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Inspiring an Interest in History: National History Day 2014

Dana Schaffer, September 2014

When I recall the cultivation of my own interest in history, I remember fondly the Roman history class I took in high school with Doc Frost. Doc had spent a few weeks discussing the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, and the culminating assignment was a grand reenactment of the Roman triplex acies battle formation, to be played out on the front lawn of my high school. We recruited students from all of the Latin classes to participate as Roman or Carthaginian soldiers, and on the morning of the epic battle, 120 of us had gathered on the lawn awaiting Doc’s command from the third-floor classroom window. Upon Doc’s shout, we charged across the lawn waving makeshift swords and shields (constructed from paper plates and popsicle sticks) until the “Carthaginians” retreated back to their Latin I classrooms.

The reenactment must have appeared as complete chaos from Doc’s vantage point (and that of the other students and teachers observing us that day, for that matter), but I can certainly say that for me, the battle was a transformative experience in shaping my decision to study history in college and graduate school and to eventually pursue a career in the discipline. I was grateful to Doc Frost for encouraging my interest in history and for providing a foundation for thinking historically, and I have always sought ways to pay this forward and inspire other young students. So when I received a request for volunteers from National History Day (NHD), I jumped at the chance to help judge this year’s national contest with some of my colleagues from the AHA.

NHD is an annual historical research contest during which middle- and high-school students from across the country compete in five different project categories—exhibit, documentary, performance, website, and paper. Projects must address an annual theme (this year’s was “Rights and Responsibilities”); the students who have advanced to the national contest in June have already competed in their district and state competitions held earlier in the spring. Contest judges are history professionals from around the region—archivists, professors, teachers, museum educators, graduate students—who donate their time to respond thoughtfully to the students’ work and to help instill the value of critical thinking in aspiring young ­historians.

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Photos: Route1 Media and NHD.

A student presents his process paper to a judging panel (top). A student competes in the performance category (bottom).

Each year the AHA encourages its staff to serve as judges for the contest, and this year over a third of the AHA staff participated, a greater number than ever before. And it’s a good thing so many of us did. The contest has continually grown since its inception as a local contest in Cleveland in 1974. Sustained primarily by the collective work of volunteers, it is now a massive endeavor. We joined nearly 400 other judges who would evaluate the students’ work over the next few days; during the orientation, NHD’s executive director, Cathy Gorn, informed us that next year’s contest would need 178 more. I was amazed and impressed at the scale of the event.

On a personal level, my experience as an NHD judge was rewarding and inspiring. Witnessing the students’ enthusiasm for ­historical research and the sense of accomplishment they demonstrated when ­discussing their projects reminded me of the spark that ignited my own interest in history on that “battlefield” on my school’s front lawn. But more importantly, as a NHD judge I could play a role in engaging students as they discover the experiences of the past and in helping them realize how their knowledge of history and historical thinking can inform the present and shape the future. Doc Frost inspired me, and the NHD experience has done the same for thousands of other students over the years.

If you have never participated in NHD, we hope you will consider volunteering in your own regional competition and help inspire and build confidence in young historians. The AHA is pleased to support NHD through our own staff volunteer efforts and by providing complimentary student memberships to this year’s senior division winner. For the first time, we will feature the 2014 NHD senior exhibit winner during the poster session at the AHA’s annual meeting in New York City in January 2015. We hope you will stop by during the session to take a look.

For a complete list of the 2014 winners, and for more information about how you can become a volunteer with NHD, please visit the National History Day website at www.nhd.org.

Dana Schaffer is the AHA’s associate director.

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