“Breaking Barriers in History”: The Virtual 2020 Oregon History Day Contest

July 21, 2020

By Isa Ruelas

Students across Oregon participated in 2020 Oregon History Day (OHD), held virtually for the first time. Some of these students pictured left to right are: Nora Davis, South Salem High School student, working on an OHD project; Louisa Vu, South Salem High School student, researching an OHD project; Alan Zhou, Sunset High School student; Emily Gerber, Seven Peaks School student, in front of an exhibit titled Painting the Way: The Story of Tyrus Wong.

When Oregon History Day (OHD) students, educators, and staff first started working with the 2020 theme, “Breaking Barriers in History,” we had no idea just how relevant these words would soon become in our own lives.

Oregon History Day, the statewide qualifying contest for the National History Day® contest, is typically a flurry of hundreds of middle and high school students gathering for the one-day event, erecting exhibits and troubleshooting their websites and documentaries while judges receive training during an orientation. Some students dress as historical figures for dramatic presentations and others wear professional attire for interviews. An in-person competition, however, does not lend itself well to physical distancing measures, so for the first time since its inception, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oregon History Day contest moved entirely online.

The Oregon Historical Society facilitates Oregon History Day, which encourages students to nurture their curiosities by researching topics from any time period or place, or by analyzing a historical event that connects to the annual theme. Students present their work in one of five categories — paper, website, exhibit, documentary, or performance — that can be developed independently or in groups of up to five students for all categories (except paper).

Shruthi Ananth, Stoller Middle School, Oregon History Day 2017
Shruthi Ananth, a student from Stoller Middle School, stands next to the exhibit, "Mother Teresa: Serving India’s Poorest of the Poor by Living amongst Them" at Oregon History Day 2017.

With Gov. Brown’s March 2020 statewide stay-at-home order in place, most academic contests and extracurricular activities canceled, and school closures sweeping across Oregon, we realized that if we still wanted to provide our teachers and students the opportunity to formally present their work at a statewide contest that we would need to figure out the logistics of translating an in-person competition to an online format — and quickly. While websites, documentaries, and papers easily made the transition to a virtual platform, performances and exhibits presented unique challenges. With a bit of ingenuity, and collaboration with other state affiliates, exhibits transformed into electronic slide show presentations and performances were submitted as scripts, with costume descriptions taking the place of historical dress.

Lane Shaffer, ACCESS Academy, 2019 National History Day contest
Lane Shaffer, a student from ACCESS Academy, speaks with judges in front of his group exhibit with Sunil Williams (not pictured) and Elianna Leone (not pictured), "Stonewall: The Riots that Started the Gay Revolution," at the 2019 National History Day® contest.

Despite the many hurdles ahead, including the absence of in-person mentorship from teachers, the sequester of in-process projects in closed schools, and limited access to research materials and collections in closed libraries, we were impressed by the unwavering resilience of Oregon History Day students. The annual theme, “Breaking Barriers in History,” could not have been more appropriate for this year, as the students who participated in Oregon History Day did so despite the significant barriers at play.

We relied heavily on cloud-based tools to host projects online and worked with 50 judges to coordinate the virtual judging of over 70 projects produced by 141 students from across the state. Students from the following schools participated:

  • Bend: Bend Senior High School, Seven Peaks School
  • Echo: Echo School
  • Helix: Helix School 
  • Independence: Central High School
  • Portland Metro: ACCESS Academy (Portland), Jesuit High School (Portland), Lake Oswego Senior High School (Lake Oswego), Laurelhurst Elementary (Portland), Lincoln High School (Portland), R.A. Brown Middle School (Hillsboro), St. Mary's Academy (Portland), Stoller Middle School (Beaverton), Sunset High School (Beaverton), and Westview High School (Beaverton)
  • Prineville: Crook County High School
  • Salem: South Salem High School
  • Silver Falls: Butte Creek Elementary School

Judges volunteered an estimated 341 hours of time, offering feedback on individual and group projects and ranking projects in each category. Those ranked first or second had the opportunity to advance to the national contest, and of the qualifying projects, all 31 projects involving 56 students from 13 schools were able to compete at National History Day® between June 14 and June 20, 2020, as its virtual format removed any barriers that cross country travel often placed on Oregon students. We are excited to announce that Oregon students excelled at the National History Day® contest again this year.

For the second year in a row, Portland sophomores Kyler Wang and Alan Zhou placed first in the Senior Group Documentary category at the National History Day® contest for their film, Breaking the Curfew: The Story of Minoru Yasui. Wang and Zhou placed first in the same category at 2019 National History Day® for their documentary, Echo of Falling Water: The Inundation of Celilo Falls, which drew over 3,000 students from across the country. OHS screened Echo of Falling Water at its September 2019 lecture with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, which earned a standing ovation from the 2,500 people in attendance.

Kyler Wang and Alan Zhou receive their first place prize for their Senior Group Documentary at the 2019 National History Day® contest.
Kyler Wang (center left) and Alan Zhou (center right) are pictured here receiving their first place prize at the National History Day® contest for their Senior Group Documentary entitled “Echo of Falling Water: The Inundation of Celilo Falls” in 2019.

Other Oregon students also recognized at National History Day® include Anja Jolin, now a student at St. Mary's Academy in Portland, who won the Outstanding Oregon Senior Entry for her paper, Chipping Away at the Bullet Proof Glass Ceiling: Portland Women Breaking Barriers in Policing. Evelyn Chen, Flora Huang, and Rachel Wang from Stoller Middle School in Beaverton won the Outstanding Oregon Junior Entry award for their Junior Group Documentary, Fighting for Change: The Integration of Women in the Armed Forces.

Rajvir Singh with his individual National History Day® exhibit in 2019.
Rajvir Singh, now a sophomore at Westview High School in Portland, Oregon, presents his individual exhibit, “Drag Queens Against Society” at the 2019 McMenamins History Pub program, “50 Years After Stonewall — Portland’s LGBTQ History.”

Echoing the National History Day® tagline, “It’s not Just a Day, It’s an Experience,” students such as Rajvir Singh, a sophomore at Westview High School in Portland, Oregon, continue to participate in the program long after it’s a classroom project:

I was first exposed to the program through my 8th grade teacher, Ms. Sander, who ignited the history flame inside me. Our entire 8th grade class did OHD together and when I was able to cheer on and support my classmates through our collective journey, it was one of the best feelings.

Amy Amato, a freshman at South Salem High School, had this to say about her teacher, Michelle Forbes:

Since we chose a performance, our project was a little different from most of the others, and from the beginning, she was always encouraging us on this route, letting us bring weird costumes to class every day and helping us find moments to include historical detail in our script. She found us some wonderful primary sources from her personal teaching collection that were very valuable in helping us shape the overall personalities of our characters. We weren't originally planning to enter Oregon History Day, but she gave us so much support and encouragement that we decided to, and I'm so glad we did!

Amy Amato works on her 2020 Oregon History Day project.
Amy Amato, a student from South Salem High School, works on her 2020 Oregon History Day project from home.

Although Oregon and National History Day® 2020 did not go as initially planned, through the program, Oregon History Day students develop life-long knowledge and skills that will continue to benefit them long after the health crisis has ended. As a way to support students’ ongoing learning during the pandemic and through the summer, National History Day® is for the first time allowing students to begin work on their 2021 projects right now! The 2021 theme is Communication in History: The Key to Understanding. Please contact Kristen Pilgrim at kristen.pilgrim@ohs.org if you may be interested in helping your students participate in Oregon History Day in 2021.

Categories: Staff ReflectionsAudience(s): Educators and Students

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