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Students learn about history by reliving it

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Jason Smathers
July 9, 2010
— For the last year, Angela Kalas has been living the colonial lifestyle, if only for 10 minutes at a time.

She’s preacher Jonathan Edwards one minute. Then she spins into the shoes of Anglican evangelical George Whitefield, all the while attempting to match the fervor of the figures that transformed American life.


But this isn’t a mere acting gig for the Whitewater High School sophomore; it’s history brought to life.


And it earned her huge accolades at the National History Day competition held last month in Maryland.


Every year, more than a half-million students enter the National History Day contest, which gives middle and high school students the opportunity to present their own research on American history through papers, exhibits or performances.


Kalas started working on her performance, a theatrical interpretation of the religious revival known as The Great Awakening, as part of a U.S. history class at Whitewater. Since the projects require students to conduct a daunting amount of both primary and secondary sources, Whitewater teacher Greg Stewart got them started in September.


“They get so much in terms of their research, it’s hard to leave things out, as a historian would,” Stewart said. “They have to be very judicious, as a historian would be.”


When Kalas found trouble settling on a topic, she consulted with her father and grandfather, both Methodist pastors. They suggested focusing on the Great Awakening, as they already had some secondary sources in the church. Kalas also traveled to Madison for her primary sources, which included correspondence from the very preachers she hoped to emulate.


First, though, she had to break down the texts.


“It was written in older English, so it was hard to understand what exactly they were talking about,” Kalas said.” “I was really pretty overwhelmed. It was written for pretty advanced levels of reading. Plus the S’s look like F’s. My parents had to explain to me.”


After three months of research, she put the mixture of religious philosophy and American history into context and wrote a 10-minute performance that portrayed the preachers involved and their impact on the American Revolution. Kalas earned a trip to the national competition, along with fellow Whitewater students Andy Tautges and Paul Pelayo, when she came in first in her category during statewide competition.


Of the half a million students starting at the local level, only about 600 make it to the national competition. For this reason alone, Kalas didn’t expect much else out of her trip to Maryland except a nice sightseeing trip of Washington D.C. and Colonial Williamsburg.


Kalas’ hopes jumped a bit when her first round performance earned her a spot in the final round. Kalas gave an encore for the judges and hoped for the best.


She finished in ninth place. Only the top three students in each categories were guaranteed scholarships. Kalas was initially disappointed, but another award boosted her spirits: Colonial Williamsburg was so impressed that it gave her a scholarship.


Stewart was especially proud of the results, since this was only Whitewater’s third year participating in the contest. More than the awards, he hopes his students have gotten something valuable out of the experience.


Kalas certainly did. Aside from having built up a new knowledge base, she said the whole trip was worth it—even if she didn’t come in first this time.


“The performances are just why we’re there, sure, but it’s a little part of the experience,” Kalas said. “You want to enjoy the experience of meeting new people and seeing other people’s projects, see their websites.


“It’s really neat to see what people have put into this.”



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