Taylor Barton, a rising senior at Donegal High School, won a second-place award in the National History Day competition last month in College Park, Maryland, for her documentary “Dam! Better Call Clara!” about Clara Barton’s relief response to the 1889 Johnstown flood. Two 2019 Donegal graduates, Ella Warburton and Morgan Creek, also had their National History Day film, “Lonesome Jailhouse Blues,” about the Scottsboro Boys case in 1930s Alabama, shown at a major venue.
The issue of teaching history in schools these days has been referred to as a “minefield.”
Perhaps in having to deal with some sensitive subjects, we can see how that might be the case.
But the impressive accomplishments of these three young women remind us how valuable the subject of history is, how passionate it can make those who research it, and how there’s so much to explore.
Their documentaries, in turn, reach a wider audience, helping to educate us, too.
Barton’s 10-minute film on Clara Barton (no relation), Civil War nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, also caught the eye of famous documentarian Ken Burns. Thus, she’s a recipient of a Next Generation Angels award, created by Burns’ Better Angels Foundation to encourage youthful documentarians.
“Young people are doing incredible work in every space,” Burns wrote in an email to LNP's Mary Ellen Wright. “We’re hoping this further encourages them to focus on historical documentaries as an art form and a key way to further expand civic engagement and conversation.”
Barton will meet Burns in October, when she and the other top winners in the National History Day documentary category head to Washington.
Meanwhile, the documentary by Warburton and Creek, who will both attend Gettysburg College this fall, was screened last month in the Oprah Winfrey Theater of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington.
“It was amazing,” Creek told Wright, seeing their film on a big screen “in a theater that shows real documentaries.”
Sara Frazier, Donegal library media specialist, told LNP: “I give all the credit to the students. They picked their own topics ... and then they run with it.”
Frazier co-teaches the yearlong National History Day class at Donegal with gifted education teacher Susan Heydt.
“Once we get an idea of what they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about, we help guide them,” Frazier said.
They teach the students research techniques and, for those making documentaries, how to use sophisticated film editing software.
Barton, Warburton and Creek combined research, narration, images and video to tell their documentary stories.
Founded in 1974, National History Day is a history education program for middle and high school students with regional, state and national competition levels. According to its website, more than half a million middle and high school students and 30,000 teachers participate annually.
Students can create a documentary, website, performance or exhibit, or write a paper about their topic. This year’s theme was “Triumph and Tragedy.”
Barton, who plans to attend medical school, told LNP she’s especially interested in medical subjects. “Last year ... I made a documentary about the great plague of London of 1665.”
She originally was interested in finding out how the Red Cross dealt with the diseases in Johnstown post- flood, but wound up concentrating on Barton’s work in providing housing, food and other aid.
For Warburton and Creek, the spark for their project came during English class, when their teacher told them about the Scottsboro Boys, a group of African American teens who had been unjustly charged with raping two white women in Alabama in 1931.
Last year, Warburton’s project was about the orphan trains that took homeless and orphaned children from the Eastern U.S. to live with Midwestern families in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
“I’m very passionate about adoption and orphan care,” Warburton said. “And I studied the beginning of the modern-day foster care system.”
“Now I want to run a nonprofit,” she told Wright. “I’m dual majoring in public policy and Spanish.”
Creek told Wright she plans to be an English major at Gettysburg.
“I hope to ... be a publisher or to work for a publishing company, and I would also like to become a teacher. And my biggest goal is to write a book and get that published.”
The students told LNP the research techniques they learned helped them in other subjects.
“It’s the class I didn’t know I needed,” Barton said. “You don’t know how impactful it is until you’ve done it.” (That’s a lesson about the importance of lifelong learning to us all.)
In his question-and-answer with LNP, Burns called National History Day “one of our greatest civic initiatives. It’s smart and fun, and it recognizes that historical awareness is a critical way to think, regardless of what you decide to do for a living.”
We strongly agree, and praise Donegal and other school districts for their participation. And we want to give a shoutout to the educators involved in National History Day and anyone who teaches history to school-age kids: You make a real difference, and history — in the legacy your students create — will show it.