HARRISON — Harrison Elementary School sixth-graders Aiden Baker and Ronan Brown are breaking barriers during this history-making spring that’s kept them out of school. Separated by social distancing, the pair is making final adjustments to a history project they began last November.

Aiden Baker, left, and Ronan Brown with their history exhibit about Abraham Lincoln abolishing slavery in the U.S. The two Harrison Elementary School students are presenting their project at Maine’s National History Day Contest on May 2. Submitted photo

The two are competing at the state level of Maine’s National History Day, an annual contest presented by the Margaret Chase Smith Foundation, the University of Maine and other organizations.

While their research topic is one of America’s finest heroes – Abraham Lincoln – the theme of the contest is “breaking barriers,” a metaphor of sorts for the conditions Baker and Brown find themselves in. The 16th president broke barriers to finally end slavery in the United States during the Civil War. The students are focused on presenting his legacy, despite the barriers of social distancing.

“National History Day is a program that encourages students to do independent research based on a specific theme,” explained John Taylor of Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan. “This year’s theme is Breaking Barriers in History and gives students throughout Maine an opportunity to present their work to professionals in the field of history in one of five ways—including a paper, exhibit, website, documentary, or performance.

“This year is our largest contest season since the Margaret Chase Smith Foundation and the University of Maine took over the program in 2014. Nearly 700 students took part in our regional contests and roughly 300 of them are registered for our virtual contest happening on May 2.”

Taylor said the first and second place winners at the state level will be invited to participate in the national contest. Third Place winners will serve as alternates.

Baker and Brown were handpicked by their teacher at Harrison Elementary, Pauline Leadbetter, to compete in National History Day.

“These two are community active and they both are very history-oriented,” said Leadbetter. “Ronan is very political in his approach and Aiden is not just good at history but at thinking deeply about it. They stood out from the class. Some schools will assign an entire class to the competition. I wanted to start this year with just a small group and it was obvious right away that they’d go far with it.”

Baker and Brown first presented their research exhibit in person at the regional level of National History Day on March 2, along with other competing students from grades 6-12. The regional contest took place at Museum L-A and at the Lewiston Public Library. After that day Baker and Brown were selected to advance to the state competition, set for May 2. They will be among about 300 students presenting 180 projects. Because of the social gathering limitations due to the coronavirus outbreak, this year’s state finals will be conducted virtually.

“It was a long process,” said Brown of preparing for the regional competition. “That day we set up our exhibit at Museum L-A and had to wait about five hours after our interviews to see if the judges would put us through to states.”

“There were also people doing re-enactments of history at the library as part of the contest,” said Baker. “We had a scheduled time to be at our exhibit but we were able to see other entries too.”

The opportunity to view other projects inspired the two to continue improving their exhibit. They are adding Maine connections to the project, including its part in the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and Lincoln’s selection of Paris Hill resident Hannibal Hamlin as his vice president.

They are also adjusting the scope of their research to focus more on the political fight for abolition during the Civil War than the social movements leading up to it.

The exhibit Baker and Brown took to the regional competition included famous faces who did their part for the abolition of slavery – John Brown, the fiery preacher who with his family attempted a slave insurrection in 1859, escaped slaves Underground Railroad hero Harriett Tubman and orator/writer Frederick Douglass, and Harriett Beecher Stowe who wrote the groundbreaking anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

To revise their exhibit to focus more on the political aspects of Lincoln’s legacy, they decided they needed to exchange the social movement leaders Brown, Tubman and Stowe with the president’s close government allies: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of State William Seward and Commander of the U.S. Army Ulysses S Grant.

Unable to work together at school or each other’s homes, Baker and Brown have had to find other ways to finalize their project. They continue to partner closely, just as they did when they began their research last November.

“One thing that impresses me is their ability to work together,” said Leadbetter. “They feed off each other, and they’ve done a very good job communicating, including in areas where they disagreed on the work.”

“When Mrs. Leadbetter asked if we wanted to work on the project we could have done it together or individually,” said Baker. “We decided we wanted to approach it together because we work so well together.”

“We split the work. I’ll work on something and share it with him, then he’ll share what he’s working on with me. We do it through email and we might do some of it on Zoom too.”

“Aiden has to do the physical work,” Brown said. “He has the board so he has to do the work of adding information to it himself.”

“They have worked on this project for a long time,” said Leadbetter. “Our class hasn’t gotten to the study of the Civil War yet so they’ve done this without any classroom teaching. They did all their own research, visiting museums. I think that’s why the project has come out so well. It’s wonderful to see how well the two of them worked together.”

 


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