Eight grade filmmaker wins prize
At this year’s New Jersey National History Day state competition on May 6th at William Paterson University, Lawrence Middle School student Matthew Duncan received the “Best African-American Project” award by the New Jersey Historical Society, the first time such an award was given, for his project, titled “Black Hair: Taking a Stand for Heritage and Revolution.”
National History Day (NHD) is a competition that allows middle and high school students from around the nation to work on an in-depth research on any topic of their interest, based on the yearly theme, which in 2017 was “Taking A Stand In History.” The students first present at a regional level, and a select few advance to the state level. The winners at the state level then go to the national level.
Duncan, aged 12 and entering Lawrence High School next fall, first found his passion for history in sixth grade, when the social studies course introduced “ancient history and a bit of military history, with figures like Napoleon and Julius Caesar. That’s when I started learning history on my own time.”
“I’m deeply interested in Napoleonic history and Eastern history, like the early Chinese dynasties and Japanese history,” he added.
However, according to his parents, his interest in history started before. “Even before he was going to school, Matthew absolutely loved dinosaurs. He was so enthralled that he even could have serious conversations with real paleontologists,” said mother Maria Duncan.
Duncan began channeling his passion through NHD in 7th grade, when he joined Lawrence Middle School and the Enrichment Challenge Program (ECP). While all students in ECP are required to create a project based on NHD guidelines, they are not required to compete. However, the ECP teacher, Priscilla Taylor, believes that Duncan stood out as a student, which made him competition-ready. “He’s a very enthusiastic and curious student. He has a deep interest in a lot of different subjects,” Taylor said.
When Duncan first heard the 2017 NHD topic was Taking A Stand In History, his focus immediately went to the Civil Rights Movement. However, through the help of Taylor, he was able to focus on a specific aspect of the movement. “Ms. Taylor was a huge help. I was originally just focusing on African-American culture, but she focused and helped me, and showed me that I needed more analysis,” Duncan said.
He was also inspired by a book titled “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” by Lori L. Tharps. “I had looked it up for recreational reading because it was about my hair. And so I read it, and it inspired it to me think about hair as not cultural but more politicized, as it was an influential aspect in the Civil Rights Movement. That’s what got me thinking that I could make a topic about hair.”
Duncan’s project was in the form of a documentary, which he used to “connect to the yearly theme by analyzing the topic, not just stating facts. My documentary focused on how people wore their hair styles during the time period and how that style affected the overall activity in the Civil Rights Movement.”
In his documentary, Duncan explored the various groups of the time, and how they related to the popular hairstyles. “New radical movements that were being created at the time, like the Black Panther party, really wanted to stick together and wanted a uniform form of hair. That way you could communicate to everyone what your political beliefs are. Though the afro wasn’t originally African, the style caught on with African-Americans, especially the youth of the time who were engulfed in being rebels,” Duncan said.
Though the final presentation was professional and persuasive, Duncan faced his fair share of obstacles while preparing the project. “First of all, the program (Windows Movie Maker) that I used to create my documentary was incredibly difficult to use. It could take hours into putting a very small amount of video in,” Duncan said.
Along with compiling the documentary, Duncan also faced trouble with the research itself. “Ms. Taylor really likes us focusing on primary sources, because not only do the judges pay attention to primary sources, but they’re very accurate and they also show deep research. At one point, I really couldn’t find any more sources, but then I found some important archives and databases which really helped. I even got a surprising number of books for such an obscure topic.”
“I would say in general, probably finding primary sources for this particular project was difficult, but he kept persevering,” Taylor added.
Through this perseverance, Duncan advanced from the regional level to the state level. Though his project did not make it to the national competition, he received the award from the New Jersey Historical Society at the end of the state level. “I think it was the first award announced, and we were all (cheering) because they had told us the NJHS was offering this particular award for the first time so to have one of our students win it was just an amazing experience for all of us there,” Taylor said.
As part of the award, Duncan was given a certificate, $250, a one-year membership to the NJHS, and an internship opportunity at the Society in high school or college. Additionally, a representative of the NJ Department of Education has indicated plans to arrange for Matthew to present his project at the Amistad Commission Summer Institute Conferences for Teachers at Kean University and Rowan University this summer.
Duncan believes he received the award due to his unique topic. “Although there were are lot of African-American related projects, a lot of them were about completely well-known topics. My project really went into an obscure cultural topic, and the Society really wants to highlight historical topics that no one knows about,” he said.
Through his project, Duncan learned various lessons. “Firstly and most importantly, I learned what an influence culture had on politics. I thought that culture was irrelevant in politics and culture didn’t matter or shape anything. As I did my research, I found the exact opposite,” he said.
Duncan also learned how to make a detailed and professional level project, which his father believes will be extremely valuable. “Getting the experience to put a project of this magnitude together helped provide that structure around how he learns and presents,” Greg Duncan said.
Maria Duncan added that NHD helped sharpen his already-present passion for history. “NHD helped him learn how to research and learn more about a topic. It really focused him on getting good and reliable information and learning how to present it. I think his interest and willingness to share his interest was already there, but it was more about taking that and presenting it,” she said.
Throughout the past two years of involvement in NHD, Ms. Taylor has also seen a great deal of growth in Duncan. “Everything from improved writing skill, improved research skill, increased competence level in communication whether verbally or in writing with adults, because a lot of what we do with NHD is encouraging students to contact experts, whether it be historians or authors or professors,” Taylor said.
“I think he had a terrific two years at middle school and I saw his writing, research, critical thinking skills, confidence all improve dramatically throughout, not only through NHD but through everything in ECP. I think this award was an icing on the cake, and what a way to end a middle school career!” she added.
While Duncan has learned a great deal from his project, he believes others can learn from the topic too. “It’s certainly not as prevalent as during the movement, but hair is still shaping our culture and how we do everything. I think it’s important that people know the politicized meaning of hair back then. Wear a hairstyle doesn’t define your politics today, but a lesson that I would like people to take would be to be proud of what you stand for. I personally don’t wear the afro for any political reason, I wear its because its easy. But be proud.”
For others interested in NHD or research projects in general, Duncan offers some advice. “First of all, make you sure you look at a lot of information before you start, because if my topic did not have a lot of information, I would have had a problem. Also, try to get interviews, because my primary source interview with Professor Nijah Cunningham from Princeton University was incredible. The judges send you back what they liked about your documentary, and they said that the interview was a highlight for mine,” Duncan said.
“I also went to the Museum of African American History in Washington D.C., and that was extremely effective. So to actually go places, that gives you an incredible amount of information,” he added.
Along with Duncan, various students from Lawrence Middle School received high awards. “One of my student groups placed within the top 20 group performances in the nation, another group received awards from three different New Jersey historical associations for their documentary on George Washington's ten-day stand during the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and yet another group's exhibit was chosen to represent New Jersey on June 14 at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.,” Taylor said.
“Overall it was a tremendously satisfying experience for Matthew as a student and a young adult. I’m so happy and proud of him,” Taylor concluded.
Duncan lives with his mother Maria, a stay-at-home mom and former mortgage team manager, and his father Greg Duncan, a web project manager at Princeton University. He plans on continuing NHD in high school, and is already looking forward to next year’s theme, “Conflict and Compromise.”
For more information on New Jersey National History Day, please visit: https://nhd.org/affiliate/new-jersey
To view Duncan’s documentary, please go to: https://youtu.be/xS4OFlJONa4
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