Out of the Zoo: “National History Day”

Kalamazoo Gals NHD

One of my three National History Day exhibits. This one is from my junior year in high school

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this column she writes about her experience as a National History Day judge.  Enjoy! –JF

Hundreds of students, teachers, and parents ventured onto Messiah College’s campus on Saturday for one of Pennsylvania’s regional National History Day (NHD) contests. NHD is a country-wide organization that allows grade school students to research a historical topic and connect it to an annual theme.  Once they complete their research they assemble a project from their findings and bring it to a competition. Students learn how to find and analyze sources, and are given the chance to share what they learned in the format of a paper, exhibit, website,  documentary, or performance.

It’s somewhat difficult to describe a National History Day competition to someone who hasn’t attended one. Picture a science fair, but instead of looking at model volcanoes or potato alarm clocks, you see kids bringing in boards about the assassination of John F. Kennedy or showing home-made documentaries about the Little Rock Nine. I like to think of NHD as a giant pep rally for history nerds of all ages.

On Saturday Boyer Hall and the High Center buzzed with kids anxious to show off their work in competition. This year’s theme, “Triumph and Tragedy in History,” brought in projects of all shapes and sizes, covering many different subjects from a wide variety of time periods. Students swept out the most distant corners of the past; some introduced us to new stories and others developed narratives that were already familiar.

To aid in the ambitious undertaking of hosting a NHD competition, several Messiah students, professors, alumni, and community members were recruited to serve as judges. Assigned to a specific category and age level, the task of the NHD judge is to evaluate students’ projects, chat with them about their topic, ask questions about their research process, and ultimately decide who gets to move on to compete at the state level. I was placed on a team with Derek Fissel, a local middle school teacher, and together we judged a portion of the junior group exhibit category. We got to talk with five different pairs of middle schoolers about the projects they’ve toiled over for the past several months.

My AP US History teacher introduced me to NHD during my sophomore year of high school.  That year I learned basic research skills that remain a foundation for my scholarship today.  NHD revealed my passion for uncovering stories and sharing them with my community. I participated in NHD for two more years in the exhibit category, so judging displays proved very familiar, and almost nostalgic.

I could not speak more highly of National History Day. As a history major and future educator I know I’m biased, but I think something really special happens when kids participate in NHD. They’re given the chance to learn about something they’re interested in, make new discoveries, and show off their findings. No matter how far they proceed in the competition, they’re given the chance to develop practical research skills, pursue curiosity, and channel their creativity to produce a final result. I fully plan on encouraging my future students to participate in NHD and I look forward to coming alongside them as they make their first historical discoveries.