National History Day, 2017

National History Day®

Have you ever heard of it?

I hadn’t either, until about a year ago.  But the chance to meet young people who LOVE history and are engaged in the process of historical research intrigued me so I volunteered to judge at the regional level here in Wilmington.

As a volunteer judge, I reported to the Cape Fear Museum not quite sure what I had gotten myself into, but the short training session and some handouts made me familiar enough with the goals of the program to ease my worries.  We hear a lot about how little history kids get in school today, but the crowd of high schoolers at the Cape Fear Museum blew me away. Bright and knowledgeable, sophisticated and earnest, a building full of them renewed my faith in the next generation of historians.

I was assigned to judge individual documentaries. Each student had produced an up to 10 minute video using this year’s theme, “Taking a Stand in History.” Some were good, and some were okay, but our winning choice just blew me away!  A poised and articulate young woman presented her documentary on how, in the 1960s, Coach Dean Smith took a stand and helped integrate the UNC system and college basketball country-wide, something I knew nothing about. As we talked to her after we watched her film we discovered she is headed to UNC next fall to a program that combines History and Communications into a five year undergraduate and graduate program. Frankly, she’s ready for PBS or CNN now.

Because the competition is so large, the middle schoolers were at the Bellamy Mansion so I didn’t get to see any of them here at the regional. But, I’d volunteered to be a judge at the state competition as well and was assigned the middle school level documentaries in Raleigh.

What a day! The top three regional winners in each category; paper, exhibit, documentary, website, and performance, had qualified for the state level where the competition intensifies.

The North Carolina Museum of History and the State Archives Building were literally mobbed with young people and parents from all across the state. There must have been close to fifty judges to cover all the categories. I may be slightly prejudiced but the halls had the energy and feeling of a sports championship! I just loved seeing kids so totally engaged in history.

Among the documentaries I judged at the State level were ones on Bernie Sanders, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther, Edward Snowden, Alexander Hamilton, and our first choice Kay Lahusen, an early gay rights activist. Remember these kids were middle schoolers. They can do stuff with digital media and video editing software I can only begin to comprehend.  I so wanted to stop them and say, “Teach me how to do that!”

The top three winners in each category and age level advance to the national competition in College Park, Maryland in early June where they will join the 3,000 winners across the country to compete for top prizes.

Last year Jordyn Williams from Greenville, NC won a full four year scholarship to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Her topic: “Exploring Plants and Society: The Life-Altering Encounters of Dr. Percy L. Julian.”

What I learned: It is cool to be a “history nerd” in today’s schools and colleges.  And that makes me relieved that there will be a new generation of historians to study history so we don’t make the same mistakes all over again.

– Rebecca Taylor

 Would you like to be a judge?  They are always looking for people for the regional here in Wilmington in late March.  I’d be glad to hook you up with the local coordinator. All it takes is a short (less than an hour) training and about ½ a day of your time on the day of the competition.