Josh Brooks and VUES students win History Day honors

VERGENNES — Vergennes-area students have a long track record of participation and excellence in the annual Vermont History Day competition under the tutelage of two now-retired teachers, Cookie Steponaitis from Vergennes Union High School and Kathy Douglas from Ferrisburgh Central.
But by 2018 only one Addison Northwest School District student, Jarret Muzzy, then a VUHS freshman, placed at the annual competition for middle and high school students.
This year ANWSD teams and students — 13 in all — collectively came away with five prizes at the April 6 competition at the University of Vermont, and one, Ferrisburgh 6th-grader Maggie Amerson, qualified to compete in Washington, D.C, in June for her documentary, “The Pirate Queen: The Story of Ching Shih.” They competed against 400 students from around Vermont.
And about twice as many ANWSD students as in 2018 — 19 total — signed up this year to meet once a week at the Vergennes Union Elementary School classroom of 6th-grade social studies and language arts teacher Josh Brooks to prepare projects for Vermont History Day.
This year Brooks, who has been working with Vermont History Day students for three years, was joined by VUHS social studies department chairwoman Becca Coffey to co-coach the students in the program, which for the first time was offered by the ANWSD after-school Fusion program.
And the students weren’t the only winners: The Vermont Historical Society, which oversees Vermont History Day, nominated Brooks as Vermont’s candidate for the national Hannah E. (Liz) MacGregor Teacher of the Year Award, Junior Division. The winner stands to collect $5,000.
According to the nomination letter written by Victoria Hughes, the Vermont Historical Society’s Museum and Education Manager, Brooks is “an enthusiastic and engaging teacher” who has helped expand the program within ANWSD.
“With his dedication and energy, Josh shares his love of history and research with his students. I am proud to recognize Josh for his excellence in teaching and his commitment to providing educational opportunities for his students,” Hughes wrote.
In an email to the Independent Hughes also praised Coffey.
“I can only nominate one teacher at a time, but I definitely appreciate Becca’s involvement in Vermont History Day,” she said.
The prizes earned by ANWSD students were:
•Deborah Pickman Clifford Vermont Women’s History Prize: Nora Nelson and MaryBeth Cosgrove (Ferrisburgh Central) for their exhibit, “I Knew People Who Had Nothing: The Great Depression in Vermont.”
•George F. Edmunds Memorial Prize: Claire Clark, Sophia Johnson, Mia Kutchukian and Jing Williams (VUES) for their documentary, “Finding Happiness Again: A Story of Vermont Refugees.”
•Labor History Prize: Samantha Colvin and Kimari Collins (VUHS) for their exhibit, “Child Labor Laws and the Mills: From Tragedy to Triumph.”
•Third place, Junior Division, group performance: Lila Carr and Natalie Jackman (VUHS) for their performance, “Upton Sinclair: How One Man Unpacked the Meat Packing Industry.”
•Second place, Junior Division, individual documentary: Amerson for her documentary on the Chinese female pirate. Brooks said second-place overall finishers are eligible to compete at the national level, but only if the judges evaluate their work as “superior.”
•First place, Senior Division, group documentary, Muzzy and Adam Clark, for their exhibit, “The 54th Massachusetts Regiment.” Muzzy and Clark competed independently without coaching.
Brooks, Amerson, Muzzy and Clark will go to Washington, D.C., in June for the National History Day competition.
Brooks said national qualifiers are allowed to take suggestions from state judges to upgrade their offerings for the next level, and Amerson did not wait long after the April 6 competition at UVM to start sharing ideas with him.
“They get feedback from the judges at Vermont History Day, and she can take that and improve on her work and make revisions,” Brooks said. “I was literally on my way home and my phone was buzzing with the all the revisions she was going to do.”
Vermont History Day participants are expected to produce museum-quality work. Weekly sessions in Brooks’ classroom began in October. Brooks said the program is demanding, but the students who sign up do what it takes to excel.
“First of all, they have to be really interested in and passionate about history,” he said. “A lot of them come in with an idea. They’re interested in fighter planes, or 9-11. Whatever it is, they want to learn more. Then it really comes down to work ethic. For all of these kids it’s the first time they’ve had to chase an answer for months, not just I’m going to research this topic for a couple of days for school, but they’re doing research and taking notes and annotating for about six months. It’s really a test of endurance.”
Details are paramount.
“You have to cite your sources using MLA (Modern Language Association) style. And whatever type of presentation they’ve chosen there are specific parameters. You can only have so many words on an exhibit board, for instance. So you have to be willing to do that detail work that middle school students don’t always, and these guys are willing to stick with it,” Brooks said.
Both he and Coffey worked with all the students. Brooks said Coffey offered a greater depth of knowledge and those details.
“She has a history degree and she’s a high school teacher, so her background is a little more extensive than mine. And so she was really good at a lot of the detail work, looking over kids’ annotations and making sure they fit the format. And I’m much more like, ‘Look at that. This is awesome,’” he said. “We both have a passion for it. Whatever kids needed, we’d divide and conquer over the course of a session.”
VUES TEACHER JOSH Brooks was nominated for a National History Day teaching honor. He and VUHS teacher Becca Coffey co-coached 19 Addison Northwest School District students who signed up to present during the April 6 Vermont History Day competition; 11 of them won awards.
Photo courtesy of Tara Brooks
Brooks, 44, said he caught the history bug early on during his Panton childhood, and then Kathy Douglas hooked him on the Vermont History Day late in his 11-year tenure at Ferrisburgh Central, which ended a year ago when he transferred to VUES.
“At Ferrisburgh I had an absolutely fabulous mentor, Kathy Douglas, who has since retired. She started talking about it and said she wanted to make sure it kept going. I love history and I have since I was a little kid, so it wasn’t a hard sell,” Brooks said. “In the first year (at Vermont History Day) I just followed and watched. It’s a spectacle. It’s like going to a big swimming or wrestling meet with young historians. It’s just amazing to see what they do. So after that first year I said, yeah, I’ll take this on.”
Brooks said he and Coffey were thrilled to see the program grow under the Fusion setting at VUES, and he hopes this year’s results will attract more interest.
“We decided this was a good opportunity to make this thing grow, and especially seeing kids win, I think that helps as a recruiting tool,” he said.
Coffey deserves credit for his nomination, Brooks said.
“We both share in the work. This is the first time I’ve done something like this, a collaborative effort,” Brooks said. “She’s taught me a lot, and like I said she’s really good with the details. And I think part of this contest is really checking off the boxes and making sure you’ve put together a presentation that is museum-worthy. And that’s one of the things she really brought to it, that mindset. I’ve probably learned as much as the kids have this year.”
Brooks also credited “the kids’ passion and the amount of work they’re willing to put into it.” And while describing the results back on April 6 it sounded like he and Coffey had probably already earned their reward.
“It was absolutely fantastic. There were more than 400 kids participating, so you never know. The judges do their work. Again, just getting there is an accomplishment, but, yeah, we were ecstatic,” Brooks said. “Hearing your school called and seeing how excited the kids are, yeah, I can’t say enough. I was on an adrenaline high the whole weekend.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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