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From the News column of the September 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

National History Day Competition Draws 2,800 Students for the National Finals

Allen Mikaelian, September 2012

AHA Staff Help with Judging

The AHA, as it has in years past, sent a small group of staff members to serve as judges for National History Day at the University of Maryland, College Park on June 12. Having been assigned to review papers submitted to the Senior Paper category, the AHA judges pored over 13 research papers, all representing historical approaches to the 2012 theme "Revolution, Reaction, Reform."

National History Day is an annual competition for students in grades 6 through 12. Over the course of a year, the work of some half a million participants goes through vetting at the local and state level. Students submit web sites, exhibits, performances, documentaries, and research papers in an effort to demonstrate their skills in historical and critical thinking, research, and communication. This year saw the largest-ever cohort—2,800—make it to the national round of judging at College Park.

The task of the AHA judges, after reading the research essays, was to come to a consensus on ranking and nomination for special prizes. Consensus was an elusive thing, and not merely because it was three historians seeking it. Several of the papers could have legitimately claimed our top spot. Several papers approached the theme of revolution, reaction, and reform in unexpectedly creative ways. Only after extended discussion could we begin to discern where an agreement might be found.

That's because we were not dealing with average students. National History Day students, according to a 2011 study, outperform their peers across the board on standardized tests in reading, science, math, and social studies. They exhibit stronger writing and critical thinking skills, higher confidence, and greater perseverance. Many NHD students return to the competition, year after year. By the time we read their papers, they had been focused on their topic for nearly a year.

Our final job as judges was to meet with the students whose papers we had read for a final evaluation. If they were nervous, they hid it well. It was here that their depth and breadth of knowledge became evident, as they took time to explain their research methodologies, paths to their topics, and interesting avenues not taken in their essays. A few students stood out for how the reminded us of why we study history: One explained that she wanted to do research on people she vehemently disagreed with—not as a way of shooting them down, but as a way of understanding their perspectives and of challenging her own. Another spoke of a family member's struggles with a disability, how he was helped by a reform movement that started long ago, and how that movement became the focus of her research.

The theme for the 2013 National History Day is "Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, Events." A complete list of 2012 award winners, photos from the 2012 national contest, and information for teachers and students on how to participate and support NHD can be found at nhd.org.

Allen Mikaelian is the associate editor of Perspectives on History, and the AHA's media relations coordinator.