Stuyvesant Moves on to Nationals for National History Day

A high number of Stuyvesant candidates emerged victorious in the city and state level competitions for this year’s National History Day (NHD) on the theme of “Conflict and Compromise.” Two groups will be moving on to the national competition to be held in Maryland on June 10-14, 2018.

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Thirty-four Stuyvesant students attended the National History Day (NHD) state level competition in Cooperstown, NY, on March 22 and 23. Junior Benson Goldman placed second in the individual website category with his project “An Extraordinary Measure: The American Occupation of Japan,” and juniors Claire Liu and Eliza Spinna placed second in the group documentary category with their project “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Combining Political Maneuvering with Grassroots Activism.” Goldman, Spinna, and Liu will be moving on to the national competition, to be held in Maryland this June.

NHD is an annual event in which students compete to report on a piece of history, related to a certain theme, using a medium of their choice. This year's theme was “Conflict and Compromise.” Students either worked independently or under the close guidance of history teacher Mr. Sandler.

A group of Mr. Sandler’s students, juniors Tina Wong, Lois Wu, and Eli Economou, placed first in the Exhibit category at the NYC History Day competition with their project “Engel v. Vitale: The Battle Over School Prayer.” Wong, Wu, and Economou tackled the landmark court case of Engel v. Vitale (1962), which banned school-endorsed prayer in public schools. By the end of the group’s NHD journey in Cooperstown, they had forged a powerful partnership and acquired ample practical experience. “It was a lot of fun working as a team. We were able to bounce ideas off of one another in order to create a more artistic and creative exhibit board. I am so thankful that everyone involved in NHD, from my group to the teachers to other groups, was so incredibly supportive. NHD is definitely a highlight of my high school career,” Wong said.

Juniors Liu and Spinna, also Mr. Sandler’s students, discussed their motivation and learning process while working on their documentary on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “At first glance, the expansion of civil rights for African Americans is a really broad issue that spans several centuries. But looking more specifically, this act is [...] one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation—or any legislation—in the 1900s,” Spinna said. “It put an end to legal segregation in the South and allocated funds for the desegregation of schools. It was a huge deal for southern African Americans, and it changed how our country views and interacts with the issue of race.”

In researching the political activism and context surrounding the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Liu and Spinna conducted a variety of interviews. “With a project as nuanced as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are many voices that need to be included in order to show all sides of the bill,” Liu said. Their interviews covered prominent figures such as Mississippi Freedom Summer activist Mark Levy, CUNY law professor Frank Deale, and New York Times writer Clay Risen, who is the author of “The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act.” Liu and Spinna also reached out to Joseph Catalano, former Special Assistant and top domestic aide of President Lyndon B. Johnson, in hopes of securing an interview with him.

According to Liu and Spinna, Mr. Sandler was incredibly helpful as a mentor as they worked on their project. “Our project went through the several iterations, and for each one he provided really helpful feedback. He was so committed to helping our project be the best it can be, and I'm so grateful for that,” Spinna said. On top of that, “he got us in contact with Mark Levy, one of our interviewees who provided insight and a unique perspective on being a white activist during the time,” Liu said.

Liu, Spinna, and other Stuyvesant participants enjoyed a school-sponsored overnight trip to Cooperstown, where the state competition was held. After they came back to New York City from Cooperstown, Liu and Spinna reflected on their experience with NHD. “In terms of history, it was very cool to learn about the grassroots activism that took place in the passage of the act. Usually, we associate the ‘60s with MLK, Malcolm X, JFK, and LBJ. However, this project taught us that SNCC activists and senators like Humphrey and Dirksen were all vital to the passage of the act,” Liu said. Shifting focus to the technical skills required for their project, Spinna said, “I learned how to do research and conduct interviews. I also learned how to create a documentary in terms of the video production necessary to create a cohesive 10-minute video. It's very time-consuming, but video production is an important skill.”

Looking forward to the national competition in June, Liu and Spinna are busy contacting other scholars and activists involved with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and conducting further research to refine their project. In the meantime, they have submitted their documentary to another NHD-affiliated competition that aims to promote NHD projects that center on black history. “There will be a showcase of all the submissions that are chosen at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing [those projects],” Liu said.

The NHD competitions this year were a big win for Stuyvesant’s history department. It hopes to raise more interest in history in a school primarily focused on STEM, and allow for interaction amongst people who genuinely enjoy history. “[It’ll] bring inspiration,” Goldman said. “People can explore new topics and learn from each other’s topics.”