SELMA -- Recent Abraham Lincoln Middle School graduate Anna Armstrong is a time traveler of sorts.
Not only has she met turn-of-the-century labor rights leader Frances Perkins, but this year, she became Marguerite Higgins, a pioneering woman in the field of journalism.
Anna competed in the 42nd annual Kenneth E. Behring National History Day contest June 12-16 in Maryland. The event tasks students with creating projects based on someone or something from history. This year, Anna portrayed Marguerite Higgins, one of the first female war correspondents who covered World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam.
“What’s neat about her is she opened doors for other women to pursue careers in journalism,” Anna said. “She was one of the first women to win a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for her coverage of the Korean War.”
After reading Higgins’ books, newspaper articles and interviews, Anna created posters, charts, and timelines and then wrote a script to act out. She also gathered props and put her acting experience through the Selma Arts Center and junior company at Roger Rocka’s in Fresno to use in bringing her research to life.
This was the second year that Anna competed at the national level.
While other students wrote research papers, made two-dimensional presentation boards or built websites, Anna says she prefers to portray her research subjects in a one-person play for the dramatic effect it has on the audience.
“I feel like it’s a lot more powerful seeing it live. It’s fun for people to see something live, than read a 26-page paper on it," she said. "Performing gives you a feeling of this drive and ambition and you just want to keep going.”
Anna said audiences were especially moved during one scene where she portrayed how Higgins arrived at the Dachau concentration camp to report on the prisoners’ release. Since Higgins arrived before U.S. Army troops did, German soldiers surrendered to her and she shouted “They are free!" in German to prisoners in the barracks.
“How powerful that must have been, knowing some of them had been there for 11 years. To be liberated like that, all of a sudden, must have been pretty spectacular,” Anna said.
While Anna didn’t place in the competition this year, she’s determined to do so next year. Last year, she placed 9th at the national level. Harper Hoover, a Texas student, took first in the individual performance category with a project on the National Geographic Society.
Other students researched local history, such as Oklahomans’ migration to the San Joaquin Valley while others focused on international matters, such as China’s silk industry and the restructuring of Korea’s crippled economy.
“The competitors at this contest are some of the brightest students of their generation,” National History Day Executive Director Cathy Gorn said.
Since Selma students participate in the History Day event at the local level starting in the fourth grade, and Kingsburg elementary is also starting to take part, Anna recommends students look for a topic they already find interesting.
Next year’s theme is "Taking a Stand in History," and Anna says she has some research ideas in mind. Contest rules, however, say actual research must start only after the start of the school year.
“Everyone has a topic of interest, whether it be sports, whether it be medicine. There’s history behind it," she said. "If you just start digging, you’ll find something you find really exciting about it, and it will change your entire world, and it will get you thinking.”
Jill Clausen, Anna’s History Day coach, credits Anna’s college-level research and acting skills for taking her to the national level.
“As amazing as her performance was last year, it is clear that her abilities in the area of performance have grown dramatically this school year," she said. "Her performance at National History Day was her personal best. The judges were extremely engaged and visibly impressed.”
Anna’s mother, Vicky Armstrong, is a curriculum director in Dinuba. As an educator, she said she sees how the history project helps build research skills students will take into college and their careers.
“They learn the difference between primary and secondary sources, what a good source is and how to do interviews with people. They learn to synthesize all that information and create some type of project,” she said.
Anna says the women she’s researched have inspired her because they’ve broken through stereotypes in their professions. She hopes the women also motivate her fellow students to reach for new heights.
“Girls can be anything they want to be, even if it’s typically a man who does the job. If they decide they want to be in the Army, then they should get to be in the Army. They can be whatever they want to be and shouldn’t let anyone stop them.”