History beyond the textbook: Research, creativity prove fun

September 2019 Posted in School

Butte Creek students with their project presentation for last year’s Oregon History Day. Courtesy Emily Allen

By Melissa Wagoner

History class can be a lot more fun than just reading from a textbook – according to Emily Allen, the fifth through eighth grade Social Studies instructor at Butte Creek Elementary. It can be exciting, interactive and above all, interesting, especially if it is taught with the help of Oregon History Day, a program developed by the Oregon Historical Society.

“Essentially it’s like a science fair but it’s for history,” Allen explained.

A part of a national program which has been around for decades, according to Allen, Oregon History Day is designed for students in grades six through 12.

Provided with a list of possible topics within the state mandated curriculum for their grade, participating students choose a subject that interests them. Then, either working solo or in groups of three or fewer, they conduct extensive research on their chosen topic over three months, ultimately creating one of five presentation types – a website, a documentary, an original play, an essay or an exhibit – each with its own extensive, Oregon History Day mandated, list of criteria.

“Last year was my first year here and my first year doing it,” Allen said. “It was a blast.”

Although wary about the project initially – “They were petrified,” Allen admitted – nearly all of Allen’s students said the project was the highlight of the year.

“They’re passionate about it,” Allen described. “It really got the kids to take ownership of their work. And seeing them be so proud of themselves in the end – that was actually kind of cool.”

Beyond the in-depth knowledge her students gain about their chosen historical topic, the program also teaches students to meet deadlines, write a complex research paper and conduct in-depth examination of a topic using many different sources – something Allen thinks is especially important for this generation of students.

“Because they are consuming so much more information than past generations and they don’t know how to filter it out and seek real information,” she explained. “We spent time talking about fake news.”

With the school year only just begun, Allen already has the year’s Oregon History Day curriculum in place, preparing to begin after the winter break.

“Last year [the theme] was Triumph and Tragedy, this year is Breaking Barriers,” she said. “We spent about three months working on the project.”

Once the projects were complete, Allen held a community night at Butte Creek, allowing friends
and family to view the final presentations as well as allowing interested students to compete for a spot at the state level.

“I’m excited to see what the kids that went to state pass on to the kids this year,” she said of the six students who attended the competition held at the Oregon Episcopal School in Portland. “We had a really cool website done on the Cambodian genocide – they took fourth place – and a couple of them did the American soldiers’ history and brought in their own family history.”

As well as being excited about making the Oregon History Day program an annual part of her students’ curriculum, she is also hopeful that more Oregon schools will take part.

“I think a district competition would be great,” she suggested.

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