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Lessons of history aren’t lost on this trio

The three have advanced to the state History Day competition.

History facts are that and nothing more, until you answer the question: “So what?”

For 20 years, Loanne Harmeling, a world history teacher at Woodward Middle School, has challenged her students to find out why what they’re learning is significant.

“My students don’t like it when I ask, ‘so what?’” Harmeling said. “We’re studying revolutions now. (I ask them) ‘How does that pertain to today? Iraq?’”

That kind of thinking helped 10 Bainbridge students prepare projects for the regional History Day competition on March 17. For most, the work was an extension of a research assignment that Harmeling’s students began in November.

This year, eight Bainbridge projects made the final round, and three young islanders – Woodward eighth-graders Jonathan Potter and Zach Ingrasci and Harmeling’s former student Luke Jensen, now a ninth grader at Bainbridge High School – qualified for the National History Day state competition at Central Washington University in Ellensburg on May 1.

Each of the three approached this year’s theme of “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History” in their own way.

Ingrasci made a 10-minute film called ”The Opium War: Forced Exchange between the Chinese and the English.” Having learned about early Chinese history in class, “I wanted to look more at modern China,” he said. “I wanted to do something we don’t do as much.”

Going beyond the call of a usual middle school project, Ingrasci interviewed Prof. Robert Kent Guy, chair of the China Studies Program at the University of Washington. Primary source research included letters from Chinese officials and notices posted outside the factory in a city where the opium trade happened.

From primary research, Ingrasci says, “you realize how people in China really wanted to get rid of the British.” His project concluded that the opium trade ruined China’s economy and brought down its living standards.

“I like learning about how one event ties in with other things that are happening,” he said. “Opium set off a sequence of events. When the British came in, (the Chinese) saw that they were not as advanced (as they had thought).

“I saw it as an awakening of China. Just today, China is coming out as a powerful nation.”

Proving a point

Potter took on the topic of people divided by their faiths by looking at East Asian religions from 3500 BCE to the present day.

His challenge was to reduce his original 15-page paper to the 2,500 words required by the competition.

“When I first wrote the paper, Ms. Harmeling gave me a wake-up call,” Potter said. “She said, ‘I want you to answer: so what?’”

To make his paper less of a “miniature history book” and more of “a paper which uses information to prove a point,” Potter removed the details that were not proving something.

Having compared Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam, Potter says he is struck by the similarities between different religions.

“Religion now seems to me something people have created in order to answer big questions: Who created the Earth? Why am I here? Where do we go when we die?” he said.

“Beliefs have divided people into different groups, but if you look at similarities it seems silly they’re fighting.”

Jensen has been participating in National History Day since sixth grade. In eighth grade, he placed first at regionals, second at state and competed at nationals, missing the final round by one place.

This year, his 10-minute film focuses on the lawsuit of the Wright Brothers against aviator Glen Curtiss. The Wrights alleged that Curtiss infringed on their aircraft patent when he designed planes with ailerons, small wings that move to steer the plane. Jensen argues that the four-year lawsuit held back the U.S. aviation industry and allowed European manufacturers to gain an edge.

Jensen visited the University of Washington library to read the patent applications, court reports and New York Times articles on microfilm. While the biographies he’d read contained little about the judge in the case, the research “introduced the idea that the judge was not all that bright and didn’t really understand the significance of what he was ruling on.”

“The thing about primary sources is you can form your own opinion instead of (accepting) what the biographer wrote,” Jensen said. “As I get older, I can understand more myself.”

From reading the actual Wright patent application, Jensen concluded that it was vague and trying to patent a “scientific phenomenon” rather than an invention – in this case, controlled flight.

Jensen says he has continued to compete in History Day, even though it is no longer part of a class assignment, because it gives him the chance to practice his presentation skills and learn more about how to do efficient research and form a believable thesis.

“In the school year, there are a lot of scattered projects. It’s nice to have one big project to focus on,” he said.

Harmeling agrees that deep research gives students mastery of more than one specific topic.

“It’s important to get them beyond these walls,” she said, “to understand how their education fits into how the world works. There’s value in learning one thing well.”

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