Heart and Soul
STUDENTS | June 24, 2020
Heart and Soul

How a Keller Elementary Student’s History Fair Documentary Earned National Recognition

Avery K., a rising seventh-grade student at Annie Keller Regional Gifted Center, had never seen a full episode of Soul Train before this year. Her parents grew up with the wildly popular music and dance program, and when a modern version—American Soulpremiered on BET in 2019, Avery watched every episode with her mom. As part of Keller’s curriculum, she was required to create a project for this year’s Chicago Metro History Fair, and after seeing the theme—“Breaking Barriers in History”—she created a project highlighting the impact of Soul Train on the entertainment industry. 

“I knew that Soul Train had broken a lot of barriers for African Americans in entertainment, but the deeper that I dove through my interviews, I learned a lot more about the different aspects of the show and how each one was a trailblazer,” she said. “I knew there was the Soul Train line, but I wasn’t thinking about the fact that a record company and award show came from it too.” 

As an aspiring screenwriter and producer, Avery knew she wanted a documentary to be her medium to educate others about the lasting legacy of Soul Train. It allowed her to directly showcase her interviews and incorporate clips and images from the show to create a project that was informative and visually captivating. Her documentary moves chronologically to give the viewer a sense of the historical context behind Soul Train’s creation in the 1970s and explain how the show has influenced society beyond its 35-year run. Even though Avery found researching and learning about the show extremely interesting, creating the film was her favorite part of the process by far. 

“My passion for film allowed me to put my complete heart and soul into the project,” she said. “I felt driven to make the documentary to the best of my ability and it captured my topic in the perfect way.” 

When researching her topic and putting her documentary together, Avery learned the importance of focusing on primary sources that fit into her project visually. This meant gathering a lot of pictures and video clips, and she also recorded her interview with Marv Dyson, a former Chicago radio executive who was friends with Don Cornelius, the host and producer of Soul Train. She also incorporated an interview with her mom to showcase the perspective of someone who had grown up watching the show. Even though she was already familiar with filmmaking, she still walked away with some tips that she’s happy to share with future students who want to create a documentary as their History Fair project. 

“Make sure to become familiar with the software that you’re using to edit your film ahead of time, because it’ll make the process so much easier and you’ll be less prone to mistakes,” she said. “Also, don’t procrastinate on putting the documentary together because combining the clips and voice-overs is more difficult than you probably think.” 

Avery’s hard work paid off as her documentary advanced to the National History Day National Contest—the highest level of competition—and was selected to be featured online through the National Museum of African American History and Culture. With each new accolade that her documentary received, she says her feelings of shock and amazement grew larger and larger. 

“It’s so cool that my documentary was recognized by the National Museum of African American History and Culture because that is a place my mom and I have wanted to tour for such a long time,” she said. “This opportunity has been mind-blowing because I still can’t believe that my documentary went all the way from the hallways of my school to the national level.”