by Tiffany Lee-Youngren

Photo of Sean Stamm First place winner at the History Day nationals, Sean Stamm.

Erik Andersen and Aaron Batt needed a topic for Maple Creek School's annual History Day project, so Erik's mom Sandy set up stacks of books in a circle on her living room floor. A few hours later, the teenagers had narrowed their search to one historical figure, a man whose journey across the Atlantic resulted in the largest migration in history.

Like most of us, Erik and Aaron had been taught that Christopher Columbus was a courageous Spanish explorer who discovered the New World and helped "civilize" America's indigenous peoples. But, after hundreds of hours of research, Aaron and Erik learned the truth: Columbus and his men were responsible for enslaving, torturing and killing more than 12 million American Indians.

"The (number of) Indians killed by Columbus was twice the number (of Jews) killed in the Holocaust," Erik said. "I think it's really wrong that people don't know the whole story."

Learning the "whole story" paid off for Erik, 13, and Aaron, 14. Besides the satisfaction that comes from uncovering the truth, they were also rewarded with cash prizes and a trip to the national finals for History Day in Washington, D.C., June 13-18, where they placed ninth out of more than 70 competitors from across the United States for their group performance.

And Aaron and Erik weren't the only Maple Creek students to receive national attention.

The two-room Maple Creek School, with its blink-and-you'd-miss-it playground in the tangled forest above Blue Lake, had 10 students advance to the state competition in Sacramento in May. Of the 10, four made it to the nationals in Washington, D.C.

That's no small feat for a school with an eligible student body of just 11 children.

Erik and Aaron were accompanied by 12-year-olds Lynsey Serpa and Aurora Odelberg, who placed fourth in Washington, D.C. Also attending nationals were Arcata High's Zevon Odelberg and 12-year-old Sean Stamm from Mattole School, who won first place for his individual project about Route 66 and was interviewed on C-SPAN about his project.

According to the National History Day website, the program is designed to encourage students to investigate history and develop a sense of history as a changing process. The program requires students to read and analyze primary historical sources such as diaries and log books, and interview experts on their historical topic.

After conducting an enormous amount of research, students develop performances, exhibits, research papers or media presentations that incorporate their topic and the annual History Day theme. This year's theme was "Migration in History: People, Culture and Ideas."

Maple Creek teacher Leslie Odelberg, who requires all of her students to participate in the county History Day contest, says there are countless benefits to using History Day as a teaching tool.

"I think History Day is the best vehicle to teach kids research," she said. "I'm a little skeptical about just teaching out of a textbook because I don't know if it makes history come alive."

"Because the kids get into the primary resources, and because they interview people from the time period or experts (on) the time period, they get an inside view that totally brings it to life. They feel like they're involved with these events."

But, Aaron said, finding primary resources and experts for the History Day project can be challenging, especially when the subject of the research is a man who died nearly 500 years ago.

And Aaron and Erik encountered yet another problem after their primary resources were finally located: the information in those resources often conflicted with that from more contemporary books.

"When you really dig into (the research) it's like being a detective," Aaron said. "It's really fun trying to figure out which book is right."

Lynsey and Aurora faced similar obstacles, but their biggest challenge was finding information about the topic of their research itself a period in history most people have never heard of. Their History Day project was titled "All Aboard the Orphan Train!" and focused on a group of trains that traveled from New York to Kansas, stopping along the way to find homes for thousands of orphans.

Aurora said she was especially interested in researching the orphan trains because she was adopted.

"I thought it might be cool to care about other kids who were adopted," she said. "Thousands of orphans wouldn't have made much of their lives if it weren't for the trains."

Humboldt County schools have been participating in the History Day program since 1981, when Humboldt State University history professor Bill Tanner introduced the competition to the area. At the time, Humboldt was the only county in the state to participate in the competition.

Now more than 600,000 students participate in History Day nationwide, with 2,000 of those students going to this year's national competition. And since the contest's inception in Humboldt County, students here have excelled at each stage of competition especially in the performance category.

Performances are 10-minute-long skits complete with props and costumes. Students write the script for their performance and often "liven up" the dialogue by using quotations or anecdotes from primary sources and interviews.

Zevon Odelberg, a 17-year-old former Maple Creek student, is a History Day veteran. Since the eighth grade, Zevon has placed first in the state competition for individual performance every year. This year, he placed sixth in the national competition for his performance about the Irish Potato Famine and the Transcontinental Railroad. Last year his performance about the Spanish Armada was the best in the nation.

Zevon says the success of Humboldt County students at History Day performance competitions can be attributed to the passionate approach they take.

"Southern California performances have more research and they're extremely slick and well rehearsed," Zevon said. "But they're almost android-like in their perfectness. They don't necessarily have an emotional connection.

"The performances that come out of Maple Creek ... take a more human approach. I think (the key to their success) is experience, I think it's the dramatic direction that my mom (Leslie Odelberg) has and I think it's gifted and hard-working kids."

And these hard-working kids appreciate the rewards History Day provides.

"Before History Day, I kind of just dozed off (during history lessons) and thought about other things," Aaron said. "I just didn't think history was that interesting.

"With History Day you realize there was a lot of stuff going on in the past. And it teaches you to be self-motivated. The rewards are just tremendous."

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