Bethlehem teacher brings history alive

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Bethlehem teacher brings history alive

Voice: November 2017

Joseph Szambo wasn’t even a participant in the famed Bethlehem steelworkers strike of 1910, yet the Hungarian immigrant was accidentally shot and killed by a state trooper as he went to get wine to calm the stomach of his pregnant wife.

More than a century later, Tammy McDonald’s students interviewed Szambo’s granddaughter for a project that won best documentary in Pennsylvania from the National History Day Foundation last spring. The interview was part of the team’s research for its documentary on the strike, one of the most noted events in American labor history.

The students were one of two eighth-grade student teams to capture top honors in the state this year – another team topped the best performance category for a project on Prohibition – under the tutelage of McDonald, a middle school gifted seminar teacher in the Bethlehem Area School District, Lehigh and Northampton counties.

The two teams competed in the foundation’s national competition at the University of Maryland, and it was kind of old hat for McDonald. She has been to the nationals five times with 20 teams. The intense national competition includes more than 100 competitors, so it’s an honor just to get there.

“At the beginning of the school year, I talk to the kids about challenging themselves. I encourage them to take risks, to think outside of the box,’’ McDonald said. “Many times, kids are afraid to do that. They are so concerned about the grade that they sometimes forget that stretching yourself helps you grow as a human being.’’

McDonald, who has been associated with the foundation ( for 16 years, takes students to Lehigh University to meet with librarians to learn about research, such as archives and microfilm.

But she said the real crux of the projects is talking to historians and people who were associated with the events.

The documentary group’s interview with Szambo’s granddaughter, whose father was born four hours after her grandfather was killed, was in and of itself a fascinating history lesson for the students, McDonald said. They also met with a Lehigh Valley union archivist at the remnants of the plant and filmed footage.

A highlight for the performance group was an interview with a historic costume  expert for a perspective on clothing worn during the Prohibition era of 1920 to 1933.

McDonald praises the foundation for its programs and recommends it as a great educational tool for teachers.

“It’s nice that a group like the National History Day Foundation is trying to not only keep history alive, but is also challenging kids to see the world in a different light,’’ she said. “It’s not about testing, it’s about hands-on, real-world experiences, and seeing what life is like out there.’’