Students spotlight history at state contest

Sarah Eames | The Daily StarEmily Botticelli and Charlotte Lester, sixth-graders at City Honors School in Buffalo, present their research on the Pan-American Exposition at the New York History Day competition at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown on Monday.

The 39th annual New York History Day competition brought more than 500 middle and high school students from all corners of the state to Cooperstown on Monday.

Working individually or in groups, the students vied for entry in the National History Day competition to be held in College Park, Maryland, in June.

The contest is split into junior and senior divisions, and the top two projects from each of five categories — papers, documentaries, performances, websites and exhibits — will proceed to the national competition, but the contest is about more than rankings and performance, according to the event’s state coordinator, John Ferguson.

Ferguson, who also serves as director of education at the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum, said the event can be highly emotional for the students and their teachers.

“It’s so fun to see smart kids having a good time,” he said.

This year’s theme was “Triumph and Tragedy,” and entries ran the gamut from historical events of global significance to explorations of the students’ hometown history.

Jennifer Reiss, a sixth-grade social studies teacher at City Honors School in Buffalo, escorted 18 of her students to the competition for a fourth year.

“It’s a great program. It’s one of the best things I do as a teacher,” she said. “To have that avenue for students to be recognized, not just for sports, I think that’s so important.”

Sixth-graders Charlotte Colder, Poppy Marrano, Lucy Rados and Tahsina Tazrin collaborated to build a website titled “An Arc of Hatred,” detailing the end and aftermath of the Holocaust.

“Obviously the Holocaust is a fascinating topic, and most people think of it as just a tragedy, but we wanted to bring out the triumph in it,” Charlotte said.

“There was a lot of tragedy with people being persecuted in concentration camps and the Final Solution,” Lucy said. “Then it became a triumph — which made the high part of the arc — when the camps were liberated and Israel was formed.”

The arc hasn’t ended, Poppy said. The rise of neo-Nazism represents a return to tragedy.

“We knew it was happening, with the synagogue bombings and shootings at places of worship, but it was a lot bigger of a scale and there was a lot more to know about it than I had expected,” Lucy said. “It’s worse than you’d think.”

“It’s getting worse and worse,” Charlotte said. “In our current situation with our president, I feel like these ideas are more likely to come out and they’re being fed.”

“There’s also more people now who are willing to help neo-Nazis,” Tahsina said. “Neo-Nazi leaders are doing a lot more than they used to. Now there are worldwide meetings — they’re on every continent except for Australia and Antarctica. It’s really widespread.”

For Reiss, watching her students demonstrate a keen awareness of current events and act on interests outside the walls of the classroom was exhilarating.

“The students get to pick what they want, instead of everybody doing a biography project on Abraham Lincoln,” she said. “I think that’s why we get such excellent projects, because they get to choose not only the topic, but out of the five categories. They can present it in whatever way makes sense to them.”

Sixth-graders Emily Botticelli and Charlotte Lester presented their research on the Pan-American Exposition, a World’s Fair held in Buffalo from May to November 1901 that showcased new technology like Nikola Tesla’s alternating current power transmission system.

“Even with exceptional attractions and joy in the air, the result of the fair was quite tragic,” their thesis read.

The exposition was the notorious site of the assassination of President William McKinley, who was shot by Polish-American anarchist Leon Czolgosz during a Sept. 6 public appearance at the Temple of Music. McKinley died eight days later when his wounds turned gangrenous.

“After McKinley’s death, Theodore Roosevelt became president and made a triumphant impact on America,” the thesis continued.

Researching the topic took more than six months, Emily said. The pair visited local museums on the weekend and worked on the display every day after school.

“It was really surprising to know that so many great things happened in our city,” Charlotte said. “Before our research, I didn’t really know that much about the topic, so it was surprising to learn all of this new information.”

The pair selected the topic after learning about the exposition at their elementary school, Public School 64 Frederick Law Olmstead, which was built on the former grounds of the exposition, Emily said.

Centered at the top of the students’ gilded display, decorated with strings of copper wire and working light bulbs, is an excerpt from McKinley’s final address, delivered just one day before he was shot:

“These buildings will disappear, this creation of art and beauty and industry will perish from sight, but their influence will remain to ‘make it live beyond its short living, with praises and Thanksgiving.’ Who can tell the new thoughts that have been awakened, the ambitions fired, and the high achievements that will be wrought through this exposition?”

Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at seames@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.