History (students) in the making

It was such a beautiful railway.

A dapper and articulate Charlie Angleberger used those words to describe the Virginian Railway, which once transported coal through parts of the Commonwealth and West Virginia in the early to mid-1900s.

"It was a thing of beauty, and a thing of coal. Mostly… definitely coal," he said with a nervous giggle. "That was the main commodity it hauled during its 50 years."

Over the past several months, Angleberger, a sixth grader at Blacksburg New School, learned a heap about the trains that once glided on rails "across from a road and a river from my house," he said. He conducted a boxcar's worth of research about the rail system and made a documentary to enter in the annual National History Day District 3 competition, held this year on March 25 at Radford University.

Angleberger had contemplated a number of project topics, but he found inspiration in the railway… and from his pal John.

"This man here, John Cole McGee, provided a stunning role in making it happen," said Angleberger from beneath his beige flatcap while stretching his left arm around McGee, his fellow sixth grader. "Basically, we were walking along the playground discussing a partnership, when I said 'the Virginian Railway!' It occurred to me that’s just perfect."

Standing in the first-floor lobby of Radford's Heth Hall, Angelberger and McGee were moments away from pitching their individual projects to the National History Day judges. The anticipation made McGee anxious. "I'm very nervous," he said as he readied to show his documentary to the judges. "I get stage fright."

The National History Day competition brought more than 115 school children to the Radford campus – that’s up from 74 last year – to present their history research through their choice of documentaries, exhibits, performances, websites or papers. Participating students represented Pulaski High School and Blacksburg New School.

Radford University's Department of History began organizing the District 3 National History Day on campus in 1996. In 2015, Radford’s School of Teacher Education and Leadership (STEL) took responsibility for coordinating the competition.

Behind the theme of "Exploration, Encounter, Exchange," the competitors presented on various topics ranging from Vikings to Andy Warhol; from graffiti to gunpowder; from the expansion of socialism to a night out at the Cotton Club.

Each student competitor was interviewed by a panel of three judges made up of Radford faculty, students, community members, historians, student teachers, graduate students and members of the McConnell Library staff.

"We're looking for the historical accuracy of the projects. We want to make sure they're involved with the theme of encounters, exchanges and explorations," said one judge, Radford University student-teacher Shawn Rose. "We want to know their interest in the topic. We want to know why they picked their topic, and we want to see what they can bring from outside, not just what’s on their poster but their knowledge from their research."

Sculptor Larry Bechtel served as a judge, too. He explained their roles as "looking for students' personal input" into their projects and "how they digested the information they've researched, what conclusions have they come to and how have they analyzed this subject matter."

Projects are judged as superior, excellent, good or needs improvement, said STEL Associate Professor Kristan Morrison. She, along with Ann Mary Roberts, another STEL associate professor, coordinated the District 3 competition at Radford.

Emily Pfeiffer-Russell, a sixth grade history and math teacher at Blacksburg New School, said her students began researching their topics in October. From then until it was time to present, she said, they learn a lot from the National History Day process.

"Not only do they learn how to do research – they spend a lot of time learning how to do research – they also learn organization and time management," she said. "What we ask them to do for National History Day is develop an argument that they're going to support with their research project. That's a real challenge for our students in sixth grade, but in eighth grade they’ve made so much progress."

After the presentations wrapped up, anxious pacing and nail biting shifted to the awards ceremony at Hurlburt Auditorium. College of Education and Human Development Dean Kenna Colley handed out honors for first and second place and honorable mention in each category for junior division (grades 6-8) and senior division (grades 9-12).

Individuals who received first- and second-place honors are invited to participate in the state competition on April 23 in Petersburg. Among those was McGee, who placed second in the Junior/Individual Documentary category for his project about wilderness preservationist John Muir. Angleberger received an honorable mention in the same category.

Students who placed are encouraged take the feedback from the judges and improve their entry and submit to the state competition.

"The feedback is crucial for two reasons," Roberts said. "One, even if kids don't make it to state, they're given opportunities to critically look at their project and learn how to make it better. This process will help them with any other work they do for either their school or National History Day. And second, it teaches them to be better historians."

Apr 1, 2016
Chad Osborne