Jillian Lopes knew she wanted to research the Holocaust for this year’s History Day competition, but the subject was far too broad.
So she whittled it down until she was focused on Irena Sendler, a non-Jewish Polish woman who worked to save children during the Holocaust and whose life later became the subject of a play called “Life in a Jar.”
“I was never so intrigued by something,” said Lopes, an eighth-grader at Joplin South Middle School.
More than 160 entries were on display Friday in this year’s regional History Day competition at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. Students from Joplin public and private schools, Neosho public and private schools, Carthage, Seneca and Wheaton participated.
The theme of this year’s contest was “Rights and Responsibilities in History.” Students presented their research on a selected topic in world, American or local history in the form of a written paper, exhibit, performance, documentary or website.
Using templates modeled after previous winners’ websites, Lopes built a website about Sendler’s life, drawing from more than 100 sources. She said she started researching her topic at the beginning of the school year and, more recently, was working on her project daily, forgoing time spent with friends.
“I thought all that work did pay off,” she said after emerging from the judges’ room.
South Middle School eighth-grader Becca Brown wrote a research paper on the case of Nancy Cruzan, a Southwest Missouri woman who was left in a vegetative state after a 1983 car accident. Opposition to Cruzan’s parents’ wish to take the woman off life support led to a lengthy legal battle that ultimately wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I really liked that it was local,” Brown said of the case. “I knew that I could easily prove what the rights and responsibilities were in this topic.”
Brown said she had butterflies in her stomach when she entered the room in which she was to be judged. But as the judges began to ask their questions, her answers came easily, she said.
“The research is definitely hard; you have to be committed,” she said. “But in the end, right now, I feel like everything was worth it.”
Austin White, a South Middle School eighth-grader, built a website about the Haun’s Mill Massacre, the killing of more than a dozen Mormons by the Missouri state militia in a community near Liberty in 1838. He said he even visited the Haun’s Mill historical site last fall to get a better sense of the topic.
“It was a sight to see,” he said. “You could literally imagine how they fled and how scary it would have been to see them riding up.”
White said the judging went well, partly because he felt that he knew his subject so thoroughly.
“I absolutely love History Day,” he said. “It is literally the center of my life right now. I really believe I could teach a class right now on my topic.”
North Middle School seventh-grader Grace Nielson gave an individual performance about the rights and responsibilities of foster care, highlighting children’s right to have a family and parents’ responsibility to take care of their children. Her props included a baby doll that she has had since she was 8 months old and a portrait of her great-great-grandparents.
“I thought with a performance, you could really show the emotion of children who go through the (foster care) process,” she said.
Competing against her was Phoebe Watson, also a seventh-grader at North. Watson gave a performance about children’s labor rights, but she said what she learned in participating in History Day wasn’t restricted to her topic.
“You get to learn about a specific topic and also gain information about everything around you, whether you’re watching someone else’s performance or looking at someone else’s board,” she said.
In fact, that’s the best reason to be part of the competition, the girls said.
“No matter if you win or lose, you’re gaining knowledge,” Nielson said.
Added Watson: “And that’s basically winning.”
Winners from Friday’s regional contest have the opportunity to compete in National History Day in Missouri on April 26 at the University of Missouri in Columbia. Winners from the state competition could be eligible for the national contest in June at College Park, Md.