West Jeff team competes at National History Day

West Jefferson High School students Jeremy Ewalt, Caitlin Greer and Samantha Walton qualified as a team for the National History Day competition in Maryland.
West Jefferson High School students Jeremy Ewalt, Caitlin Greer and Samantha Walton qualified as a team for the National History Day competition in Maryland.

(Posted June 30, 2016)

By Linda Dillman, Staff Writer

A trio of former West Jefferson High School seniors extended their educational experience beyond graduation in May to the National History Day competition on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus in Maryland.

Samantha Walton, Caitlin Greer and Jeremy Ewalt, along with their advisor Jenny Siddiqi, spent June 12-16 touring the Washington D.C. area, viewing the competition and watching as judges deliberated on their static display titled “Ping-Pong Diplomacy: Political Power Play.”

According to Siddiqi, a high school history instructor, the innovative and alleged unintentional diplomatic strategy “started with an encounter between the Chinese and American table tennis teams in Japan, which led to the exchange of players/games between the two countries. The U.S. team went to China in 1971 and their team came to the U.S. in 1972 (after President Richard Nixon’s visit).

“This ultimately led to the exploration of a new relationship between the two countries.”

The team of West Jefferson students picked this topic because it incorporated the three themes of the 2016 History Day challenge—exploration, encounter and exchange—and consisted of a board painted green and white in reference to a ping-pong table following rules set by the History Day competition, along with reference material and artifacts.

Siddiqi said the biggest challenges facing the trio were deciding what to put on the board, what to leave off, and sifting through the origins of Ping-Pong Diplomacy.

“Being a fairly recent topic, they were able to find lots of pictures and news articles about the event and even interviewed two of the players on the American team, but not everything could be displayed on the board. They had to be strategic in using only the items that furthered understanding of the topic,” Siddiqi said.

“Some say it (the encounter) was completely by chance—that an American player ended up on a Chinese bus and they invited the team to China. Others (including Henry Kissinger) felt that the Chinese had planned to invite the Americans all along and set it up to look spontaneous.”

Students consulted several different sources and drew their own inferences.  They ultimately concluded that the invitation was probably planned as the Chinese were known for making the planned look spontaneous.

When the American team went to China, this opened the door to both Nixon and Mao to begin diplomatic relations with one another, leading to Nixon’s historic visit.

“Before the matches, neither Nixon nor Mao were able to reach out to one another due to strong opposition by both the American and Chinese populations,” Siddiqi said.  “They needed a way to sort of ‘break the ice’ and get everyone used to the idea of the Americans and Chinese interacting with one another.

Students from around the world, including Guatemala and Singapore, attended the National History Day competition. Siddiqi’s students competed against approximately 70 other project teams in the senior group exhibit category, after having placed at the regional and state levels.

The national process included a 20-minute interview with judges, during which the students answered questions and presented their research, along with a detailed annotated bibliography. Siddiqi said while the team received good feedback from the judges, they did not place in the competition.

The months-long endeavor began in November when the topic was chosen, followed by preliminary research over winter break. The students began working on the project on a daily basis in January.

“One of the great surprises of their research was locating one of the team members who actually resides in Columbus,” Siddiqi said. “We were able to interview him at a local table tennis club, and Jeremy played a match against him and got his autograph. He was very nice to the students and provided some great information.

“By mid-February, the students were usually in my room after school a couple of days a week, and during the days prior to the competition, we were usually at school until late in the evening. I can’t really even guess as to how many hours they put into it, but I can tell you it was a lot.”

The students qualified for the state competition at a regional competition held in March. At the state competition in late April, they placed first in their category and therefore qualified for national competition—the top two projects in each category moved on to nationals. Most of the entire West Jefferson contingent made it to the state level.

Between every level of competition, participants could make changes to their projects. Between regionals and state, the West Jeff Ping-Pong Diplomacy team completely stripped their board of all their research and redesigned it. They also made changes between state and national competition, but not as many.

“This is the second time a (West Jefferson) team has made it to nationals. Two years ago, there was another project—a group exhibit as well—that qualified for nationals, so this was my second trip,” Siddiqi said. “I have been doing History Day with my students for eight years now.”

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