DOWNERS GROVE – History and culture can come from all sorts of places – including beer.
Lakeview Junior High eighth-grader Tommy Surdyk recently took months of research and knowledge of Chicago’s Lager Beer Riot to the National History Day competition, which was hosted from June 12 through 16 at the University of Maryland. The contest brings students from across the country together for months of research, culminating in schoolwide, regional, state and national presentations stressing critical thinking, writing and research skills.
Middle school students choose a topic of interest – in Illinois, a state-centric event or theme is required – and present that history through presentations, documentaries and more.
“The kids have ownership of it,” said Jake Little, Surdyk’s seventh-grade history teacher and implementer of the project at Lakeview. “It does what any good schoolwork wants to achieve – make the students into active participants. They become detectives.”
Research began in November, and Lakeview’s competition was in May – meaning Surdyk was researching and honing his knowledge and presentation for seven months.
Surdyk’s interesting choice of the riot stemmed from a bit of family history, plus a desire to avoid other popular topics – something that made him the first Lakeview student to advance to the national competition in the four years the school has participated.
The 1855 riot was a reaction to a local ordinance that mandated taverns be closed on Sundays and drastically raised the cost of liquor licenses. The decision by the city’s mayor and city council was seen as targeting German and Irish immigrants, and angry protesters took to the streets after several tavern owners were arrested for violating the ordinance, leading to gunfire and the death of a protester.
Surdyk’s own father, a third-generation German immigrant, owned a tavern before his marriage, so the middle schooler had some insider knowledge about the history.
“I learned how immigration really affected the United States,” he said. “There’s been a lot of things that happen with immigration ... but some immigrations can lead to bigger things.”
Though the alcoholic nature of the project made it hard to research at school through its internet search filters, Surdyk used speeches, newspapers, German history museums, books and other periodicals.
He also successfully navigated through what he called “nerve-wracking” interviews with historians and teachers throughout the process.
“It was very cool meeting people from around the United States,” Surdyk said of the National History Day competition. “It’s great if you get an award; I didn’t, but it feels really good to go to.”
Little, who served as one of the judges looking at documentary projects at the national competition, said the lessons in research, history, communication and perseverance learned by students at all levels of competition was worth the months of classwork and weekend field trips to local museums.
He praised Surdyk for his months of dedicated work and mastery of the subject.
“It’s hard work – we went to the Harold Washington Library and kids were sprawled out all over the tables, just digging through books,” he said. “I tell parents that they’ll appreciate the project when they are sitting in a library at law school or colleges. This is one of their first experiences where they are in a sustained learning program.”
To learn more about National History Day, visit nhd.org.