TORRINGTON – At the beginning of the school year, Torrington Middle School (TMS) eighth graders Kaila Husted and HeLena McGaugh struggled to decide on a project for the National History Day Contest.
As of last week, the girls have a state title under their belts and are getting ready to compete at the national level in June.
The National History Day Contest encourages students to research and give presentations on a topic of their choice. Civics teacher Stephen Hart implemented the program at TMS three years ago.
“During flex period … we have offered history students the opportunity to work on History Day projects,” Hart said at a special assembly Wednesday morning to honor the girls. “Last week, we took 12 students to Wyoming State History Day competition in Laramie. We are the most competitive we’ve ever been.”
The theme of this year’s projects is “Taking A Stand.” Husted and McGaugh competed in the group website category of the contest, chosing Mary Beth Tinker and her actions as a fellow eighth grader – albeit in 1965 – as their focus.
“We found the topic of Mary Beth Tinker through our research in students’ rights,” the girls explained on their website. “We became interested in this topic because we wanted to know how we, as students, got our rights.”
During the Vietnam War, Tinker wore a black armband to school in protest. She was suspended for her actions and her family took the case to the Supreme Court. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled public school students do have First Amendment rights.
“We found this topic interesting because when Ms. Tinker stood up for her rights she was our age. We thought it was such a big risk for a 13-year-old girl to stand up for her rights – we wanted to know more,” the girls stated in their presentation.
In researching Tinker, McGaugh reached out to the Tinker Tour USA website (tinkertourusa.org) via email. She was shocked to receive a response from Tinker herself.
“I decided to email Tinker Tour without Mr. Hart’s permission,” McGaugh said. “Mary Beth emailed us back and asked, ‘Would you prefer an interview?’ Mr. Hart saw that I was on my email, and I closed it and said I was emailing Mary Beth. He said, ‘Go back, go back!’ We emailed her in October, kept in touch, and got a Skype interview on Nov. 1.”
“It’s one of the most famous Supreme Court cases. I’ve been teaching it for years – I freaked out,” Hart said of the correspondence.
Despite some minor technical difficulties, the girls spent approximately 20 minutes speaking with Tinker.
“It was really exciting for me,” Husted said. “She’s such a huge part of court history. She was very human. She didn’t act like she was better than anybody. Just
“I guess I was kind of nervous, but I was very excited at the same time,” McGaugh agreed. “Nervous – you’re talking to someone that’s very famous. Excited – we got the opportunity to do something no one else did.”
The girls recorded the interview with Tinker and included video highlights on their website, along with an explanation of the case, photos, an annotated bibliography with nearly 30 sources and a process paper, or detailed account of how and why they chose
“It’s a really cool website,” Hart said
The National History Day Contest provides students the tools to build their own websites.
Last week, qualifying students headed to Laramie to find out how their projects stacked up against statewide competition. There were 15 other entries in the group website
“We were waiting because they decided to (announce) junior division winners last … it was nerve-wracking,” Husted said. “They finally got to the website category. They announced second place and we thought, ‘Oh, we didn’t get it,’ then they said, ‘First place goes to Torr-‘ – that’s all I heard before the
“We were walking up on stage and Kaila was bawling. I was crying, too,” McGaugh said. “Mr. Hart was taking pictures, and he was crying. When I ran down the (stage) stairs, all I could do was hug
McGaugh and Husted have until May 16 to make any adjustments to their website and presentation. The national competition takes place in June at the University of Maryland in
McGaugh emailed Tinker about their success and she responded with congratulations for the girls and a desire to meet them in D.C.
“The most exciting thing for me – if we can get together and meet her …” McGaugh trailed off. “She’s kind of turned into a friend.”
Husted and McGaugh expressed gratitude toward staff at TMS who helped them edit or in any way assisted them with their project.
“We just want to say thanks,”
Soon, the girls will kick off a fundraising campaign to raise money for their trip. Anyone interested in donating may contact Hart at TMS at (307)
“This is a huge accomplishment for them,” Hart said. “I’m so proud of what these girls have done – big congratulations to them.”