College & Workforce Readiness

Thousands of Young Historians Convene for National Competition

By Liana Loewus — June 20, 2014 4 min read
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At the annual National History Day competition held this week at the University of Maryland, 3,000 middle and high school students showcased original historical research, presenting and defending their exhibits, papers, performances, websites, and documentaries before panels of judges.

The topics ranged from the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 to Temple Grandin’s legacy and human rights in Guantanamo Bay. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 showed up more than a few times.

Hailing from all 50 states, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, China, and South Korea, among other places, the students had been selected among the 600,000 local-level participants. Many came to the weeklong event with their parents and teachers.

National History Day, now called NHD because it has evolved into an organization that trains teachers in addition to putting on the contest, was started 40 years ago at Case Western Reserve University. Each year, one winner of the annual contest receives a full, four-year scholarship to the Cleveland-based college. A 2011 evaluation of NHD found a variety of positive effects for participants, including better performance on high-stakes tests, improved writing skills, and increased confidence and capability in doing research.

Becoming Experts

Camryn Kluetmeier, 15, wearing a full vintage suit and holding a short, gray wig, anxiously peered through the door of the performance room at the students on stage ahead of her June 17.

Asked about her project, whatever nerves she’d been feeling appeared to wash away. “It’s on the creation of the National Park Service,” she told me, excitedly waving over her co-presenter. “In 5th grade, I saw the Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks and ever since I’ve been obsessed.”

Nell Williamson-Shaffer, 15, explained that the performance “is based on a ranger talk. Those are what they do in Yosemite. I’m the ranger and I’m guiding the audience. She’s Stephen Mather, who spearheaded the effort to create a

National Park Service.” Nell put her ranger hat on and pointed to her Park Service badge. “It’s 10 minutes,” she said. “We could go on for 3 hours. But that’s the max.”

About their research, Camryn said, “We got to interview the bureau historian for the National Park Service: John Sprinkle!”

“And we went to the Wisconsin Historical Society—that’s like my favorite place—and there’s an area just for the National Parks bulletins,” added Nell. (The two high school students from Madison, Wisc., are pictured at left.)

Erika Kluetmeier walked over to listen in. “I feel like she’s an expert in her topic,” she said of her daughter, Camryn. “Now she tells me she wants to be an environmental historian. The greatest part is they’re learning the whole process of doing research—the critical thinking involved. That it’s not just dates and the facts.”

Growing Interest

Elaborate tri-fold poster boards with accompanying dioramas and props, all linked to this year’s theme of “Rights and Responsibilities in History,” lined the exhibit hall. With each display was a short paper on the research process involved and a bibliography with primary and secondary sources used—some of which were dozens of pages long.

Students were allowed in a few at a time to prepare their exhibits for judging. They then stood by and answered questions from three judges, among whom were K-12 teachers, university professors, historians, archivists, and writers.

Cathy Gorn, the executive director of NHD, said the group has seen an overall increase participation in its programs. For instance, in Florida, she said, 54,000 students participated in local contests two years ago. That number is now up to 61,000. “We’re filling the gap for history and social studies,” she said. “No Child Left Behind left history behind,” in favor of math and reading.

There’s also been growing participation from international schools abroad, especially in Asia, she said.

History of Elevators

Amma Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin, a theater professor at the University of Colorado, Bouler, who was an NHD scholarship winner in 1995 and has since volunteered for the contest annually, said, “Everything these students are being evaluated on the rubric is exactly what I teach at the graduate level.” For instance, they have to analyze and interpret evidence, classify primary vs. secondary sources, and track down archives with historical documents. She’s continually impressed by the “passion these kids have when they talk about their topics in the hallways,” she said. “They are genuinely excited about the story they needed to tell.”

Among the most memorable topics she’s seen presented were Barbara Walters’ impact on journalism (“The student had Babs down pat!”) and one on the history of the elevator.

“The Spelling Bee cannot hold a candle,” Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin said.

The 2014 NHD winners, including the top three in each category for middle and high school, were announced June 19 and are listed here.

Below is the winning senior division individual documentary, “Rough in the Bunch: Appalachia’s Rayon Girls Fight for the Right to Strike,” by Emma Grace Thompson of Berean Christian School in Knoxville, Tenn.

Photos from the event at the University of Maryland by Liana Heitin.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.