Hundreds of students gathered in Los Angeles recently to recall the lives of historical figures from Abraham Lincoln to Gandhi. For these youngsters, the past is more than dry facts about treaties and battles.
Michelle Herzog of the Los Angeles County Office of Education says history gets short shrift in American schools today. Many local school boards are focusing on the basics, such as reading, writing and math. But here at Azusa Pacific University, which is hosting the regional contest for this year's History Day, the past is coming to life, and the visiting elementary and high school students love it.
"We have approximately 745 young people from all over Los Angeles County who are competing today, and they have an opportunity to demonstrate their wonderful learning in a number of different ways," said Michelle Herzog.
Students display their exhibits, posters, websites and some reenact historical events. Twelve-year-old Lawrence Ng did a presentation about a German resistance effort during World War II.
"It was about a German army officer who tried to assassinate Hitler," said Lawrence Ng.
His friend, Kevin Yang, spoke about the Alamo, where 189 Texans fought a Mexican force of thousands.
Outside on the college grounds, historical re-enactors, who are people with an interest in different historical periods, help students learn about life in early America.
As musicians performed traditional songs, a group in uniforms from the American Civil War showed students hardtack biscuits and salt-pork.
"They preserved the meat by packing it in salt," he said. "It was soaked in brine and then [they] packed it in salt. "
Nearby, Roger Cooper, dressed as an officer in George Washington's Continental Army, is signing up student-recruits to fight the British redcoats.
"Most of them want to be spies," said Roger Cooper. "We need very many spies. And what's very good, they all know how to count over 100. You must be able to count red coats, and muskets and cannons."
Re-enactors draw a crowd of young history buffs as they demonstrate their firearms.
While some students enjoy stories about life in earlier days, others are focused on recent times, when their parents were young. Sunny Sepaci and two friends produced an eight-minute video for their history project. It examined the protest songs of such singers as Bob Dylan, using music, pictures and voices from the 1960s.
"I like history and I like learning about things like this," said Sunny Sepaci. "It makes me gain more knowledge about the past, and how everything affected people, and how things are today because of the past."
Michelle Herzog of the Los Angeles office of education says the theme of this year's contest is "Taking a Stand in History," and students are looking at people, ideas and events that made a difference. Among the perennial favorites at the annual competition are Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and other projects this year looked at the late Philippine activist Benigno Aquino and the reformer and former Polish president Lech Walesa. Herzog says each story offers a lesson.
"It's exciting to have an event like this where we can celebrate and demonstrate and show the world that we can't forget, if you don't know your past, you don't know where you're going," she said.
Winners from the Los Angeles contest will compete statewide, and California winners will go on to the national finals in Maryland in June.