The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum will be a beehive of activity next week when some 450 students from the metro area gather to participate in National History Day, a yearlong academic program focused on historical research, interpretation and creative expression for students in grades 6 through 12.

The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum will be a beehive of activity next week when some 450 students from the metro area gather to participate in National History Day, a yearlong academic program focused on historical research, interpretation and creative expression for students in grades 6 through 12.


“This place will be (filled) to the brim (on March 3),” says Mark Adams, education director of the presidential library and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, who was instrumental in bringing the national program to Independence 15 years ago.


The program enables participating students to become writers, filmmakers, web designers, playwrights and artists as they create unique, contemporary expressions of history.


National History Day started nationally in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1974. But the competitive event didn’t come to Independence until Adams joined the library staff in 1997 and made NHD a part of the library’s educational program the following year.


The Truman Library, which is in the Greater Kansas City Area District on the Missouri side of the state line, is one of nine Missouri districts in which students will be participating in projects in five different categories.


“The kids do research and present the findings of the research,” Adams says. “But instead of doing scientific research, they do history research ... and turn it into a project.”


The neat part about the competition, he says, is that history buffs don’t just write papers. They can do a table-top exhibit, make a website, present a play/performance or do a video documentary.


They can enter one of those five categories and vie for a chance to compete in the Missouri state finals in Columbia in April and perhaps in the national finals in College Park, Md., in June. Only the top three winners in each category will advance.


The program has been successful since its inception.


“I would say the Truman Library is very proud of the success of the program that we have built over the past 15 years,” he says. “We have become sort of the flagship. We have grown from being the smallest program in 1998 to now the largest in the state, and it will continue to grow.”


Among the 400-plus students participating are those from some 20-plus schools, including Bridger, Bingham and Pioneer Ridge middle schools, all in Independence, as well as students from Blue Springs High School.


Students can choose any topic for their projects as long as it relates to the theme. This year’s theme is “Revolution, Reaction, Reform.”


Says Adams: “So many of them are looking at the American Revolution and French Revolution, but some of them are looking at revolution in fashions or revolution in music or medicine. Topics are all over the map.”


And the most popular category?


“It’s the three-panel exhibit and websites, Adams says, explaining both are “jointly popular” today. “Students can build their own websites to demonstrate their research, so those are the top two (in popularity). The least popular category is performance, which requires students to present a live performance in front of judges.


“That’s a little nerve-wracking for a sixth grader (to do), so that is harder. But we do have them, but just not as many.”


The website category, Adams says, is almost like an online exhibit. What (students) are doing is building an exhibit online that shows their interpretation of their research, including what they have found and their conclusions.


“It’s just not a book report,” he says. “...What they are doing is building an exhibit online that shows their interpretation of their research.”


The extra research that some of these students do are phenomenal,” Adams says. An example is a student a teacher told him about who was doing research on the “Little Rock Nine” in Arkansas and obtained an interview from one of the “Nine” as part of the research.


“Isn’t that amazing that a high school kid was able to find one of the Little Rock Nine (to interview)?” Adams says. “Now for that student, it doesn’t matter where (the exhibit) places or whether (he or she) goes to the state finals or not. The fact that (he or she) had that experience as a teenager – that’s the program for me. That’s the level of research they go to ... that’s the motivation they have.”


Then there’s the story Judy Turner, development director of the Truman Library Institute, tells about a group of eighth and ninth grade students from Fort Scott, Kan., who did a National History Day performance on Irena Sendler, a polish girl who helped sneak children out of concentration camps during World War II and hid them.


During the research on this little known Holocaust heroine, the students learned Sendler was still alive. So they found her, interviewed her, started corresponding with her and became very connected to her.


Says Judy: “Their performance was so phenomenal that they are still doing it today, and they have done it internationally” as well as at the Truman Library a couple of years ago.


“Many times students uncover history that adults have forgotten,” Adams says. “They become the historians because they find things that have faded away. They track down people who have been forgotten.”


The history event, which is open to the public, begins at 8 a.m. Awards will be presented around 4 p.m. in the library auditorium.


“What’s neat about (the ceremony),” Adams says, “is that when they win, they will cheer like they have won a football game. You know, they get excited about history, which is really kind of neat.


And when the awards are presented, expect to see some tears of defeat, Adams says.


“We are eliminating a lot of students that day – which is unfortunate – and they get upset. And when a teacher tells me her student was crying, I say, ‘You know what? They are crying about an academic subject they lost. They are not crying about their school team losing a football game. They are crying about losing in history.’ ”


Adams says it feels “kind of rewarding” that these students get so invested in their projects that they get upset.


“Not that I want to see any students crying, but the fact they are so wanting to exceed in an academic subject that they get upset about it shows a lot about the program they have so much invested in.”


Turner, whose involvement with National History Day has been as a judge, says NHD is the most phenomenal program for students she’s ever been associated with.


“It’s interesting for them. It’s just a phenomenal program.”


And what would Harry Truman have thought about National History Day?


“I believe Harry Truman would be very proud of National History Day here at the Truman Library,” Turner says. “He wanted his library to be a place where people could come and learn about history, government, the presidents, and he wanted that especially for children and students. So to see 450 to 500 kids packed in here for one day, he would be excited, and I am proud I can help that happen.”