Turned on by History

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The room was abuzz. More than 2,000 young historians milled about, setting up exhibits featuring Harvey Milk, Charlie Chaplin, and hundreds more.

For the 32nd year, middle and high school students from around the country competed in the National History Day competition, held this year at the University of Maryland.

“The event is a wonderful chance to celebrate their work,” said Crystal Johnson, a staff coordinator in Illinois who wrote her thesis on the history of National History Day. “It showcases the skills students build over the course of the year that they’re going to take with them.”

The event began in Ohio in 1974 and became a national program in 1980 with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Now, more than 500,000 students participate, creating projects in one of five categories: paper, website, historical documentary, performance, or exhibit.

This year, students played off the themes of revolution, reaction, and reform. For Leah Towle, 18, and Hazlett Henderson, 16, both from Lawrence, Kansas, that meant researching racial conflicts that occurred in their own high school in the late 1960s.

“Basically, this project could have gone on for years because there’s always more to research,” Towle said. “It was a good enrichment project for me.”

Students use as many primary sources as possible to complete their projects. That means collecting oral histories from people who actually lived through the events in question or referencing newspaper articles from the period.

Janae Heaney, 16, of Nebraska, who reported on Cesar Chavez, said her own aunt participated in one of Chavez’s rallies. That family connection excited Heaney and helped propel the project. Like other History Day participants, Heaney was impressed by the variety of projects on display.

Wandering through the exhibit hall, A’Lelia Bundles, Chairman of the Foundation for the National Archives, summed it up. “I was blown away by the range of topics,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for thousands of students to become excited about history and research.”