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Student Play on Potato Famine Gets National Attention

Two middle school girls return from Washington, D.C., with a silver prize from a national organization.

Two Dunedin students took a National History Day all the way to Washington, D.C., last week, and came home with a nod from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a national Irish Catholic organization.

"They must have spent months on the research," said judge David Ring, vice president of college administration and student affairs at Dowling College in Long Island, N.Y. "It blew me away."

Jessica Hamacher and Jaime Kay, best friends and rising seventh graders at , put together a one-act, 10-minute, original Irish-American history musical for National History Day in Teresa Bergstrom's gifted class.

Students were required to choose a historical topic, research it extensively and present their findings in a paper, exhibit, performance, documentary or website.

Jessica and Jaime, both 11, interviewed more than 30 primary sources, including interviews with family members of those affected by the Irish potato famine and with museum directors in New York and Ireland. The girls wrote the story from the perspective of mid-1800s Irish friends impacted by the potato blight and set it against the superficial backdrop of a modern American St. Patrick's Day celebration.

"We thought it was really interesting, and we have Irish background," Jaime said at a performance at the in March. "It was interesting to find out about my heritage."

Jaime and Jessica pieced together their perspective piece, sharing the writing, directing, production and acting, and performed the project, titled “Starvation in Ireland: An International Diplomatic Crisis,” for a schoolwide competition.

They won.

That earned them the opportunity to enter the countywide competition.

They won again.

Jessica and Jaime represented Pinellas County against 33 others at the state competition in Tallahassee in early May.

"Our girls are sixth graders, and once they got to states and nationals they were competing against mainly eighth graders," Jaime’s mother, Heidi Kay, said in an e-mail.

They won again and earned a trip to Washington, D.C., to compete at the University of Maryland at College Park from June 12 through 16. Professional historians and educators judged more than 2,500 student projects in the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest. Heidi Kay said the girls competed against 100 plays in their junior group; 14 plays made the final round.

"They had information about the 'Great Hunger' — you really have to do some digging to find out [some of the information they had]," Ring said. He is a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish Catholic organization that awarded the play, and has served as a judge for the National History Day event for six years. He said it was the first time in his memory that the award went to participants in their first year of eligibility.

Although Heidi Kay said the girls did not make it to the final round at the national level, they were presented with the silver prize — a check for $1,000 to be split between them — from the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians, Inc.

"It's very clear both girls had tremendous support for the girls," Ring said. "And their teacher had so much enthusiasm for the girls. ... It's a credit to the parents."

You can watch the play in its entirety.

[This article was updated Wednesday, June 22, 2011, at 5:55 p.m.]

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