Hands-on History


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A citywide competition challenges and inspires young history students to find meaning and importance in past events


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  • Rcheli Moskowitz, an eighth-grader at Manhattan Day School, with her exhibit exploring the connection between the Osage Indians and the creation of the FBI.


  • Photo: Michelle Naim">

    Philip Winter, 16, from York Preparatory School, got into the spirit of the event for the New York City History Day competition. Photo: Michelle Naim



“Whatever it is that you love, there's a history to that.”

Vinson Cunningham, New Yorker staff writer



Rain fell hard last Sunday morning, but that didn't stop the 411 students from all five boroughs who made their way to the New York Academy of Medicine on the Upper East Side to compete in the 29th annual New York City History Day Competition. The doors opened at 8:00 a.m. and the students, from grades 6 through 12, filed in and began to set-up for their presentations. They had been preparing for this day since last fall.

This year's theme was “Triumph & Tragedy in History.” As the 2019 theme narrative asks: “Can one person's triumph be another's tragedy? Can the same person or group suffer from tragedy and triumph at the same time? How does one ultimately triumph after tragedy? Can triumph lead to tragedy?” These were the types of questions students grappled with as they worked to formulate their presentations throughout the school year.

A New Generation of Historians

New Yorker staff writer Vinson Cunningham delivered the opening address. He spoke about the role history has played in his life, highlighting ways that may not be obvious. “Although I've never been to NYC History Day,I do love the fact that it brings that mission to children and raises up the next group of leaders,” he said. Though he said he was not always the best history student in school, he recognizes the importance and impact history has on all of us. “Whatever it is that you love, there's a history to that ... sooner or later the thing that you really care about is going to invite you into its history. It doesn't matter whether you're a 'history person' or not. If you are someone who loves a thing you are going to end up in the space of [its] history. And so, history is a curiosity — it's the life of any great enthusiasm.”

The Museum of the City of New York has been the sole host of the competition since its been held in the city, said Maggie Bordonaro, the museum's education manager. The first year, 1991, there were just 32 students from five schools. Today, the hundreds of competitors come from 36 different schools, This year, the museum introduced 10 new schools to the competition. “This is for everyone,” Bordonaro said. “It can be really great for students with different learning modalities.”

Bordonaro also pointed to the diversity of the participating students, and noted the museum's role in “bridging the gap” between the students and their research opportunities. “We are serving as the access point for students who wouldn't have that access otherwise,” she said.

Creating and Competing

Students were able to choose one of five different formats to present their findings: documentary, exhibit, written paper, theater/live performance, or website. And they were able to pick a topic from anywhere in the world and any time period in history. This encouraged the students to follow their passions, for a particular piece of history, and for the best way to present it.

The presentations are judged on historical quality (60 percent), relation to that year's theme (20 percent) and clarity of presentation (20 percent). The winners will be announced on Wednesday, March 14. “A lot of people get focused on the fact that it's a competition, but the winning of the prize ... is definitely not the greatest gain,” Bordonaro said. “The greatest gains are the skills learned — how to do research, how to take facts, synthesize them, and make a cogent argument. I would also say what happens day-of is that they are speaking with adults, whom they don't know, about their work ... They become mini-experts in whatever they're studying.”

Rachel Thompson is a seventh-grade social studies teacher at PS 149 in Middle Village, Queens. After her students presented their website, they told her the experience was “nerve racking ... but they liked our topic.”

Eighth-grader Racheli Moskowitz from Manhattan Day School made an exhibition board to present her research on the relationship between the Osage Indians and the creation of the FBI. At first, Racheli wanted to build a website. But as she was working on it, she shifted gears to a project that she felt was a better showcase for her creative skills. “My favorite part, I think, was actually making the board, because I love making things. Putting everything together and seeing how it turned out was such a fun experience.”





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