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Da Vinci students compete nationally
Rising seventh-grader places 11th, tops in state, at History Day event
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Katie Dionne

Hear the tale of Genghis Khan.

Katie Dionne, a rising seventh-grader at the Da Vinci Academy of South Hall Middle School, knows it well.

She took 11th place nationally and best Georgia performer at the annual National History Day Competition in Washington after performing part of his life.

Dionne and rising Da Vinci eighth-grader Ian Cundiff snagged the top two spots at the state National History Day at Macon State College in May for the junior individual performance category and moved on to the national competition. Dionne was chosen among the top 14 of 80 national competitors for a final performance Tuesday night.

“It really brought history to life for her,” said Katie’s mother, Nancy Sturtevant, who traveled to Washington for the final performances this week. “For a lot of students at this age, history seems boring, like memorizing facts, and in this project, she got to learn about Mongolian culture and storytelling styles.”

Students research topics and present papers, performances, exhibits, documentary films or websites and can work individually or in teams. Dionne and Cundiff chose to perform.

Dionne studied the life of Genghis Khan in her Chinese class and decided to combine his accomplishments with her love for theater for a social studies class project last fall. Tying her idea to this year’s contest theme of innovation and change, Dionne decided to talk about Khan’s leadership and warfare skills. She originally wrote the script from Khan’s point of view but changed it before going to the national contest.

“It seemed like he was bragging, so I changed it to a spirit in the wolf clan — Khan’s clan — who tells the stories of clan leaders or past warriors,” she said. “I managed to make up a Mongolian melody and write the lyrics for an introduction.”

Dionne listened to Mongolian music online, researched Khan’s life through a Genghis Khan exhibit featured on the Denver Museum of Nature & Science Web site and interviewed Tim May, Mongol Empire expert and history department head at North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega.

“She really puts herself out there. It’s pretty amazing,” said Kelly Schollaert, Dionne’s social studies teacher who also traveled to Washington for the big event. “She starts howling like a shaman and does some chanting. She had a lot of rehearsals and created her own costume and props.”

Dionne’s project was “Genghis Khan: Innovation in War and Peace.” Cundiff’s was “Alfred Nobel,” and he performed as the Swedish industrialist and inventor who created dynamite and the five Nobel Prizes.

“He reads his obituary, which is the wrong obit. His brother actually died, and it’s funny because that actually happened in history,” Schollaert said. “He gets mad because he’s known for the destruction that dynamite caused, when really that wasn’t the intent.”

In Cundiff’s performance of Nobel, he decides to leave a legacy and establish the Nobel Prizes. At the end, he dies.

“It’s really amazing to watch these middle school kids,” Schollaert said. “I can’t imagine doing performances like that.”

Sporting thrift store boots, pants, shirts and a furry hat for a costume, Dionne belted her song, showing off her involvement with musical theater since age 4.

“He’s strong as an ox, clever as a fox,” she sang to The Times over the phone Thursday. “And destined to build an empire.”

This marked Dionne’s second trip to the nation’s capital, where she was able to visit the several Smithsonian Museums, including the National Air and Space Museum. The only rising seventh-grader competing with a group of rising ninth-graders, Dionne was especially excited to get so far in the competition.

“I’m so grateful. I never thought it would happen, and I’m proud I can represent Georgia, Gainesville and DaVinci,” she said. “It’s the first year of our school and we’re going so far.”