National History Day Finalists Advance to National Championships

Several groups from Stuyvesant will advance to the National Championships of the National History Day Competition, albeit with some changes.

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“National History Day—it’s probably the biggest project that anyone in my group will do at Stuyvesant High School,” junior Julian Cunningham said. For the past six years, Stuyvesant has competed in the National History Day (NHD) competition, in which participating students have regarded as one of the most memorable parts of their junior year social studies experience.

In the New York State Division of the NHD state competition, Cunningham and juniors Emily (Mimi) Gilles, Max Kahn, Asif Sattar, and Jonathan Schneiderman placed first in the group performance category for their project “Love and Hope: How Harvey Milk Broke the LGBT Barrier in Politics.” Juniors Sayan Shil, Syed Tajrian, and Yousef Amin placed first in the documentary film category for their project “Thurgood Marshall: Championing Changes by Breaking Racial Barriers.” And junior Gallo Patel placed second in the individual performance category with his project “Breaking Healthcare Barriers: The Social Security Amendments of 1965.” All projects qualified for the national competition, which is the highest and final distinction of the NHD competition.

For many years, social studies teacher Robert Sandler has assigned the NHD project to students in his AP U.S. History classes. The project takes up the entirety of his students’ fall semester and culminates into a school-level competition during finals week in January.

The projects focus on a topic related to a historical theme chosen by the NHD organization each year, with this year’s theme being “Breaking Barriers in History.” Participants are allowed to submit projects of different mediums, such as a video documentary, a physical exhibit (with documents and historically significant items), a historical paper, a dramatic performance, or an interactive website.

The top three submissions in each category from each school qualify for the city championships. From there, the top two submissions from every category advance to the state championships. The first and second place submissions from every category then advance to the national competition. And at the national competition, first, second, and third place awards are presented to the top entries in each category and division. Last year, seniors Hana Kim and Christy Guan won first place at Nationals for their exhibit board on the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the rise of the subsequent skyscraper city.

Hosted by the Museum of the City of New York, high schools across the city participated in the city competition on March 1. Given the growing COVID-19 pandemic, however, the in-person awards ceremony was canceled and live-streamed on March 11 instead. Consequently, the state competition, originally set to take place at The Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York on April 27, was held virtually.

Sandler was disappointed his students were unable to attend the state competition in person. “I’m sad my students didn’t get to experience the state competition at Cooperstown, NY. It’s really exciting to see all the impressive exhibit boards from all over the state, watch the other schools compete in the theatrical performance category, [and] visit the Baseball Hall of Fame,” he said in an e-mail interview. “The long bus ride upstate and back and the walks through the small town Norman Rockwell streets [are] unforgettable and ha[ve] always been a great bonding experience.”

Following the state competition, the week-long national competition was originally planned to take place in mid-June at the University of Maryland, College Park. Traditionally after the national competition, a ceremony is held where monetary prizes, scholarships, and special prizes are awarded. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the national competition will also be conducted virtually.

Due to the competition’s virtual shift, finalists must submit their work through an online portal on which judges will evaluate their projects online rather than in-person, with changes being made accordingly for each category. Despite the differences in submission mediums, every group must still submit an annotated bibliography and process paper, detailing the process of making the project. The judging criteria will remain the same, and results will be announced by early-to-mid-June.

Many non-performance projects, such as websites, documentaries, and papers, were unaffected by the virtual shift. Performance groups, on the other hand, were heavily affected. Participants who were originally going to present a group performance instead submitted a script, which included a breakdown of their performance with stage directions and descriptions of each scene’s goal. Photos of the costumes used in the performance were also submitted to compensate for the lack of physical performance.

The submission process for performances came with some advantages. “In terms of sets, props, and costumes, our group was definitely not the strongest. Being able to do the project virtually has actually given us the opportunity to describe our sets to the judges as we wished it to be,” Cunningham said.

But even with these upsides, Cunningham would have preferred that his group perform in person. “I 100 percent wish that we were able to still be there. Theater is meant to be acted, and we created a small work of theater,” he said.

After every round, participants are given the opportunity to revise their projects. Feedback from the judges allows participants who move on to make tactical changes to further improve their projects. “After every round, the judges […] give you critiques. The main thing to do is to try to look at their critiques and incorporate them,” Cunningham said.

Gillies added, “It’s a whole process; you never really are done with it. We get feedback at every level, and we have to edit based on that feedback.”

Shil, Tajrian, and Amin submitted a group documentary on how Thurgood Marshall’s legal advocacy and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People broke racial barriers throughout the nation. Though the judges suggested pacing and audio changes during the state competition, the group found it difficult to execute those changes. “Some of the advice the judges gave us were changes that we cannot make (it would take years and are too risky to try). So we're really just picking and choosing what legitimate changes we can make,” Shil said in an e-mail interview.

Participating in NHD has enabled students to develop new skills and build character. Working with a New York University Film Professor, Shil, Tajrian, and Amin learned how to integrate music, edit, and write a script. Through experimenting with video software to create their documentary, their use of pan, zoom effects, and narration of Marshall’s life helped them win first place in the documentary film category during the state competition. “We learned that we are definitely capable of destroying competition and winning, even at things we may not focus on for our lives. This has personally given me a huge boost in confidence. Before NHD, I had never even touched a video editor,” Shil said.

Though Patel was surprised to have made it far into the competition with his project, he looks forward to participating in the national competition. “I did not expect to get to Nationals at all, especially given [that the state competition] was conducted virtually. All I could submit was my script, so I'm pretty proud that it could stand by itself against state-wide competition,” Patel said in an e-mail interview.

Cunningham also felt that advancing to Nationals itself was a significant achievement and remarkable experience. “Working with [my groupmates] has been a highlight of my junior year,” he said. “None of us expected that we’d be able to put together something of this scale and take it as far as a national competition. It really taught my groupmates the value of working together and working really hard.”

Given the intensity of Stuyvesant’s academic requirements, NHD became an outlet for students to pursue their personal intellectual endeavors. “It gave us the opportunity to study something that we wouldn’t normally study, which I think is really important. It was so interesting to learn stuff that I never would have learned otherwise,” Gillies said.

Assistant Principal of Social Studies Jennifer Suri noted the capabilities of the students and the rigor of their NHD projects. “What’s really impressive about our students’ performance is that in some schools, an entire elective class is devoted to National History Day, [but] for us, students either did it on their own or as a part of [Sandler’s] AP U.S. History class,” she said in an e-mail interview.

The students are grateful for Sandler’s support throughout the entire process. "I'd like to thank [Sandler] for being so helpful in this project, acting as both a mentor and well-needed critic to push us to surpass our expectations. Without him, [I] doubt our project could have gotten through as it has," Sattar said.

Along with the effort of the students and Sandler, the Stuyvesant faculty helped with the NHD projects. “I would like to thank the amazing librarians and members of my social studies department who helped assess the projects and offered invaluable critiques. [Suri] was […] incredibly helpful and generous with her time,” Sandler said. “I think it’s great [that] even though Stuy is known for being a math [and] science school that we excel in history.”

Overall, NHD has left a lasting impact on students’ interests and their appreciation of history. “To become an expert in a very specific topic and then turn that knowledge into something creative is a unique experience that changed the way I think about history,” Patel said. “Originally, it was just a grade to me, but I feel I've gotten pretty invested in my topic and definitely plan on spending more time learning about healthcare policy.”

Watch Shil, Tajrian, and Amin’s Thurgood Marshall documentary here.