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Pa. students take history project on the road

September 25, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer, Chambersburg

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - When four James Buchanan High School sophomores were assigned history projects last year, they each had planned to complete the minimum requirement, hand it in, and be done with it.

A year later, the students, now juniors, are still involved in the project that has provided them with local, state and national recognition.

"We never expected this at all," said Anya Martin, 16, one of the students.

Rather than write individual research papers, Martin and friends Kara Kernan, 17, Jennifer Evans, 15, and Ryan Eshleman, 16, decided a group effort might make the project easier and more fun.

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"I was just in it for the ride. I didn't plan to do any work. But that changed," Eshleman said.

The story of the burning of Chambersburg, Pa., on July 30, 1864, during the Civil War became the inspiration for the group, which ended up spending five months researching the topic. In the process, they interviewed local historians, visited significant historical sites and read books and other literature in libraries and on the Internet.

The group's bibliography for the project contains 102 sources.

"This project became everything to us. It was our life," Martin said.

Although busy with other school activities, the group managed to get together almost every day and on weekends to work on the project. Emergency meetings were called often, including the time Evans lost the bibliography on her computer and when Martin and Kernan came down with mononucleosis.

"We can fight really bad, but I've never been closer to three people in my whole life," Martin said.

After compiling the information, the students wrote it up in the form of a short play, which they called "Holocaust of Chambersburg." The play focused on true stories of people who lived in Chambersburg at the time.

The group then enlisted the help of then-senior Herbert Hoffeditz, who set the presentation to music and incorporated a series of slides.

Dressed in period costumes in front of sets the students built and painted themselves, they performed the play in front of their class.

For their efforts they earned a grade of 94 percent.

"It was a very rough first performance," Kernan said.

In March, the students entered the district History Day contest held at Shippensburg University and came back with first-place honors.

The group finely tuned its act for the state competition, held at Penn State University's main campus in State College, where the competition is tough and the rules are strict.

"We had five minutes to set up, 10 minutes to perform and five minute to take down. You have to hit it right on," Eshleman said.

After the performance, the panel of judges tested the students on their knowledge of their topic.

Their state performance lasted nine minutes and 57 seconds and moved one judge to tears.

They brought home first place.

Their sights set on taking their show on the road to the national competition in Washington, D.C., the group performed for the Tuscarora school board in an effort to get financial aid.

With backing from the school district, the students performed at the nationals along with 96 other school groups. They won fourth place overall and were given the Best of Pennsylvania award.

"We were, like, famous for the day. So many people came up to us and said, `You're that Chambersburg group,'" Martin said.

Since then the students have been asked to perform for a number of groups.

At noon Friday, the group will perform at the Capitol Theatre, 159 S. Main St., Chambersburg, as part of the Chambersburg Area Council for the Arts TGIF Brown Bag series.

They're also scheduled to put on the play for the St. Thomas Parent Teachers Association on Oct. 20 and on Oct. 26 at the state Parent Teachers Association convention in Harrisburg, Pa.

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