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David Skorut grew up hearing his parents talk about the Polish Solidarity Movement, which led to the demise of communism in Poland.
"I was always kind of interested in it," Skorut said, whose parents moved to the U.S. from Poland. "My parents told me a lot about it, but I wasn't able to go in-depth."
So Skorut, along with two Midvale Middle School classmates, made the topic the basis of their Utah History Fair project and are now among 11 Midvale students who are set to journey to the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest in Maryland from June 12-16. The school is sending more students to the national competition than any other school in the state this year, said Utah History Fair Director Nicholas Demas.
"It's a pretty big accomplishment," Demas said. This year, 67 Utah students snagged spots for the national competition for grades six through 12, by taking first or second place at the state level. About 4,100 students statewide took part this year at the school level.
To participate, students worked in groups or as individuals to create projects in keeping with this year's theme, "Debate and Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures and Consequences." Students created websites, performances, documentaries or exhibits, or wrote papers on topics of their choosing.
Skorut, and his group companions, eighth-graders Jackie Larsen and Sam Bemis, for example, created a nearly 10-minute-long documentary on the Polish Solidarity movement. They researched the movement in books and online. They looked at photos, and, perhaps most significantly, they interviewed some of Skorut's older relatives who lived in Poland at the time and were eyewitnesses to the movement's progression.
As part of the contest, students are encouraged to use multiple primary and secondary sources.
"It's not just grabbing the Encyclopedia Britannica and grabbing a section," Demas said. "Students are conducting their own research, coming to their own conclusions."
Other Midvale winners also relied on primary sources. Five ninth-graders who created a website about so-called Ping-Pong Diplomacy in China Leki Mahe, Katie Farrell, Spencer Day, C.J. Hellige and Emma Buckley interviewed Connie Sweeris, who played ping-pong in China in 1971. The trip was a precursor to the re-establishment of actual diplomatic relations between China and the U.S.
"It helps you get a real firsthand account instead of just reading facts," Farrell said of interviewing primary sources. "They were there. They actually know how it was."
And eighth-grader Nicholas Cockrell interviewed a family friend who was held at a Japanese internment camp near Delta during World War II for a documentary.
Cockrell said he learned more about the experience by talking with his family friend than he could have otherwise gleaned.
"Talking to my friend, it was just amazing to hear how he felt," Cockrell said. "He and his family were just devastated."
Eighth-grader Grant Amman also did his award-winning project, a website, on the executive order that led to the Japanese American internment camps. Eighth-grader Brandon Cui did his project, a paper, on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the 1939 agreement later broken in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to nonaggression.
Many of the Midvale students have been hard at work on their projects throughout the school year, and some are trying to raise money to help their parents pay to send them to the national event. The students largely credit their teacher, Courtney Hansen, for their success.
"She was really involved and made sure everyone was on the same page," Hellige said.
Hansen was named this year's Utah History Fair teacher of the year, and this is the fourth year she has sent students to the national competition.
Hansen, a former journalist, said it's important to her to instill in her students the importance of telling more than just one side of a story. She said she wants to make sure her students understand how to do research and how to interpret and analyze documents, not to just rely on Wikipedia. She requires all her eighth-grade students to do the history projects.
"Really, I just want them to be able to look at history critically and be objective when they're looking at history," Hansen said. "I want them to be really excited about history, and I think being objective and being able to see the different sides actually brings out the excitement in history, that there's not just one point of view."
See the projects
To view the documentary, "Debating Democracy: Poland's Solidarity Movement" created by Midvale Middle School eighth-graders David Skorut, Jackie Larsen and Sam Bemis, visit vimeo.com/23085459.
To view eighth-grader Nicholas Cockrell's documentary, "The Debate of the Japanese American Internment of WWII" visit nicholaschistoryfair.wikispaces.com.