FLEMING ISLAND – Orange Park Junior High students Lana Peyton and Carissa Taylor stood just inside the door of the Fleming High School Teacher Training Center Tuesday, dressed in period-correct …
FLEMING ISLAND – Orange Park Junior High students Lana Peyton and Carissa Taylor stood just inside the door of the Fleming High School Teacher Training Center Tuesday, dressed in period-correct frill-trimmed dresses, following their performance piece “Taking a Stand in History - The Grimke Sisters.” The duo acted the parts of the sisters while talking about the lives of the Grimkes and their role as abolitionists.
“I feel like I’m in the 1800’s,” Peyton said as the girls prepared to change back into their normal clothing.
This was the second trip to Clay History Day for the eighth grade students, but their first time doing a performance piece. They both agreed that the semester-long project was worth the work and preparation in the end.
At the center of the whole event was Orange Park Junior High history teacher Cynthia Cheatwood, who has organized Clay History Day since the event’s inception in 2001. Her official title at the event is District Coordinator of Florida History Day, which is part of the National History Day program. Cheatwood buzzed from one room to the next, making sure everything stayed on schedule and went according to plan during the three-hour event.
“History fair is better than science fair, and you can quote me on that,” Cheatwood said. “(History fair) doesn’t confine students to one method of expression. Also history fair requires a lot of research, which they have to both digest and defend.”
Cheatwood is referring to the format of the History Day competition, which allows students in grades 6-12 to pick one of five categories of presentation: documentary film, websites, historical essay, performance or exhibits. Students pick their method, then their topic – then they spend a whole semester getting extremely familiar with their topic so they are prepared for the judges’ questions when it comes time to defend their theses.
“The research is primary source driven; authentic research like this cannot be done with any other project,” Cheatwood said. “These students dig so deeply in the content that they almost breathe it.”
Students are judged, and awards are given to the top performers from each category in both a junior and senior division. Winners will continue to the state level of competition, and the best will continue to nationals in Washington, D.C. It is hard for a student to make it to Washington. Since 2001, Cheatwood said Clay County has sent just one student to nationals.
One student participating at this year’s competition, Grace Episcopal Day School student Grace Ernst, returned to the competition for the second year in a row after making it to state last year as a seventh-grader, hoping to repeat victory and maybe make it further this time around. This year she chose to focus her exhibit on Susan B. Anthony.
“Through (history fair) I’ve learned that there are a lot of different views, and different perceptions of the same event,” Ernst said. “It’s cool to learn about a person and what led up to whatever it was that they did to make history.”
One of Ernst’s favorite vignettes she learned about Anthony was the time when she and 40 other women stormed to the local polls and demanded the right to vote, something that was illegal for women at the time. After voting, Anthony was arrested for her illegal vote.
Women’s rights and civil rights found their way into many of this year’s projects, with National History Day’s theme for 2017 being “Taking a Stand in History.”
In addition to bringing a group of his own students, Coppergate Elementary Social Studies teacher Will Drawdy also waited outside the website judging for his daughter, Coppergate sixth-grader Mona Drawdy, to return from her defense of her project “The Clash and the Politics of Punk.” Drawdy talked with Cheatwood in the hall while waiting for Mona, Cheatwood said “I’m sure I know where she got the idea for this project,” as Drawdy laughed. “She’s definitely raided my record collection a few times,” he said.
Will Drawdy, a punk fan, is also very serious about his history.
“History is unfortunately a neglected subject,” he said. “It is vital to understand your culture and what came before. I encourage students to understand history so that they can be leaders in their generation.”
Finally, Mona made it back from her defense and talked with her dad about how it had gone. The twelve-year-old seemed unflappable, and quickly unbuttoned a collared shirt to reveal a t-shirt of her favorite band, The Clash.
“Punks take a stand against conformity and consumerism,” the younger Drawdy said. “They reject the social norms that a lot of people obsess over. I learned a lot about the society that punk emerged from, specifically the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the time when Margaret Thatcher served as Prime Minister [of Great Britain].”
Every type of leader was represented at the Clay History Day, from Iggy Pop, to Nelson Mandela, Jane Goodall and Ghandi.
Cheatwood noted that all of the judges and teachers who make Clay History Day a success do so as volunteers.
“Teachers don’t get anything extra, but we don’t do this for that reason,” Cheatwood said. “We do it because there is no better way to teach research skills, and because for the students, understanding primary sources from history makes them better citizens, both socially and politically.”