Abe gets North Hills Junior High students' nod for 'Most Influential American'

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Alexander Graham Bell, Elvis Presley, Michael Jordan, Ray Kroc and Marilyn Monroe — these names aren't usually found in the same sentence — until now.

They were among the people who never made the first cut in the “Most Influential American March Madness Tournament” presented by the eighth-grade American history classes at North Hills Junior High School in Ross Township. The project was created by history teachers Joe Welch and Larry Dorenkamp.

Weeks after the real NCAA basketball victory occurred last month, the presentation of Anna Emmons, 14, of West View, rose to the top at the junior high from a final four of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Lincoln was her “Most Influential American.”

As the field narrowed to the final eight, Dorenkamp was pleased so many presidents still were in the running.

“The kids recognize they have a pretty big influence on our society,” he said.

The exercise, which lasted several weeks, was inspired by National Geographic's “100 Greatest Inventions of All Time.”

“We compare athletes,” said Welch, of Scott Township, “but we never look at the greatest Americans.”

On their 64-person bracket, military heroes, inventors and pop-culture icons were matched. A poster of the bracket hung in the school's main lobby for all to follow.

When polio-vaccine inventor Jonas Salk and telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell were compared, Salk won, Welch said.

“Some students said, ‘I'd rather be alive than have a phone.'”

For the students, it wasn't a matter of looking at names and making a pick. Students researched the individuals and presented their findings to their classes in a persuading way. Students' votes in Welch's, Dorenkamp's and Rich Textor's classes determined the names in the next bracket.

As the rounds progressed, the eighth-graders wrote poems; created a 30-second infomercial; and made a slide presentation or used FaceJack, an app for Apple cellphones and tablets that makes faces talk, to plead their case for the American who had the most influence. For the final four, students wrote letters to the editor to persuade readers the support their choices.

“We're comparing apples to oranges with the matchups,” Welch explained, “but it makes students think outside the box. They do higher-level thinking and think about what if that person wasn't around.”

For example, in the first round, singer Michael Jackson was up against Confederate Army Gen. Robert E. Lee, and President Ronald Reagan was up against cable-television mogul Ted Turner.

For the second round, John Van Atta of Ross Township researched presidents George Washington and John F. Kennedy.

“These two are the most important Americans, in my opinion,” the 14-year-old said. “America would be nothing without Washington. He led the Continental Army. Kennedy was like the Barack Obama of the 1960s.”

“This is a great project,” John said. “It's good to know how great America is.”

Mary Rodack, 14, of West View, worked with another student to research scientist Albert Einstein and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

While she likes playing basketball, she wasn't much interested in following the March Madness craze, but this project was different.

“It's interesting to see that how people think depends on how they see America,” she said.

Sydney Dominek, a student in Dorenkamp's class, saw Lincoln as the ultimate winner, even as she researched Einstein and Eisenhower.

“Einstein discovered different theories and didn't want nations to have nuclear weapons,” the Ross 14-year-old said.

Drew Aiken, 13, of Ross Township, also saw Lincoln as winning.

“He outlawed slavery,” he said.

Ultimately, Jackie Robinson would have come out on top if Bill Fleischman, 15, of West View, had had his way.

“He overcame a lot in his life and the segregation,” Bill said. “He overcame people hating him for his race but not for baseball.”

The student said he was “big on social studies.” “It's fun and lets us see what lives people lived. It shows how without them, we wouldn't be here today.”

Dorenkamp, of Ross Township, said he was pleased with the success of the exercise.

“I heard a lot of ‘Wow! I never knew that,'” he said.

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or ddreeland@tribweb.com.

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