Kids Make History Come Alive

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - January 21, 2009

Three years ago, Kent Yamada went to Washington, D.C,, to take part in the National History Day competition. His display board entry told the story of “John Rabe and the Rape of Nanking.”

“Who,” you ask - as I did, “was John Rabe?”

“He was a German businessman and member of the Nazi Party living in Nanking at the time of Japanese invasion of the city,” young Yamada explained. “He established a refugee camp for Chinese, saving tens of thousands of them from being killed.”

Yamada is a senior this year, and he is still taking part in history day. His project this year deals with Sergio Vieira DeMello, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights. DeMello traveled the world in the name of human rights and was killed in 2003 while on a four-month mission to Iraq for the UN.

“Research and analysis, thesis and opinion: that’s the bread and butter of History Day,” says Yamada. The Mililani senior will take those skills, honed through four years of history competitions, into another field: He will enter Columbia University next fall to study engineering.

Yamada is just one example of how seriously Mililani High School takes History Day. Last week this aging historian walked through a cafeteria jammed with display boards on subjects well beyond my ken. “Gunpei Yokoi: the Inventor of Nintendo,” for example, and “The Artistic Legacy of Jean Michael Basquiat.”

Or “Barry Horne’s Actions To Spread Animal Activism” and “Sabri al-Banna: A Legacy of Fighting Against Zionism.” Try “Nikola Tesla: Actions and Legacies.” What actions? What legacies? I’m not telling.

There were familiar topics as well - on presidents Nixon, Roosevelt (Teddy and Franklin) and Reagan. Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. made it onto a couple of display boards, as did feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Filipino heroics were on display as well: Pablo Manalpit, Emilio Aguinaldo and Jose Rizal were all represented.

Duke Kahanamoku, George Helm and Haunani-Kay Trask were among the Hawaiian figures to draw the attention of Mililani historians. So too did popular culture icons Ray Charles, John Lennon and Bob Marley.

Not all of Mililani’s social studies teachers take part in History Day. Currently there are seven, and each year between 600 and 700 students take part. It’s a semester process sponsored by the National Center for the Humanities. Each year there’s a theme; this year it is “action and legacy.” Last year it was “triumph and tragedy.”

Over the past four years, Mililani has become a History Day powerhouse.

“We do well in every category,” says teacher Charlie Buenafe. “We always dominate the Central District and increasingly we dominate the state. Of the 14 who make it to the district, a dozen of them usually come from Mililani.”

Says fellow teacher Amy Perruso: “We work together. The teachers cooperate, and it’s a four-year experience. They start as freshmen and their skills grow at every grade level. Their powers of analysis improve dramatically. It’s exciting to watch.”

And it isn’t all about display boards anymore. Technology rules the nation’s classrooms these days, and History Day includes website, documentary, essay and performance categories as well.

“We took second in display last year,” says Buenafe, “first in documentary.”

Vice principal Jim Peterson takes obvious pride in the school’s accomplishments: “In four years we’ve become the History Day power. Last year we swept the web page competition, and it’s because we have the resources and the commitment.

“It’s the teachers. They’re the giants of our History Day effort. It takes enormous commitment on their part.”

That commitment is best exemplified by teacher Cynthia Tong, running a series of performance videos this History Day at Mililani High School.

Tong is the state’s History Teacher of the Year.

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