3,000 middle- and high-school students from the United States, Guam and American Samoa, as well as international schools in China, Korea, South Asia and Central America. Birchwood will happily add itself to the mix, considering 60 percent of school enrollment is comprised of children of immigrants hailing from Europe, Asia, Africa and points beyond.
Birchwood's young competitors will present the same projects that pushed them through local and regional contests. Ten seventh- and eight-graders - Jocelyn Chin, Steven Sun, Jake Wei, Sophia Vlastaris, Alia Baig, Nadia Ibrahim, Channin McNaughton, Jane Nilson, Isabella Issa, and Aasma Cozart - advanced to the nationals following a state competition held at Ohio Wesleyan University on April 30.
At the national event, students will present research based on the theme of "Exploration, Encounter and Exchange in History" in the form of a documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website.
Jane Nilson took first place at the state program for a paper on Cleveland's Hough riots. The highlight of Jane's research on this contentious event, which was characterized by vandalism, looting and arson, was a two-hour interview with a National Guardsman on the scene during the violence. As excited as Jane is to show her work to an international audience, it's the info-gathering that truly turns her dials.
"I didn't know much about Cleveland history before writing the paper," she says. "I'm a highly competitive person, but it's really about the research."
Alia Baig and Jocelyn Chin designed a website that explores the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, a process that taught the duo just how unprepared the U.S. was for such a large-scale disaster.
Honing one's stage presence is also part of the proceedings, students say. Channin McNaughton and Aasma Cozart learned this during several performances on labor organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones. Though Channin was initially nervous about "yelling" at audience members as part of the presentation, sheer repetition diminished any jitters she may have had.
"We have to put our all into this project," Channin says. "If you do that you deserve a chance to win."
Isabella Issa, Sophia Vlastaris and Nadia Ibrahim acted out the story behind Title IX, a statute prohibiting gender discrimination at publicly funded educational institutions. Isabella is looking forward to the larger stage, particularly after the hundreds of hours she and her partners have put into their presentation.
"You can pull an all-nighter preparing, so when your name and state is called, that's what makes the long nights worth it," she says.
Nadia's purpose, meanwhile, is informed by Birchwood's stated mantra of personal fulfillment going hand-in-hand with hard work and social participation.
"It helps to know you've worked this hard and made it this far," she says.
Steven Sun, who with Jake Wei put together a documentary on neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing, didn't exactly relish the project's heavy-duty research portion. However, he appreciates how the long stretch of work over the year has prepared him for the next level of his education.
"There are high-schoolers not doing what we're doing," Steven says.
Social studies teacher Connie Miller, a staff organizer for the contest, encouraged students to choose events and people that had major impacts on the world around them.
"This (program) ticks off boxes of what we're doing at Birchwood," says Miller. "Students are not just reporting history, but analyzing events that changed history."
Being a normal group of teenagers, the collective Birchwood crew is thrilled to take a trip that includes a tour of nearby Washington, D.C. They also expect to join the long-standing National History Day tradition of exchanging state-centric buttons with their fellow competitors.
Ultimately, school officials want their charges to have fun while taking part in a globally recognized contest that will build both their studying and social skills.
"We're very proud of our students," Miller says. "They've proven they can keep up with writing and revising over and over. That says a lot about Birchwood." 

Further reading: Diversity, curriculum set West Park's Birchwood School apart

This story was made possible by a partnership with the Birchwood School.

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
Signup for Email Alerts