Risco's historic reputation begins with one teacher

Monday, June 2, 2003

RISCO - At the Risco schools, the question each fall isn't if you are going to participate in History Day, it's what is your project?

The school has gained a reputation on the district, state and even the national level for its students' participation. This year is no different.

Risco students earned a multitude of honors and the school was named the Sweepstakes Winner during the 2003 History Day in Cape Girardeau. At the state competition in Columbia, Risco students placed in six categories, more than any other area school. Also Kelsey Murphy was selected to take her media presentation to nationals in Washington, D.C.

The secret to their success, most everyone agrees, is Michael Murphy, Risco High School's history teacher.

Diane Ayotte, state coordinator for national history for Missouri and assistant director of the Western Manuscript Collection, offers high praise for Murphy. She notes whenever there is a History Day workshop, he will most likely be in attendance. He earned the state's History Teacher of the Year award several years ago.

Ayotte said it takes many things to develop a winning project. She explained students have to want to tackle a project and do the work and parents are typically involved because a project will require travel to historic sites, libraries or interviews.

"But in almost all cases when several students do well, the teacher has put in many, many extra hours," said Ayotte.

Murphy does just that, said Misty Murphy ("No relation," she points out with a laugh). Murphy worked with her daughter, Kelsey, whose video on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will compete for national honors, and she has also watched him with students from her office at the Risco High School.

"You ask any kid and they will say he is the toughest teacher they have, but if you ask him who is their favorite - its him. He is tough, he expects you to do your best, not perfection, but your best."

While nearly everyone credits Murphy with the success of Risco's students at history day, Murphy doesn't

"It takes very dedicated students willing to invest a lot of time," he said from his school room filled with project boards and source materials from history projects this year and in the past.

He begins each school year announcing the theme of the History Day competition (the 2003 theme was "Rights and Responsibilities in History") and will post a list of suggested topics. "Choosing the topic is often the hardest part of it," said Murphy.

As part of his high school history class, students research and write a paper "to get the feel for the topic." They visit the Southeast Missouri State University's Kent Library in search of source material.

Through the years of competition, he has learned the importance judges place on primary source material and proper bibliographies and incorporates this into the students' work. The research and the writing is not only good preparation for History Day, he said, but good preparation for those heading to college.

Although participation in History Day isn't required, many students turn their original research into a project for the competition. The students can write papers, or as individuals or as a group create exhibits, performances or media presentations.

"I let them decide what they want to do then try to help. Sometimes it is more the topic they choose that points them in the direction of what they will do," he said. He estimated about 40 students each year, or approximately 40 percent of those eligible in the sixth through 12 grades, will have projects.

The real work begins in January, as students write their scripts for their videos or develop their performances. From February to March the pace picks up.

"It is really intense. We are here after school, on Saturdays and even Sundays," said Murphy. He is quick to point out and praise the help the students receive from other teachers and community volunteers, who will work with performers, proofread papers and offer advice.

"And students who don't do a project are very supportive of those who do. You will find them watching performances, looking at exhibits. They like to see the things that are done," said Murphy.

The work pays off. The school has participated in History Day for 15 years, racking up their first state wins in 1990. Murphy still recalls those winning topics - one on Gutenberg and the printing press and the other on the nearby community of Parma and the impact of farming on the town. He described those wins as the foundation for their continued successes.

And it isn't just history that they learn from participating, the teacher said. "This builds confidence in a student. During the judging, they may be shaking in their boots, with sweat pouring off them but they get through it. They find they can handle the pressure."

And he has learned something as well. "Never underestimate what they can do," Murphy said. "Given encouragement and the right topic and the will to win, a student can do amazing things."

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