Senior finds her niche with history performances

Hannah's History Alive podcast on the Cedar Falls Women's Club

Hannah’s History Alive podcast on the Cedar Falls Women’s Club

Most teenagers don’t expect to discover a lifelong passion in high school, but some find their niche. Senior Hannah Ackerman certainly has.

In addition to creating history podcasts in her broadcast journalism class, Ackerman has been participating in the National History Day competition, an educational contest about history, since the sixth grade.

In addition to attending the all-inclusive regional competition, she has been selected to attend the state contest every single year. This year, Hannah will be attending State on April 28, but beyond the contest, Hannah is literally a professional; she has performed one of her skits for veterans’ groups across the state of Iowa. In 2012, she wrote a book called “I Kept My Chin Up” (the title of her history performance), detailing her experiences of her performances.

The NHD process is much longer than just the one-day contest; preparing one’s project takes months, and students usually start in October in preparation for the regional competition in March. “I had to do the research, pick a project that will relate to the topic, write out a script and memorize. It must be 10 minutes or less,” Ackerman said.

Despite the frustration of finding primary resources, and the long wait for the awards ceremony, Ackerman enjoys “doing the performances and then seeing what comes of it. The final ceremony is always the exciting part,” she said.

But Ackerman clearly loves what she does. “I’ve always loved history, and, of course, I’ve always loved performing,” Ackerman said. “NHD is a good way to learn history better and get involved.”

Ackerman’s love for acting has driven her through all of her projects. “I’ve always had a love for acting, and I’ve always loved a challenge too. I think people can see history better through a performance.”

Although her performances are history-related, Ackerman has always loved acting in general. “I just like acting for others, teaching others things they may not know,” Ackerman said. Ackerman likes history for the facts and interesting details she learns along the way. “I believe it is important so people can know where things start and for their own beliefs and such,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman performs at all kinds of events where veterans are present, including naval reunions and memorial dedications, including on the deck of the U.S.S. The Sullivans destroyer and the naval reunion of the Frank E. Evans former crewmen and accident survivors.

Ackerman said performing just kind of happened. “I scheduled some performances, and I just kept getting calls,” she said. “Then it just snowballed.”

Ackerman usually performs her Mrs. Alleta Sullivan project because that is the one she is known for, but she said she is willing to perform her other projects about the military if people wish. And even though Ackerman will be attending college next year, she said she will gladly still do performances when people want them. “The older I grow, I’ll grow into the characters,” Hannah said with a laugh.

Although she mostly performs in the state of Iowa, Ackerman has performed on the U.S.S. THe Sullivans ship on base in Jacksonville, Fla., and on the Frank E. Evans memorial site in Dallas. Ackerman has enjoyed it. “I like meeting veterans and honoring veterans. And for the Evans’, helping their cause to get the lost 74 names on the wall of the Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C.”

Given her love for war history, Ackerman’s favorite projects were her Mrs. Sullivan performance and the two Evans’ performances. Her favorite NHD theme was Individual in History, “because that was a free for all,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman has learned a lot from her NHD experiences. She stressed the importance of reliable sources and impeccable detail. “Of course, you have to have credibility; you have to know the source is true,” Ackerman said. “You have to have a lot of detail, but not all your research can be in your project. If you have an important primary resource, mention that person, and use pictures in the performance.”

Ackerman believes there’s a strong value to National History Day. “It’s a great opportunity to learn history more, get a deeper feeling and it’s a social activity too,” Ackerman said. “And you can learn from other students as well,” she added.

Among Ackerman’s six NHD projects, all of them focus on topics that happened in the 20th century. “Modern history was always important to me,” Ackerman said noting her love of history from 1900 on. “War and post war history has always been interesting to me.”

“I’ve always been kind of fond of the 1960s,” Ackerman added. A self-professed Anglophile, Ackerman notes her love of all things British, especially the Beatles and the British Invasion.

While doing research for her first Frank E. Evans project, Ackerman contacted the author of a book called “Unsinkable Sailors,” about the Frank E. Evans tragedy, Paul Sherbo. The CEO of Sherbo’s publishing company, Patriot Media, Inc., asked if Ackerman would write a book on her experiences performing for veterans. The book, titled, “I Kept My Chin Up,” took almost a year to write, as Ackerman had to write, edit, revise and send it out. I was published in 2011, and last year, the president of Patriot Media, Inc. came to Cedar Falls High School and presented Ackerman with her royalty check.

Ackerman plans to attend Hawkeye Community College for two years and then transfer to the University of Northern Iowa. Ackerman intends to double major in history and political science, taking acting classes as an elective. “I hope to be a historian and possibly a legislator,” Ackerman said.

Ackerman’s advice to her fellow students is simple but wise: “If you really love doing it, stick to it,” Ackerman said. “Feel free to choose whatever you want to do, but always keep researching and re-researching things. She stressed that not everything has you do has to be completely serious. “It can have some humor to it,”Ackerman said. And when you do projects, “always do things for yourself, not to impress others.”


National History Day: What is it?

National History Day is a nationwide academic program for elementary and secondary school students. Each year NHD gives an overall theme, and then students choose a topic related to that theme and present it in some form at the regional competition. Projects are evaluated by local educators and historians. A select number of students are chosen from the regional contest to advance to the state contest, and an even smaller number advances to the national contest. Students can present their project in several ways: they can write a paper, create a trifold exhibit, direct a short documentary, design a website or act in a performance, as Ackerman has done each year. Students can enter individually, as Ackerman has done, or in small groups. Students may advance to State or even Nationals.


NHD not only teaches students about history, but contributes many skills: critical thinking and problem-solving skills; research and reading skills; oral and written communication and presentation skills; self-esteem and confidence; and a sense of responsibility for an involvement in the democratic process. Students must not only present their projects at the contest, but they must also work on their projects for the better part of a year, do their own research and create their projects almost entirely by themselves.


Many schools or teachers often work on NHD projects in the classroom, but Ackerman has always created her projects on her own time.


For those who would like to learn more about National History Day, check out the website at or contact Ackerman herself.


Hannah’s History Projects

In 2008, Ackerman’s first year participating in the contest, the NHD theme was Conflict and Compromise. Ackerman portrayed Annie Moore, the first Ellis Island immigrant.

In 2009, the theme was Individual In History, and Ackerman performed her now-famous project Mrs. Alleta Sullivan: No Other Mother Gave More. She portrayed Alleta Sullivan, the mother of the five Sullivan brothers, in her struggle to come to terms with her sons’ deaths and her commitment to her country and the war cause.

In 2010, for the theme Innovation in History, Impact and Change, Ackerman discussed the innovation of tornado forecasting.

In 2011, for the theme Debate and Diplomacy, Ackerman discussed the old order Amish in Iowa. In 1965, the Amish community in Iowa wanted to keep one-room schools with uncertified teachers instead of consolidating schools.

In 2012, the theme was Revolution, Reaction and Reform. Ackerman performed her first project on the Frank E. Evans ship. Ackerman’s performance was titled “There Are No Boundary Lines For Heroes:Frank E. Evans and the Lost 74 ‘Lest We Forget.’” Ackerman portrayed the mother of three brothers who died in the accident.  This performance focusses on the revolution of the Vietnam War, as well as the reaction of the soldiers’ families to the Frank E. Evans’ accident and the fact that the names of the soldiers are not on the wall.

In 2013, with the theme Turning Points in History, Ackerman described the United Service Organization (USO), which runs performance for troops.

In 2014, for the theme Rights and Responsibility, Ackerman returned to the Frank E. Evans’ accident. This performance was titled “A Matter of Carving the Names of Lost 74 Heroes in Stone: Their Right to be Recognized and Honored.” In this performance, Ackerman portrayed a sailor who survived the Frank E. Evans accident and continued to carry out the cause. Ackerman had a family member on the Frank E. Evans ship and believes strongly that those servicemen have a right to be on memorial wall. “The country has responsibility to see to it,” Ackerman said.


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