“A Farm Team for the History Channel”: Griswold High School and National History Day

September 29, 2020

By Kristen Pilgrim

Students from Griswold High School (Helix, Oregon) pose for a photograph outside Oregon Episcopal School in Portland, Oregon, at the April 27, 2019, Oregon History Day competition. From left to right are: Bryce Fairchild, Eli Sprenger, Logan Davis, Kyleen Stahancyk, Kyla Harper, Alexis Leake, and Kaylee Cope. Stahancyk, Harper, Leake, and Cope all advanced to the National History Day contest that year.

Welcome to Helix, population 184, in rural northeastern Oregon, where approximately fifty students attend Griswold High School (GHS). Oregonian columnist Jeff Mapes once dubbed tiny GHS, “a farm team for the History Channel” (Oregonian, May 4, 2013). Meet Lorin Kubishta, the teacher responsible for this claim to fame. Kubishta teaches business and social sciences at GHS and is the teacher extraordinaire who, for twenty years, has coached his students on how to create some of the best history documentaries in the country. Kubishta is also Oregon’s 2014 winner of the prestigious Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year award bestowed by National History Day (NHD), in recognition of his superior work. I had the pleasure of interviewing Kubishta in August 2020 about his two decades of experience teaching students through NHD. His insights and experience serve as an inspiration for teachers and students who are interested in becoming involved in this program.

Kubishta’s involvement with NHD all began when he received a flyer from the Umatilla County Historical Society at the beginning of the 2000–2001 school year. He wanted a curriculum that would spark engagement and excitement about learning history for all of his students. Further, he had an exceptionally advanced group of learners that year, and he felt that this curriculum would appropriately challenge them, too. After year one, Kubishta, his students, and Helix were hooked on NHD. Twenty years later, GHS students are still producing award-winning history documentaries.

Lorin Kubishta, teacher at Helix High School. Photo courtesy of Lorin Kubishta
Lorin Kubishta, a business and social sciences teacher at Griswold High School in Helix, Oregon, has had his students participate in National History Day for twenty years. He’s pictured here at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

National History Day Curriculum

National History Day (NHD) is an educational nonprofit dedicated to improving the learning and teaching of history for students and teachers in grades 6–12. Every state offers NHD, and 600,000 students and 30,000 teachers across the nation participate each year. Oregon History Day (OHD) is the Oregon branch of NHD and is managed by the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) in Portland. OHS education staff provide teacher and student training, run the state contest, and facilitate Oregon students’ participation in the national contest.

The OHD curriculum, project categories, project evaluations, and contests follow the same rules and guidelines as the national program. All Oregon students — public, private, or homeschool — are welcome to participate in OHD.

Gavin Newtson, National History Day Outstanding State Project award, 2018. Photo courtesy of Lorin Kubishta
Griswold High School student Gavin Newtson won the Oregon History Day “Outstanding State Project” award in 2018.

History Day students spend anywhere from a half-year to a full-year conducting research on a topic of their choosing in relation to an annual theme. This year’s theme is “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding.” It's important for students to find a topic they care about as they will dive into it for months, and as Kubishta noted in our interview, teachers should encourage students to follow their interests — everything is connected to history — and that “there is no substitute for good research!” Facts matter in history, and teachers play an important role in helping students find credible and accurate sources. State and federal libraries, archives, museums, and cultural sites offer top-notch resources online and in-person. As students conduct their research, they comb through historic newspapers, scrutinize posters and photographs from the time period, and consider historians’ interpretations of their topic or event.

Students analyze and synthesize their research into an historical argument, which they develop into one of five categories: paper, documentary, website, performance, or exhibit. They may work individually or in groups of two to five peers in all categories except for paper, which is individual only. The NHD curriculum offers teachers a lot of flexibility. Teachers may limit students’ topics to areas they want to cover in their class, such as ethnic studies, Oregon Tribes, or global history. Teachers may support students’ work in all five project categories (paper, website, exhibit, documentary, and website) or in fewer categories. Kubishta began his career teaching business education and computer applications and therefore specializes solely in documentaries.

I have always been fascinated with the popularity and power of film; what high school kid doesn’t love movies? By focusing on creating documentaries, I can integrate numerous lessons on technology while students are learning about history; it’s just a great natural fit for me. There is a lot of technical knowledge that goes into creating a documentary, from video editing, to voice-overs, to mixing a soundtrack that gives students an opportunity to learn even more than the great historical stories they are telling.

Teachers have the option to send their students to the state and national contests, and they may also hold school contests or open houses. At GHS, all sophomores and juniors create an NHD documentary in their history classes. When completed, Kubishta stages a dual contest and celebration:

Although we are a small school, we will have ten to fifteen completed documentaries each year, so we conduct a local NHD competition. It’s a day that we set aside at our high school to celebrate all of the student’s accomplishments. We work with local historians to judge the documentaries and give the students feedback. To the students, it’s so gratifying to finish a project of this magnitude and then have an adult from outside the school compliment them on it.

Competing in Oregon History Day and National History Day

About 250 students travel to Portland to compete in the state contest each April. The 2020 competition was unique, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as students and teachers adeptly shifted to a virtual competition. Those who place first or second in their category may be eligible to compete at the national contest. In recent years, students have come from Helix and Echo, the Portland Metro Area, Central Oregon, Southern Oregon, and the Willamette Valley. The students range from sixth graders entering their first contest to 18-year-olds in their final competition. They are website and exhibit designers, writers, performers, and filmmakers.

The focal point of both contests is an interview process where a panel of three judges ask students questions about their projects. Adhering to the NHD evaluation form that is divided into historical quality (80%) and clarity of presentation (20%), the judges quiz students about their historical argument, evidence, primary sources, multiple perspectives, and historical significance. They ask students how they developed and communicated their project. It's a knee-knocking, yet triumphant day for participants.

Kayla Harper, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Lorin Kubishta.
Griswold High School student Kyla Harper defends her documentary project in front of judges at the 2019 Oregon History Day contest.

Kubishta describes the satisfaction of watching students during this process:

I love to take students to the competitions and see them blossom in front of the judges while defending their projects. After it’s over, they take a great deal of pride in what they have accomplished…and if they make it to the next level of competition, so much the better!

The quality of the students’ work can be astounding at the contests, and nearly without fail, every year some of the best projects come from GHS. Kubishta’s students’ documentaries have won “Best in State” five times, have advanced to the national contest twenty-five times, have made it to the finals round at nationals four times (which entails placing first in round one), and have won third place overall in the nation. Each year, Helix students are excited to compete in nationals, where approximately 4,000 students flock to the sprawling University of Maryland campus in mid-June, just outside Washington, D.C. Kubishta has taken nearly 100 students to nationals. For him:

The [national] events have been some of the most memorable of my thirty-year teaching career. The opportunity to show students all of the incredible sites in that area has been a huge motivator for me to continue with the program....It is like having a bonus history class for those who have gotten to attend.

Griswold High School students visit Oregon Representative Greg Walden, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Lorin Kubishta
Griswold High School students visit Oregon Representative Greg Walden in 2019 during a National History Day trip to Washington, D.C.

Likewise, for Kubishta’s students, participating in nationals is “a major highlight of their lives.” On top of competing, they visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall and locate the names of three Vietnam veterans from Umatilla County, including a Helix farmhand. They visit Arlington National Cemetery and find the graves of people they read about in class. They even visit their Congress members.

Kubishta attributes his passion for history as the secret to his students’ success. He challenges his students to see history as a sharing of someone’s life story, and asks them: “How would you want someone else to tell [YOUR] story?” It takes work to tell these stories, and Kubishta’s students conduct an impressive amount of research, including talking on the phone with or meeting in-person notable historic figures. GHS students have interviewed Navaho code talkers; an Iwo Jima veteran  ; Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade; and Alveda King, a former state representative in Georgia and niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Kyleen Stahancyk, 2019. Photograph courtesy of Lorin Kubishta
Kyleen Stahancyk holds a model horse (Sergeant Reckless) sent to her by a Korean Conflict U.S. Marine veteran whom she interviewed for her 2019 National History Day documentary.

Why Participate in Oregon History Day and National History Day?

History Day is much more than these two contests, and most students participate only in the classroom. Kubishta firmly believes,

NHD can be a game changer for students. I have seen what success in NHD can do for a student’s self-concept  . The program puts them in the position of a historian, and they get to research the topic and tell the story — they become the expert.

The flexible curriculum format and the project evaluations allow students to take charge of their learning, from topic selection to individualized research. NHD also readily supports learners of all levels.

Over the years, Kubishta has observed that “the skills that [students] learn in the program will serve them well in any aspect of college or life. Many students have told me after they get back from their first semester in college that they are at an advantage compared with other students in their classes, thanks to NHD.”

Rylee Mann and Karalin Reynolds, 2020. Photograph courtesy of Lorin Kubishta
In spring 2020, Griswold High School students Rylee Mann and Karalin Reynolds stood in front of a panel honoring The Triple Nickles, the African American 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion from Pendleton, Oregon, who served in World War II.

Why should schools implement NHD? Because it works! Kubishta emphasized at the end of our interview that:

NHD’s core goals are to teach, prepare, and inspire students. That’s the epitome of what it means to educate young people and why teachers enter the profession. I like to think that NHD has become a point of pride for our small community. It is one of many things that sets us apart as a unique school district. When my career is over, it will probably be NHD that will have given me some of the most memorable moments. The combination of the academic rigor and the competitive high that students get from NHD make it a program without comparison. I like to say, [that through NHD], I give the kids opportunities, and what they do with them can take them far.

If you are interested in participating in Oregon History Day, please join me for a free, one-hour virtual webinar, available for one PDU. I will be offering these webinars on pre-scheduled dates through January 2021. Please see the OHS events calendar for upcoming dates and details.

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