My turn

History comes to life for students pursuing their own interests

2013-03-10T00:00:00Z History comes to life for students pursuing their own interestsBy Bill Vargo Times Columnist
March 10, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Parents, myself included, will often complain about the distractions that fill their children’s lives, including Xbox, Wii, texting, the internet and television. All are a sort of electronic escape.

We can either stand in the middle of the room and shout at the darkness or find a way to meet our children where they live.

Over the last few years, I have highlighted some extraordinary programs in area schools. Few have the ability to challenge children and meet them where they are most comfortable like the National History Day program, designed to ask large questions and then step aside to let the students answer them in whatever medium they choose.

Students can team up with other students of like interest to create documentaries, websites, performances and exhibits, or they can create on their own. There is the research paper option as well that is exclusively for the solo historian.

At Highland Christian School, Rick VanderWoude recognized immediately the value in allowing the students to guide the project. As he has said many times, students are capable of doing great things when left to organize on their own and ask for help when needed.

This, of course, includes parental prodding and encouragement. Like any extracurricular program that takes a great deal of time outside of the classroom, parental support is essential. 

VanderWoude had a bright core of students to start out with this year. His National History Day class started out with five students who had participated in this program before: Jack Barth, Noah Holderman, Caleb Last, Ethan O’Riley, and Matt Vargo, all eighth graders. Sixth-grader Cate Peerbolte joins seventh-graders Jeff Kroll and Jashawn Rogers to round out the group.

This year's topic is "Turning Points in History: People, Ideas and Events." 

Much like the athlete that practices his shots over and over again and the runner that logs miles of open road on her way to competitive glory, these students labor in obscurity for long stretches of time. They might forego that television show that they really want to watch or that lazy Saturday morning for a trip to the library to pick up research books.

All are quick to tell you what they are working on, whether it be the effect of the mechanized plow to the future of farming in America or the effect of electricity on the development of America in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Another might say that what is really interesting is the effect Title IX had on women’s sports and the drive for equality. What of the influence of Walt Disney on modern American culture, or the Tuskeegee Airmen and their influence on the civil rights movement?

The students are not in the least shy about what interested them and were able to dig so much deeper than they would have on a typical history class assignment. They were a team that came together at the end to critique each others’ work and offer sound, constructive feedback.

The stamina, drive, determination and hours of research are skills that will serve them well in their futures, which are as bright as an arc light (Thomas Edison pun).

The opinions are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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