When Dolly Tovar started as an 8th grade history teacher at Richard Edwards Elementary in 2009, she was wholly impressed by the school’s International Baccalaureate Programme and its overall commitment to academic excellence. But there was one thing missing: the school had never entered students into any social sciences competitions on the local, state or national levels.
That soon changed. Not only did Tovar get Edwards students competing in a local history fair in 2010-2011, but she and two of her students went on to qualify for the state competition and then in the 2011-2012 National History Day competition in the junior (6-8 grade) category this past June.
Her students competed against schools from all 50 states at the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest in College Park, Md., just outside of Washington D.C. One of the two Edwards projects that made it to the fair – an exhibit board project called “Nisei Town Chicago: Japanese American Resettlement” – won “Outstanding State Entry,” making it the highest honored junior category project in the entire state of Illinois (see more about the 2012 NHD award winners here).
The road to the nationals started with the Chicago Metro History Fair, an annual fair that brings together the best Chicago-themed history projects from participating schools throughout the city. The fair is part of the Chicago Metro History Education Center (CMHEC).
Housed in the Newberry research library, the CMHEC has inspired students’ interest in history and helped to improve history education in K-12 classrooms in the Chicago area for more than 30 years.
“The first thing I told my colleagues was, ‘we need to get our kids here into this fair as soon as possible,’” Tovar said.
Tovar said it was important for Edwards, a neighborhood school with a predominantly Hispanic student population, to be able to compete with schools like Lenart Regional Gifted Center and Edison Magnet School, which regularly enter student projects in the fair.
“It brings such a high quality standard to our school,” she said. “Having this experience in their academic careers will be looked upon very highly by universities.”
After performing well on the local level, the students moved on to the Illinois History Fair in Springfield, competing against thousands statewide for a spot in the national fair. Two Edwards projects made the nationals: “Nisei Town Chicago: Japanese American Resettlement” and “Sweet Home Chicago: Japanese American Internment.”
The Outstanding State Entry, “Nisei Town Chicago,” chronicles the internment camps established for second-generation Japanese Americans during World War II and their subsequent move to Chicago. Diana Saucedo was one of four students – along with Daniela Canelo, Monica Fernandez and Zindy Macias – who worked on the award-winning project. Saucedo said it was a documentary on the attack on Pearl Harbor that motivated her and her classmates to approach the topic.
“Lots of people don’t know that Japanese-Americans were interned,” Saucedo said. “And lots of times people forget about that part of our history and how the United States treated its own citizens.”
Saucedo, who is preparing to begin her freshman year at Curie Metro High School, said she and her teammates were holding hands when they were awaiting award announcements, bursting out in screams of elation when they received theirs.
“It was really exciting to learn that all our hard work paid off,” she said. “We were the only students of Hispanic origin there. I was really proud then, and I’m proud to this day.”
Edwards Principal Judith Sauri predicted that following the qualification of two projects for the Illinois History Fair in the 2010-2011 school year Tovar would take some of her students all the way to the nationals the following year.
Sauri sent Tovar’s entire homeroom class (about 30 students) to the state competition in 2010-2011 when only two projects qualified, and she granted Tovar leave to honor an invitation to be a judge for the National History Day competition that same year. Sauri expected that supporting the teacher and her students’ efforts in this way would drive momentum for Edwards’ participation in the history fairs the following year.
“That was an investment. As a principal, you see the bigger picture,” she said. “I saw how much work the students were putting in and how much of a positive impact this was having on the school, so I told her that next year she has to go all the way!”
“I was like, ‘Okay boss, I’ll try my best!’” Tovar laughed. “I wasn’t going to be a naysayer, but I knew teachers who have been doing this for years and have never made it to the nationals.”
Sauri and Tovar both recall the hard work and late nights the students put in to finish the project – and they often convinced teacher and principal to stay at school late and work on weekends to eagerly put their projects together.
“They are junior historians at this point because they’ve put in the work,” Tovar said. “The people [at the fairs] judging them are experts in social sciences, and it justifies the hard work the students put in to get respect from people who love and know history.”
Tovar said that winning accolades at the fairs has sparked a curiosity in some students who didn’t previously see the value in social sciences.
“When my students say, ‘Ms. Tovar, this is boring to me,’ I tell them it’s because nobody has piqued your interest yet,” she said.
Tovar was the one for the job: “Before 8th grade, I didn’t really like history,” Saucedo said. “But the way Ms. Tovar taught it, it made me so interested. Now I’m really excited to learn about history.”