From Accokeek to Annapolis: Behind the Scenes with National History Day Gold Medalists

Fourteen-year-old Saniya Pearson’s family wondered why they heard her yelling. “When we won nationals, I screamed so loud my family ran to my room concerned as to whether there was a fire!” Pearson explained to her family that her team received the Gold Medal in their category at the 2022 National History Day contest, and said family members “were proud, showering me with hugs and kisses.”

Pearson, along with teammates Lillian Merrill and Aliyah Smith, earned second place in their category at the Maryland History Day State Contest before taking the Gold Medal at the National History Day Contest.

A Black teenage girl performs: she stands in front of an 1800s/1900s set. She wears the costume of an 1800s/1900s man.
Aliyah Smith, image courtesy of Mitro Hood Photography

“That was one of the best moments of my life,” says Smith. “My mom and I started celebrating like crazy and I messaged Lillian about it. Afterward, I called Saniya and let her know. At first, she thought I was just joking and got a bit confused until she finally realized that we had actually won. My family who had tuned in started messaging and sending congratulations…it was just so surreal.”

For Maryland Humanities’ Maryland History Day program, an affiliate of National History Day, students create original documentary films, exhibits, performances, research papers, or websites exploring a historical topic of their choice on an annual theme. National History Day selected “Debate & Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences” as last year’s theme.

3 young teen girls perform a scene and wear costumes from the 1800s/1900s: one is white and two are Black. The two Black girls are dressed as men from the era, and the white girl a woman
Saniya Pearson, Lillian Merrill, and Aliyah Smith perform at the Maryland history Day State Contest. Image courtesy of Mitro Hood Photography

“Starting off in eighth grade, I knew what my topic was going to be: the debate over deaf education between Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet,” says Merrill, determined about her project’s content. “When the project first popped up on our radar, I went to Aliyah and Saniya and told them I’d be happy to work with them [after they asked], but I had a project I was going to do.” Without prompting, Smith affirms that the topic was Merrill’s idea. 

The year-long work culminates in a state contest before the national competition: advancers to National History Day typically have won first or second place at the state level. The trio, then in eighth grade at Accokeek Academy in Prince George’s County, created a performance.

Merrill discusses how the team integrated their research into the finished project. “We pulled a lot of quotes from various sources, such as the Library of Congress, since we wanted all of their words to be their actual words,” she says. “As we refined it over time, we had them [Bell and Gallaudet] write letters to each other, with me delivering them to the other person.” Merrill also served as the performance’s narrator.

3 young teen girls wear costumes from the 1800s/1900s: one is white and two are Black. The two Black girls are dressed like men from that era and the white girl is dressed like a woman from the era. They pose with one of the girls’ moms, who is a Black woman
Saniya Pearson, Kiyana Oxendine (Saniya’s mother), Lillian Merrill (front), and Aliyah Smith. Image courtesy of Mitro Hood Photography

In 2022, Maryland Humanities held its first in-person State Contest since 2019: National History Day’s contest remained virtual. “It was so much fun to check out the college campus, perform live, and find out the results the same day,” Merrill says. “I just loved it all.”

Smith mentions what she thinks makes the program and State Contest special: “Maryland History Day is most definitely different from other experiences as we were able to interact with students outside of our school, outside of our district and compete in a friendly, encouraging environment,” she says. She then shows appreciation for the room Maryland History Day leaves for student creativity. “One of the best parts about creating our MHD project was being able to develop a vision and gather all of the pieces we needed to bring that vision to life,” she says.

Pearson agrees: “What made Maryland History Day different from other experiences I’ve had at school is the experience of creating something and bringing it to life,” she says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to do something outside of school that I along with my peers, brainstormed.”

A Black teenage girl sitting in a classroom where she performs. She wears the costume of an 1800s/1900s man. There is an 1800s/1900s set behind her.
Saniya Pearson, image courtesy of Mitro Hood Photography

While many students mention the extensive work they put into their projects, Pearson doesn’t forget a sense of play. “During our rehearsals, I remember the practice of different accents and tones, and the laughter we had trying to act out these historic people.” She also enjoyed recording the performance on video for the national level. “I loved the videos we took because they brought us closer as friends, laughing and goofing off here and there.”

Smith expresses the nervousness she felt the day of the statewide competition. “Lillian and I were doubtful that we would advance.” Pearson shares a different perspective. “My favorite part of the State Contest, as nerve-wracking as it sounds, was performing live,” she says. “It was the moment our ideas felt real. Although I was anxious about messing up, it was also fun to act out the two opposing sides (Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet) with my teammate Aliyah Smith.”   

Pearson then recalls hearing the results of the State Contest. “I jumped up and down, shouting with joy! I was so proud to win second place in the competition.“

A Black middle-aged state senator, a white young teen, 2 young Black teens, and a Black delegate stand in the Maryland State House
Senator Michael A. Jackson, Lillian, Saniya, Aliyah, and Jeffrie E. Long, Jr. Image courtesy of Maryland Humanities

Annually (with exception of COVID-19’s peak years), all Maryland students win an award honored at the national level visit the State House in Annapolis to receive commendations from delegates and state senators. “Meeting the politicians in Annapolis was an amazing experience,” says Smith. “I never would have thought that I would have the opportunity to do such a thing. Even being able to visit the State House and speak one-on-one with different senators was such an honor.”

Pearson calls the experience “nerve-wracking” but her nerves eventually eased as she spoke with the elected officials. “They all gave us wonderful feedback and even [mentioned] scholarship opportunities!” Other elements of the Annapolis visit held meaning for her. “I loved taking pictures with the Harriet Tubman and Fredrick Douglass statues and reading the engraved history of them.”

Two young Black teens and one white teen in the Maryland State House in Annapolis. One Black teen wears a black-and-white houndstooth jacket, the other a red blazer and slacks and the white girl wears a dress and cardigan.
Saniya, Aliyah, and Lillian. Image courtesy of Maryland Humanities

Merrill talks about the Annapolis event from the perspective of a citizen of her region. “It was nice to be able to meet the people who are representing my interests,” she says. “They were all very nice, and I have that confirmation that our region is in good hands!”

All three students say they’d recommend that other students participate in Maryland History Day. “Competing in history day was super fun, and a lot of work,” Merrill says.

Pearson talks about how she grew through the program. “If you are someone who is nervous about public speaking or just competing nationally (like me) I’d say this is a perfect way to step out of your comfort zone. Also, it can be a team learning experience if a student chooses to work with a team. It will challenge social skills and collaboration.”

For future History Day students, Smith shares a message or persistence and encouragement: “Even though you might not feel like putting in the work now, even if you don’t make it that far, still do your best and keep pushing. If you don’t make it one year, push even further the next year. You never know what you’re truly capable of.”

Watch the 2022 Maryland History Day Virtual Award Ceremony.

Making History Personal

Denise Kresslein, Advanced Academics Teacher at North Carroll Middle School and Westminster East Middle School and Thomas Stavely of  Parkdale High School were named this year’s Maryland History Day Statewide Middle and High School Teacher of the Year, respectively. The teachers discuss the impact of Maryland History Day program on students.

Thomas Stavely, a white man with glasses and brown hair. He wears a yellow polo.It’s not every project where students can select projects ranging from the creation of NBA to women’s fashion of the twenties to space. But that’s the variety Thomas Stavely sees in his Parkdale High School classroom for Maryland History Day projects this year. “With Maryland History Day, you get to do whatever you want, as long as it fits the theme.”

Stavely encourages students to ask “’what am I passionate about to learn more about?’ I’ve seen so many projects that I have no idea about the topic.” Some of Stavely’s students surprise him with their topic choice. They pick subjects that have made  him say “Huh. I never even figured that would be kind of part of the theme of that year.’”

Denise Kresslein, a white woman with straight (or straightened) brown hair and brown eyes.Denise Kresslein, Advanced Academics Teacher at both North Carroll Middle School and Westminster East School in Carroll County, also appreciates the options students have. “I like how the theme provides direction for the students yet is open-ended, to lead to a wide variety of topics,” she says. This year’s theme, selected by National History Day, is Frontiers in History: People, Places, Ideas.

“It’s challenging for them [the students] to connect their research to the theme. That’s a really higher-level thinking skill for them to be able to take something that they’re interested in and figure out how it relates to that year’s theme. So I really love that.” Kresslein describes the job of an Advanced Academics Teacher. “I go into classrooms and help support students and provide extensions and enrichment activities for students and co-plan and co-teach along with teachers in a variety of different subject areas.”

Kresslein and Stavely are this year’s recipients of Maryland History Day Middle School Teacher of the Year Award High School Teacher of the Year Award, respectively. Annually, Maryland Humanities selects both a Middle and High School Teacher of the Year from across the state. The organization then nominates these honorees for the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award, bestowed by National History Day. A committee of teachers and historians selects one middle school teacher and one high school teacher for the $10,000 national award. National History Day announces this year’s winner during the National History Day Awards Ceremony on June 15.

When Stavely heard the news, he describes himself as “grateful” and “definitely kind of shocked when I first got that email.” Along with teaching, he also works as a Teacher Coordinator at the Prince George’s County school.

Kresslein feels as if the award is reflective of those she teaches. “I feel it’s a real celebration of my students and all the hard work that they put in. This year, I was excited when I went into classes about how many students were really interested in exploring topics a little further and working together,” she says. “They were excited all year long and worked really well. I’m very proud of them.” She still feels “extremely honored to even be considered and I sincerely appreciate the recognition,” says Kresslein.

Topic selection “is one way that we, we work to meet the needs of our students who need more challenge, they like the open-ended nature of the project. It allows for student choice,” Kresslein says. “I had several students do projects relating to like a book they had read or someplace they visited with their family. It allows them to take what they’re learning and go further with it, which I think is really important.”

Stavely talks about the importance of making history personal, with his own and his students’ stories   “I can tell a kid about economics and that gets very boring,” he says. “But I can show a picture or talk about my grandparents  growing up with the Depression, living relatively poor, and kind of getting that firsthand account from my grandparents’  viewpoint” across to his students. “I think that has helped because these students, their grandparents, they were not at the age of Depression and World War Two, you know, their grandparents didn’t serve. I had five great uncles all served during World War Two. So I bring in some pictures.” A project one group of students created on Amelia Earhart may feel firmly in the past, but that group connected it to our current times: they had the opportunity to meet and interview a female pilot.

Ever since middle school, Stavely connect history to his personal life. At that age, he wrote a paper about The Battle of Iwo Jima. “It’s my grandfather who was there.” Kresslein’s goal for the students is that they use research and analysis “to really find out how this event in the past has an impact on their current lives.”

Both Kresslein and Stavely talk about the importance of her students sharpening their critical thinking in the current age.  “I feel like it’s really important for students to be able to analyze information,” says Kresslein. “We have so much information at our fingertips, it’s really important for students to have that opportunity to dive into a topic really deeply, find quality research, and sift through it.” She hopes that they will then “analyze the resources in a way that is meaningful and helps them answer questions they have about past events, and what they can teach us for the future.” 

Stavely says that “Today, there’s just so much fake news, you know, now chatGPT…I tell them ‘going on the internet and saying like ‘Joe Smith’s History Blog,’ probably not a good source,” he laughs. “We’re trying to find that you those .org .edus. So I think that’s of course really big with today’s online research.”

Stavely sees Maryland History Day with a wider lens than preparing for college coursework. “We can apply critical thinking, to problem solving to research because again, any field you go into a kind of after high school, you’re going to use new skills,” he says. He tells his students that “This is something that you’re going to use, from research from internet database to time management, to organizing.”

Stavely offers up an example. “If you’re gonna go to a trade school, you’re gonna need to read a manual, understand directions, and understand [various] concepts. I think Maryland History Day does a good job of kind of showing students that while these skills are kind of school-based, they can be applied to any kind of job.”

Skills students cultivate through Maryland History Day can assist them with not only a variety of future paths, as well as allowing them to process and share the information in a range of different ways. They have the opportunity to express their learning in a variety of different ways,” Kresslein says. “Some students really liked working together on an exhibit, some want that more independent work and wrote a paper or we had some students that were really interested in creating a website and chose that avenue. So it provides so many opportunities for students to learn different ways of expressing the information, as well.”

Kresslein and Stavely talk about the excitement Maryland History Day generates in their students.

Stavely discusses two quiet students who did “some of the best websites I’ve seen,” whose project then uses an example. Other students then say ‘Wow, that’s something somebody in our school made.’ ‘Yeah, somebody in our school made this website,’” he proudly shares.

“I’m really excited this year, as well, after having we had 33 Students participate at one of my schools,” says Kresslein. “They’re already talking about next year’s topic and excited about participating.”

The Maryland History Day State Contest will take place on May 6 at UMBC. Learn more here.

Addressing Today’s Issues in a Nonjudgmental Way: A Q&A with Jacquelyn Lucy

Jacquelyn Lucy is a lifelong Marylander: born in Baltimore and raised in Glen Burnie, she currently resides in Catonsville. Currently retired, the Maryland Humanities donor has had an eclectic career. Lucy served as a former English and Journalism teacher at Severna Park Senior High School, a Public Information Coordinator/ Director of Alumni and Public Affairs for Dean’s Office at University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, and the Media Relations Coordinator at the Community College of Baltimore County. She also owned her own marketing and communications business, Image Matters. Lucy spoke with us about the need for the humanities to openly address today’s issues.

Selfie of Jacquelyn Lucy, a retired white woman smiling. She has short gray hair, glasses, and wears a teal sweatshirt.Q: What drew you to Maryland Humanities?

 A: I was not aware of the organization until the early 2000s. I was working in College Communication /Media Relations at the Community College of Baltimore County and was assigned to work with Judy Dobbs of Maryland Humanities on the promotions for Maryland History Day (usually held at CCBC Dundalk [at that point]) and Chautauqua (usually held at CCBC Catonsville). Both were wonderful experiences over the years and I have struck up a lifelong friendship with Judy and other wonderful staff members at Maryland Humanities.

Q: What is the most satisfying part of supporting Maryland Humanities?

 A: Since I value the mission and work of Maryland Humanities, I am proud to support its efforts.  Knowing that my gift will help continue and expand this important work, makes my gift more meaningful to me.

Q: Why is Maryland Humanities an important institution to have in Maryland? At this moment?

 A: I think that Maryland Humanities is in a unique position to help lessen the disparity of opinions and controversy facing our state and our country by promoting programs that encourage open discourse and discussion on real issues facing us—the pandemic, racial and gender issues, philosophical diversity and more—in a non-judgmental way.  Its programs, such as Maryland History Day, can focus on American accomplishments as well as our country’s struggles—past and current—to survive as united states.   We need this type of open forum now more than ever.

Q: If someone is unfamiliar with our work, where should they start in getting to know us?  

A: From a personal public relations standpoint, I think the name “Humanities” still is not widely understood. It has an elitist connotation and even those people who are familiar with the word might even think its offerings are not really aimed at the general public

Recently, the Baltimore Sun printed an excellent article on Maryland History Day that highlighted the work of the organization. Congratulations on the great placement!  I think that this kind of publicity is crucial to creating awareness of your brand throughout the community.  I know that this is not easy and frankly unless it is combined with paid advertising is often not enough to create name recognition.

Deepening Support for the Humanities: A Q&A with Keith Stone

Keith Stone serves as Vice Chair of Maryland Humanities’ Board of Directors, as well as Chair of the organization’s Grants Committee. He talks with us about Maryland Humanities’ shift from providing project-based support to general operating funding (through our new SHINE Program). By day, Stone is as a partner and private equity portfolio manager at Brown Advisory.

A headshot of Keith Stone sitting or standing in front of what looks like a wooden wall. Keith is a light-skinned Black man with curly black hair and a black beard. He wears a khaki-colored button-down shirt over a black t-shirt. There is a plant to his left.Q: What is the biggest change you think will come from shifting to general operating grants?

A: Maryland Humanities will be the first state humanities council to exclusively offer operating grants, so this is not only new for us but for humanities councils nationwide. That’s really exciting. I’d love to see our success with this new effort spur other humanities councils and granting organizations to consider making the switch to operational grants as well.

Q: What excites you most about Maryland Humanities providing general operating support?

A: While we’re no longer providing program-specific support like we have through prior grant programs, we believe that the shift to general operating support will allow Maryland Humanities to build deeper, stronger relationships with our partners, each of which will focus on providing quality humanities programming to Marylanders.

Q: How does providing general operating support align with other aspects of Maryland Humanities’ work and values?

A white background with text that says “Maryland Humanities Shine,” with Shine in all-capital letters. In smaller letters, text says ”Strengthening Humanities Investment in Nonprofits for Equity.” On another row: “General Operating Support Grants. Application opens: August 18. Application closes: September 15.” The dot for the i in “Shine” looks like a sparkle and the n looks like a rainbow with a dark blue, a lighter blue, and a green. These are the colors for the text in the entire image.A: We’ve been doing program-specific grants for a long time with great success. But, our preference has always been to build deeper relationships with our partners that extended beyond funding that specific program. Now that we provide support, we’re able to match our granting activities with our longstanding approach of building meaningful relationships with partners that extend far beyond the moment of time for a single program, furthering our goal of supporting humanities-focused organizations around the state. 

Applications for our SHINE Program open August 18 and close September 15. Learn more.

The Importance of Studying History at All Levels: A Conversation with Labor Historian Bill Barry

With a group of peers, labor historian Bill Barry sponsors our Maryland History Day Special Prizes Awarded for Excellence in Labor History (Junior and Senior Divisions). This year, prize went to Carlo Riano, who attends Plum Point Middle School in Calvert County, for his his exhibit on Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Howard County students Milan Ta and Claire Williams, who attend Reservoir High School, received the Senior Division Award for their website on the Lawrence Mill Strikers. We spoke to Barry about the Maryland History Day’s impact.

A photo of a white balding man with white hair. He has a full beard. He is outside and wears a light yellow button down under a brown jacket.Q: What drew you to sponsor a Maryland History Day Special Prize? The one specifically in Labor History?

A: I have been a judge for History Day for many years and saw the various prizes so I decided to create one for a topic I consider essential—Labor History. With all of the controversies about teaching Critical Race Theory in classrooms, I think teaching all of us who work for a living about our history, and how we organize to make it better, is important. As a labor historian, I want to encourage young students to look at the topic, and projects over the past several years have been both numerous and extraordinary.

Q: Who are the others who co-sponsor this Prize with you?

A: One improvement I have made in the past several years is to reach out to potential donors by setting up a Facebook fundraiser for my birthday in April, so the prize became an organizing activity. I have been really pleased with the responses from friends, especially since we raised considerably more than the prize money, so the campaign becomes a financial support for Maryland Humanities at a time of COVID challenge.

Q: What is the most satisfying part of sponsoring the Special Prize in Labor History?

The most satisfy thing is both seeing the projects and being able to congratulate the students and their teachers for their efforts.

Q: What makes Maryland History Day a unique program to support?

A: We supposedly learn from the past, so emphasizing the study of history at all levels of school (and beyond) is so important—and it can be fun and exciting for both the students and their teachers. The projects presented at History Day, and the wide range of formats, is a terrific stimulus.  Sponsoring the History Day program makes Maryland Humanities an essential piece of this emphasis.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on our blog do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Maryland Humanities or our funders.

Creating Student Historians: Award-Winning Teachers on Instilling a Love of Research

Devin Page of Northern Middle School and Michael Yuscavage of of Arundel High School were named this year’s Maryland History Day Statewide Middle and High School Teacher of the Year, respectively. The teachers discuss the impact of Maryland History Day program on students.

When Michael Yuscavage first volunteered as the Maryland History Day Coordinator for Anne Arundel County in 2003, “I was clueless,” he said. “I had no idea what the program entailed. I thought, at some point, we’d have a special day set aside to celebrate Maryland. We’d be putting up posters in the hallways and making announcements about the state bird.”

Michael Yuscavage, a white man with brown hair and full beard that goes several inches past his chin. He wears a gray button-down shirt and patterned tie. Michael smiles sits in front of a darker gray photography backdrop. 
Michael Yuscavage

Nineteen years later, Yuscavage—who teaches at Arundel High School—is the recipient of this year’s Maryland History Day High School Teacher of the Year Award. “For any teacher, it’s really humbling to think that someone out there is recognizing our work,” he says. “I’m really appreciative that I was selected.”

Devin Page, a Social Studies teacher at Northern Middle School in Calvert County, also celebrates nineteen years with this year with Maryland Humanities’ program. The recipient of the Maryland History Day Middle School Teacher of the Year Award has been involved with Maryland History Day for as long as he’s been teaching social studies. “It’s a tremendous honor,” he says, on receiving the award. “Knowing how many teachers there are in the state of Maryland and how many phenomenal teachers at Calvert County Public Schools that I respect and highly admire…knowing the arc that Maryland History Day has taken over my own career, I am truly humbled.”

Devin Page, a white man with gray and curly hair and blue eyes smiles at the camera. He wears a blue and green shirt that is short-sleeved. He sits with his hand on his hip. Devin sits in front of what look like bins of school supplies.
Devin Page

Annually, Maryland Humanities selects both a Middle and High School Teacher of the Year from across the state. The organization then nominates these honorees for the Patricia Behring Teacher of the Year Award, bestowed by National History Day. A committee of teachers and historians selects one middle school teacher and one high school teacher for the $10,000 national award. National History Day announces this year’s winner during the virtual National History Day Awards Ceremony on June 18.

Maryland History Day, coordinated by Maryland Humanities since 1999, sparks critical thinking and helps develop skills in research and analysis, writing, and public speaking. Working solo or in small groups, students explore a historical topic of their choice on an annual theme. The program is open to public, private, parochial, and homeschool students in grades 6 through 12.

One of the reasons Page opted to have his students participate in Maryland History Day is because they could select any topic under the annual theme. “They can really immerse themselves in their topic and their research, because they’ll be really intrinsically interested in the research that at the end yields a much more authentic topic,” he says. “From understanding the theme, to selecting a topic, to building their background knowledge about the topic and time period, eventually digging into primary sources, then that student becomes the teacher. They become the expert, and I become the student. High quality projects are often so unique and aren’t often in the curriculum, the teacher-student role is flipped. We learn as deeply as the student’s project.”

Yuscavage agrees that allowing students to select topics creates an experience where they’re more driven to perform research. “They build a love for research. They love the competition. It’s not the drudgery they’re used to when asked to complete a project,” he says. “I start each year by telling kids to write a list of ten topics they’d like to research,” he says. “I tell them that it can be anything. Then, I whittle the list down to the topics that might (even loosely) fit the annual theme. We’ve had some unique topics go to the state competition.”

Freedom with topic choices leads students to really connect with their project. “When students are fully immersed in a topic they chose themselves—especially if they chose a topic that’s so unique I didn’t even know about it —and it’s personal to them (like a student’s family heritage, or one of their family members was involved in the topic), the discussion with those students and interacting with those students is a delight.”

According to Page, the freedom to choose the category or medium for their project allows each student “to use their unique gift.” Students can create original documentary films, exhibits, performances, research papers, or websites.

Page says Maryland History Day offers the opportunity for “multiple means of representation.” This is a concept in Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework that acknowledges that people learn and take in information differently.  According to the UDL guidelines: “In short, there is not one means of representation that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for representation is essential.”

“Some students are really oral, some are auditory, some are kinesthetic, some are musical,” Page says. “With the many different ways that we learn, History Day taps into that.”

In addition to his desire for accessibility, a student nomination of Page for Middle School Teacher of the Year also indicates his receptiveness to students’ needs.

“In the month leading up to our History Fair [term sometimes used by Northern Middle] submission deadline, my mom had been diagnosed and was fighting metastatic breast cancer at John Hopkins,” one student wrote. “It consumed the space in my head. Inside, all I could think was, ‘How on Earth am I supposed to get this done? I don’t want to quit now.’ I owe any and all success I had in completing this project to my teacher, Mr. Page,” the student continued.

“Any accommodation, support, or advice he could provide was given without second thought, and his selflessness is reflected in the projects of all those from Northern Middle. Aside from bettering me as a student historian, he was there to listen and make the emotional toll of my situation weigh a whole lot less,” the student writes. “My mom was beyond thrilled to see a photo of my exhibit before she passed, and I know if she could be with me now, she would be my biggest cheerleader at the State competition. Thank you, Mr. Page, for helping me find the courage and passion necessary to complete my History Fair project.”

A nomination from one of Yuscavage’s students for Teacher of the Year also indicates reliability and care for his students. “I would like to nominate my teacher, Mr. Yuscavage from Arundel High School because his passion for this project while I was completing my project amazed me,” the student wrote. “He was always there for us, and whenever we needed assistance or feedback, he gave us his best, and never let us down. He prioritized us, and valued us, which really meant a lot.”

Yuscavage’s enthusiasm for the subject matter is clear. “Teaching history is just telling cool stories—it’s story time,” he says. “Teaching history is like reading a cool movie script every day. Granted, some stories are more exciting than others and you have to research ways to spice things up.”

Yuscavage elaborates on his effort to make class compelling to his students. “I’ve always subscribed to the idea that you need to put a lot of energy into figuring out how to make content interesting to kids, particularly those that walk into your room with a negative view of history class,” he says. “I can’t think of anything more depressing as a teacher than the sight of kids finding whatever I’m doing in class to be completely dull or monotonous. It’s happened, sadly. When it does happen, I realize that I have to work a bit harder.”

Yuscavage talks about how students’ Maryland History Day experience improves their research abilities and habits, even after a project is complete. “Once you get through Maryland History Day, you’re on a different level,” he says. “You gain new standards for yourself. Also, most kids come back. I’ve had quite a few repeaters over the years.”

Page adds that the program not only makes students better researchers in the long-term, but it also creates a hunger for that research. “The act of researching may spark a curiosity; they may become life-long learners,” he says. “The skills are also crucial to develop in today’s day and age. The type of research required for Maryland History Day projects is the highest quality of any program. You have to verify and corroborate your sources. Students want to rely on sources that are the most reliable based on their analysis of the veracity of each source.” Skills from History Day are transferable; one of his Page’s former students is currently pursuing computer engineering, after designing websites for his History Day project. Page heard of another student who went on to purse documentary filming after making a Maryland History Day documentary.

Page mentions how his students virtually met with him for an extra hour weekly, even in a pandemic. “I could not believe that middle schoolers would dedicate themselves to that [degree],” he says, and discusses his experience teaching virtually in a pandemic, in terms of project selection and creation.

“The interpersonal reactions that we’re so used to were ripped from beneath our feet. When that happened, [students] chose topics that were connected to their own families. In their own research and my facilitation of that research, we were able to investigate their family backgrounds,” he says. He and one student “were able to connect that social injustice in the 1800s with the social justice protests in the US,” he says, referring to the 2020 protests. “The student has English heritage and studied the Swing Riots. They observed historical patterns to get an understanding for how humanity expresses their political grievances within the class and institutional structures in which they live.”

Page has seen students who’ve completed the Maryland History Day elevate their ability to demonstrate complex thinking about historical topics in class discussions. He’s also seen them demonstrate another quality.

“Stamina. I think that’s a term that needs to gain traction in educational circles,” he says. “You want students to have stamina to engage in the work. With so many different stimuli tugging on students nowadays, this particular project trains them to have stamina, in terms of work ethic or focus.” He notes another difference in students who’ve participated in the program. “In class, you will occasionally have students who do not exhibit confidence in themselves or are initially overwhelmed [by] such a long-term research project. [By the end] of doing this research project, you will see, the way they interact with you, with the class, is completely different,” he says.

“Their work habits are much more reliable for any activity that’s required of them, because they don’t question themselves as much as they used to having come out of the National History Day process.”

The Maryland History Day State Contest will take place on April 30 at UMBC. The Awards Ceremony will be virtual and open to all: keep an eye on this page to learn how to attend the ceremony.

Maryland History Day for English Learners: An Interview with Lia Atanat

Last fall, the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program awarded us $82,188 to support a Maryland History Day for English Learners Curriculum, featuring a collection of lesson plans and worksheets. We’re in the creation stage of this project, and we recently spoke about it with Lia Atanat, Maryland History Day Outreach & Professional Development Coordinator.

Materials focus on teaching English learners primary source research skills and include professional development resources for educators. The funding will also allow us to build upon our 200 existing History Inquiry Kits and support the creation of 16 new kits for English learners.

Lia Atanat, a white brunette woman, presents to students in a classroom. She wears a white sweater, pinkish pants and a mask. We see the back of heads of 3 students and the side of one's face. Behind her is a chalkboard and other classroom presentation materials.
Atanat on a school outreach visit

Q: Can you talk about your own background with education for English learners?

A: I have a Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and taught English for Academic Purposes on the faculty of an English preparatory program at a university in Istanbul. I was part of a committee to create a series of mini-projects at each level for language development and assessment. English language teaching values project-based learning for its potential for authentic assessment. This means that project-based learning uses activities that develop skills that students will need outside the classroom. Assessment considers the variety of tasks and skills that go into the project, instead of a more conventional test that might not accurately measure outcomes for English learners. Maryland History Day is an example of project-based learning and develops skills that students use long after the project is over. There’s this great crossover potential to use this in English language teaching.

Q: How can English learners benefit from Maryland History Day programming? What are you hoping students get out of it?

A: In a way, English learners can benefit from Maryland History Day the same way that their native English-speaking peers have. It’s an academically rigorous curriculum that helps students develop historical thinking skills. Students who participate in History Day outperform their peers in evaluating online sources, ability to organize a report, and a wide range of other skills that they are exposed to through this program. The difference is that schools, historically, have not prioritized academic rigor for English learners, so it’s a matter of educational equity to make sure they are getting the same opportunities for rigor and college and career prep that their native English-speaking peers are. In addition to that, as I mentioned before, project-based learning is a darling of the English teaching world since it gives authentic opportunities for different types of language input and output—reading, writing, listening, and speaking—and situational language, like that needed for group collaboration and judge interviews.

Lia Atanat, a white brunette woman, presents and stands in front of a prokector of a PowerPoint slide that says "Research." She is in a classroom and wears a mask, white sweater. The photo only goes down to her waist..Q: What will the Maryland History Day for English learners curriculum look like? How will it differentiate from the other Maryland History Day curricula?

A: The Maryland History Day for English Learners resources are currently being created by a small team of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) educators in Maryland who also have experience in teaching or aiding social studies classes with English learners. The finished product will be a collection of lesson plans and worksheets that guide teachers and students through the process of History Day, from choosing a topic to doing research to putting it all together. In creating the collection, we’re paying special attention to the modeling and scaffolding (examples and structure) that makes content learning easier for English learners. Our resource creators are working to incorporate outcomes for language development as well as for social studies skills. We hope these resources will make it easier for teachers of English learners to implement this project with their students.

Q: What excites you most about this work?

A: I’m always excited to see what students are curious to learn about. I judged a school contest and met a Kuwaiti student who had researched the Gulf War. At a classroom visit, I met a group of Mexican students doing a project on the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But I’ve also encountered groups of English learners who chose to do projects on JFK, women’s suffrage in the US, and the French Revolution. Students find points of entry in all different sorts of topics, and that element of choice is a great motivator. And it’s exciting to see them taking pride and ownership of the work they’ve done, because they chose the topic, decided what they wanted to say about it, and became the experts in it.

Headshot of Lia Atanat, a white bruette woman with shoulder-length hair and glasses. She wears a green turtleneck . She sits in an office on a black couch in front of a yellow wall with black-and-white photographs.
Image by Nick Clifford Simko

Q: How do you see this fitting into Maryland Humanities’ overall work/mission/vision?

A: As Maryland Humanities’ mission has evolved and crystallized in the past few years, we’ve become more serious about putting our beliefs about racial equity into practice. Creating opportunities for English learners is a matter of racial equity, since the majority of English learners are students of color who have historically faced an opportunity gap in education. I think we’ll still have a long way to go to see greater racial equity for ELs in schools—I’d love to see more bilingual education programs in Maryland, for a start, and recognition of the ways that education in the US has been shaped by white supremacy—but making this program more accessible is a small first step.

Apart from enabling students to build academic skills, Maryland History Day also allows students to find a way to connect to the humanities and explore their own identities, interests, and values through the stories they tell about the past. It’s important for us to be truly statewide and engage with as many Marylanders as we can, so it will be exciting to see how enthusiasm for this program might spread from these students to their families and communities.

Q: What about the state of Maryland makes this work important?

A: Right now, an average of 10% of K-12 students in Maryland are English learners, as high as 20% in Prince George’s County, and the number is growing across the state. We are at a point where monolingual English-speaking Americans are starting to realize—or need to realize—that being multilingual is an asset, not a barrier. And it’s the responsibility of all teachers to recognize the needs of English learners in their classes and help them get to college and career readiness. English learners bear a much heavier cognitive load when they come to school every day. They are working to acquire content and academic skills along with their peers, but doing so in their second (or third, or fourth) language. Those coming from other countries or cultural communities might also be settling in to a new set of social and school-based expectations. But the fact that they are learning English should be no more of a barrier than the fact that they are learning how to write a thesis statement—both take practice.

Q: What has been the biggest struggle with this programming?

A: I think that even as we reach more English learners with this program and hopefully see them benefitting from it academically, we will still struggle with making the Maryland History Day contests as equitable as possible. All students are capable of working hard and doing good research, but not all of them will have extra afterschool help sessions, trips to the archives, or paid subscriptions to sophisticated video-editing software to make a documentary. It’s something that the MHD team is constantly thinking about and that we’ll likely need to continue to think about for a long time. Luckily, we do have grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities through their A More Perfect Union initiative to be able to offer mini-grants to schools next fall for things like subscriptions to NoodleTools (an online bibliography tool) and buses for field trips to history museums.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: We’ll be piloting our resources with teachers next school year to gather feedback. I’m looking forward to introducing History Day to a new group of teachers—content teachers with English learners and ESOL teachers—who might not have heard of it or might not have considered History Day as an option before. Teachers who are interested should keep an eye on our social media to learn more.

I also want to share that the creation of these resources was made possible by the Library of Congress through their Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Program. If you teach with primary sources, whether you teach history or art or science, kindergarteners, college students, or and everyone in between, you can find a wide range of teaching materials, online interactives, and professional development opportunities coming from the organizations that form this consortium.

Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS), a complement to Maryland Humanities’ Maryland History Day program, is a partnership between Maryland Humanities, Maryland Public Television, and the Maryland State Department of Education.

Documenting Immigrant Stories During a Pandemic

Saima Sitwat, author of American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey, sits on our Board of Directors. She has curated a panel called “Becoming Americanfor CityLit Festival: Maryland Center for the Book at Maryland Humanities serves as one of the festival’s partners this year. The panel consists of Maryland women who’ve immigrated to America. We spoke to her about the event, her experience writing as an immigrant, and more.

A professional headshot of Saima Sitwat, a Pakistani American woman. She has shoulder-length black hair and hazel eyes. She wears a green shirt with pink and yellow flowers on it. Her arms are crossed.
Saima Sitwat

“The story of immigration, of being a minority and a woman in America, is not a singular story,” says Saima Sitwat, who knows firsthand. Sitwat recalls immigrating to the United States from Pakistan in 2003,when she began to write about her own experience. The author of American Muslim: An Immigrant’s Journey started to document stories of other immigrants then, too.

“It was a time of heightened Islamophobia in America, and people were afraid of being identified as Muslim or sharing the trauma that the American Muslim community went through after the September 11 attacks,” Sitwat says. “I felt that Americans of all faiths and identities had to hear stories of Muslims next door—Muslims they know as colleagues, neighbors and community volunteers.”

Prior to Baltimore, Sitwat lived in Pittsburgh where she wrote about immigrant and faith communities “to create an awareness of growing diversity in the region, but also as a way of discovering our shared humanity.” She considers “Becoming American”, her storytelling project, a continuation of that work. The primarily digital project, which Sitwat started in 2021, consists of conversations and panel discussions with immigrant women in Maryland.

“Asian-American hatred was on the rise across America. In addition to many violent crimes across the country, there was an assault on two Asian women in Baltimore.” Sitwat and I discuss the recent murders of Christina Yuna Lee and Michelle Go— who were Korean American and Chinese American, respectively. The two New Yorkers died within a month of each other. “These recent assaults prove that Asian Americans continue to bear the brunt of hateful and misguided ideologies, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic,” Sitwat says.

A collage, designed to mimic one in a scrapbook, of ten immigrant women from various countries and in various skin tones.
“Becoming American” interviewees

Sitwat continues “Becoming American” with a panel she has curated of the same name at the upcoming CityLit Festival, a free monthlong literature festival from CityLit Project in March. The festival’s theme this year is “Breaking Free: Confronting Hard Truths,” which Sitwat says “all writing should be about.” She talks of how the theme specifically resonates with her experience as an immigrant. “Immigrants, in particular, have a tendency to normalize the trauma they have been through during the process of migration,” she says, “but we all need to address and confront the history of systemic racism in America in order to continue our journeys, together.”

Sitwat’s panel includes authors Nadia Hashimi and Eman Quotah. In order to broaden the scope and vary the discussion, Sitwat “reached out to Lindsey Baker and Andrea Lewis at Maryland Humanities for their advice on potential panelists,” which led her to Maryland State Delegate Joseline Peña-Melnyk and event planner Mariam Thakkar. “Another consideration was to select participants who can share their stories honestly, with all the joy, sorrow and rawness of it.”

“Platforms like CityLit Festival provide an opportunity for readers and writers to come together and spark conversations. It is always fun for a reader to meet their favorite writer, but it is a valuable experience for a writer to be connected with readers,” Sitwat says. “Writing can be an isolating experience and it is important for writers to be knowledgeable about conversations that are taking place in neighborhoods.” Discussing isolation naturally brings the coronavirus to mind, and the adjective takes on a new meaning two years in. “CityLit Festival puts the readers and writers in the same room and that is an exciting prospect for so many of us, especially at this time in history, when we have learned to value company and camaraderie.”

Sitwat mentions what else the coronavirus pandemic intensified and highlighted. “The pandemic exposed inherent inequities that existed in America. As our country unraveled under the pressure of a raging healthcare crisis, both CityLit and Maryland Humanities were able to provide space for communities to come together and engage in dialogue,” she says. “I personally appreciate efforts on part of both these organizations in amplifying BIPOC voices.”

The pandemic has only heightened Sitwat’s commitment to sharing stories. “If [the] pandemic has taught me one thing, it is to be present in the here and now,” she says. “I have meant to do a project like ‘Becoming American’ for the past few years but something or the other took precedence. The uncertainty of life that we experienced during [the] pandemic made me realize the urgency to highlight and share all the good stories out there!”

CityLit Festival runs the entire month of March. Sitwat’s panel takes place on Saturday, March 12 at Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Central Branch, 10:00–11:30 a.m.; it will also be available virtually. The keynote speech by The 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones—which Maryland Humanities is co-sponsoring—will take place at the same  location at 2:00 p.m.; it will be available virtually, as well.

Using the Humanities to Consider Big Questions: An Interview with Liz Cannon

Elizabeth (Liz) Cannon resides in Frederick and works as a content management consultant. She served on the Board of Directors of Maryland Humanities from 2010-2019: she has donated to the organization since 2009. Cannon judged the Maryland History Day competition at both the local and state level for many years, and performed in the organization’s final year of its living history program, Chautauqua. She talked about the importance of the humanities.

A headshot of Liz Cannon, a smiling white woman with cropped brown hair, from the shoulders up. Liz wears an eggplant-colored shirt with a scoop neck and small gold earrings. She is in front of a sandy-colored brick background.Q: What drew you to Maryland Humanities?

A: The programs! One of my favorites is One Maryland One Book (OMOB), where I can join people all over the state in reading and discussing the same book, and then meet the author on tour. I have an entire shelf of OMOB books, collected over the last 15 years. Every one is a page turner that has also sparked thought and lively conversation.

Q: What is the most satisfying part of supporting Maryland Humanities?

A: Knowing that my contribution supports free programs that enrich the lives of people in communities large and small across Maryland. As both a grant-receiving and grant-making organization, Maryland Humanities gets a big “bang for the buck” by sponsoring a combination of recurring statewide programs and local programs hosted by museums, libraries and other community partners.

Q: What makes Maryland Humanities a unique organization?

A: Using the disciplines of the humanities—literature, philosophy, history—as a lens through which to consider big questions: Is our democracy healthy? How do we balance liberty and order? What does a just society look like? What does it mean to be human?

Q: Why is Maryland Humanities an important institution to have in Maryland? At this moment?

A: At this moment, people seem increasingly isolated and divided—socially, politically and demographically. Maryland Humanities helps bridge these divides by providing opportunities to engage in respectful and meaningful dialogue about what matters most to us as individuals and members of society.

Q: What is our impact you’ve seen in your communities?

A: Seeing high school students gain valuable insights and new perspectives on the world around them by conducting research for the annual Maryland History Day competition. History Day builds strong scholarly skills and fosters critical thinking about how the past affects the present.

Q: If someone is unfamiliar with our work, where should they start in getting to know us?

A: Visit the website to learn about all of the programs and check the calendar for upcoming events. One not-to-be-missed current program is the Voice and Votes Smithsonian exhibition on tour through January to five venues across the state [through Maryland Humanities’ Museum on Main Street program].

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on our blog do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Maryland Humanities or our funders.

Humanities and Vaccine Equity: What is the Connection?

Dr. Romuladus E. Azuine is the Founder and Executive Director of the Global Health and Education Projects, Inc., (GHEP) in Riverdale. GHEP works organization to increase awareness and education on the importance of humanities in public health. We awarded GHEP a Voices and Votes Electoral Engagement Project Grant earlier this year for their programming titled “Elections 101.”‘

An image of of a Romuladus Azuine, a Black man. We see his head and the upper portion of his torso. He wears a Black suit jacket, a white button down shirt, and a tie with navy blue, purple, and light gray stripes. The background is off-white.In October 2021, the United States (US) reached an inglorious milestone in the history of diseases and illnesses. For the first time, the US recorded 700,000 deaths from the coronavirus-19 disease. This milestone is sobering in many aspects. First, and this is truly sad that COVID-19 deaths have exceeded the number of deaths from all military combats in the history of our country. Second, this number will exceed this number will exceedthe number of deaths from the great 1918 flu pandemic . Until this month, the flu pandemic killed the most Americans of any illness or disease in history. To say that the pandemic has devastated individuals, families, and communities is simply an understatement. The sobering numbers have left  many scratching their heads and pondering how this could happen to the United States—the single super power in the world, and arguably the most medically and technologically advanced nation on the planet.

As at today, the only real shield we have against the devastation of the COVID-19 disease is the vaccines. And fortunately, we have three of them from Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J, all authorized/approved for administration to individuals 12 years or older and as approved by their healthcare professionals. According to experts, the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines include the following( confirmed in Effectiveness of COVID-19 Vaccines in Ambulatory and Inpatient Care Settings):

  1. Preventing infection;
  2. Minimizing the impact of the virus, if infected;
  3. Decreasing hospitalization due to infection; and
  4. Reducing death subsequent to viral infection.

Despite these benefits, the uptake of vaccines has been unequal. Efforts at getting people to take vaccines has, in some cases, been controversial. Meanwhile, one phrase that has emerged from the public discourse for or against COVID-19 vaccine uptake and distribution is “vaccine equity.”  Some questions come to mind. What is vaccine equity? What is the connection between humanities and vaccine equity? Finally what has humanities got to do with vaccine equity?

To start with, vaccine equity refers to a collection of public health policies, programs, and actions aimed at ensuring that vaccines reasonably reach all eligible individuals, families, and communities who need them regardless of social, economic, geographic, or demographic differences. Vaccine equity is the underlying principle that powers the population-level administration of vaccines so it reaches vulnerable individuals, groups or communities so as to equitably distribute the benefits to all peoples.   

There is an age-long relationship between humanities, medicine, and health because—as PA Scott wrote in his 2000 article in Medical Humanities—humanities and medicine share the focus on humans. In fact, the relationship between humanities, healthcare delivery and health equity is well-known and well-acknowledged in literature on the subject, with increasing number of medical and public health training programs arguing for the increase of the humanities to enrich public health practitioners. (A prime example is EJ Casell’s The Place of the Humanities in Medicine.)  This relationship draws from aspects of humanities such as philosophy and  history. But specifically drawing from the study of Philosophy, can help ensure that there is equity in vaccine distribution and in the clinical trials period. These principles are very important when discussing vaccine equity. Thanks to humanities, medical ethics—which is undergirded by philosophy of medicine—mandates the application of four strict ethical principles in the process of developing a vaccine (clinical trials). These philosophical principles call for three important safeguards.   

1) Respect for persons: requires respect for the rights and welfare of individuals. 

2) Beneficence: requires striking an acceptable balance between risks and benefits.   

3) Justice: requires fair distribution of the benefits and burdens of research.

The enforcement of these principles has been improving over the years. Increasingly, regulatory agencies have established strict requirements to ensure that informed consent was obtained from clinical trial participants, and that clinical trials include adequate number or samples representative of different populations that will use products from these trials. In more cases now, there has been punishments for violators of these regulations. In fact, there is government office, called the Office for Human Research Protections, charged with the protection of the rights, welfare, and wellbeing of human subjects involved in research funded by the government.

So when next you find yourself in a discourse on vaccine equity, step back and see whether humanities can help you unpack what can most times be a controversial dialogue regarding vaccine uptake. But when it comes to vaccine equity, humanities can surely arm you with the principles to ask the right questions and arrive at the most optimal decision point or agreement. So, when next you are asked, is there a connection between humanities and vaccine equity? The answer is a resounding yes!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on our blog do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Maryland Humanities or our funders.