A group of amateur documentarians are giving iconic filmmaker Ken Burns a run for his money.
The Jefferson High School National History Day Competition Team recently competed in a regional competition and secured both first- and second-place finishes. Now the students are preparing for the state competition next Saturday.
To prepare for the events, the five-member team broke into two groups, with each group creating its own documentary about a historical figure.
Clara Logue, Sarah Beggs and Josh Whitfield, all 11th-graders, created a documentary about Upton Sinclair, author of "The Jungle."
"We started out by creating a list of figures who made a huge impact on the world of politics and culture," Whitfield said.
"Our list included people like John Marshall and Harriet Beecher Stowe. We finally chose Upton Sinclair because although he is famous for ‘The Jungle’ he is still a very obscure historical figure."
After selecting their subject, the group set about digging into the author’s life.
"We put in hours and hours of work for a 10-minute product," Logue said. "Working on this project really makes you appreciate real documentary makers who put together pieces that are hours long."
Although Sinclair is famous for the 1906 book that led to the regulation of the food industry, the Jefferson students were surprised to learn how extensive and diverse his writing resume turned out to be.
"Researching this project showed me that no matter how you intend for things to happen, people will judge it how they want," Beggs said.
For their documentary, the Upton Sinclair group brought home a first place award. The other history group, comprising 10th-graders Artie Nicolaus and Ben Daniel, earned a second-place award for their documentary on North Georgia medical pioneer Crawford Long.
"Whereas the other group went with an obscure figure, we decided to go with a very obvious choice," Daniel said. "We wanted to go with someone who has had a great impact on our everyday lives. Here in Jefferson, Crawford W. Long’s name is everywhere, so we decided to go with him."
Long is credited with discovering that ether could be used as an anesthetic for painless surgery. He performed the first painless surgery using ether in 1842 in Jefferson.
Although Long is well known in Jefferson, the students say they uncovered a few surprises during the research process.
"One of the most surprising things that we found is the controversy surrounding (Long’s) discovery," Nicolaus said. "There are a lot of people who argue that he wasn’t the first person to use ether (for surgery)."
Considering that the Jefferson team is only two years old, adviser Charles Elfer is especially proud of its accomplishments.
"This is really a great group of students. They’re self-starters and really impress me with their efforts," Elfer said.
"This process is great because it allows the students to really be a part of history, to actively analyze what they learn. In class, we teach the students about history, but there’s not a lot of time for them to do their own critical analysis, so working on these documentaries allows the students to work on that missing step."
The students will compete in the state National History Day Competition at Macon State College in Macon.
"History has always been a passion of mine; it’s my absolute favorite area of study," Whitfield said.
"If we don’t make it past the state level this time, I know all of us want to come back and do it again next year."