By: SYDNEY KNIGHT
Nineteen Truman students crowded in a row in the auditorium, waiting anxiously for the announcer to get through all the junior division awards. Each group clung to each other as their category was announced. One by one Truman students’ name was called as third, second, and even first place finishes. As each name was called, students were overcome with excitement— a feeling enough to forget about the bags under their eyes, the dried up glue all around their hands, and the book-length bibliography that they would now add to.
It was the National History Day regional competition in April 2018. Just months ago, these very students— the ones that on this day passionately presented their project— had no knowledge of NHD, and were completing copious amounts of research on a historical topic because they were told to.
National History Day is a national competition in which middle and high school students, either as individuals or groups, compose a project on anything in history relating to the year’s theme. The competition encourages students to utilize their passions in building their projects, offering several different categories, including exhibit, documentary, website, performance, and paper.
While students were excited that so many from Truman were making it to state, nothing compared to their teacher’s pure joy. This teacher is Mrs. Harker. She is Truman’s former AP United States History teacher and one of the most on-fire people you will ever meet. It is nearly impossible to find yourself uninterested in whatever she is talking about. Whether it was the Cahokia civilizations, propaganda in World War II, or the cake she made for her son’s birthday, students tuned into what she was saying, and they cared. She cares about everything and everyone deeply, and her loving intentions are seen in every one of her action.
Last year, when she decided she wanted to challenge her students, she worried about how her students would feel about what she wanted them to do. She had never done it before, but she was going to have all of her APUSH students prepare NHD projects. This was a time-consuming project that she chose to pursue. It took time out of her AP class and put extra work on students in their most challenging year of high school. So then, why did she choose to have her students do it? Most did not realize until the end. Many drudgingly made research deadlines and turned in work they saw as menial. Then, come springtime, students finished their projects and started to realize the value.
Once the process was completely over, they had every detail about their topic memorized. Senior Emilee Harless did a project about how the Erie Canal’s ties to the civil war. As she was talking about her project, she noted the exact length of the Erie Canal and even how many aqueducts it had (363 miles, 18 aqueducts). Similarly, Halimo Nur, who did a project over the shifting of the Republican Party from 1960-1980, recalled that Jimmy Carter lost by 440 electoral votes to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. That information may seem useless, and all the competitors would admit that all of the details they had memorized were just that— useless. Except the entire process was not useless; there was something that made having gathered all that knowledge valuable, and it was this: they had become experts on their topic, something unusual in the public education system where students skim over molecular biology in two 45 minute periods before they get a mediocre test grade on it and move swiftly to the next subject.
Senior Addy Simpson, an NHD State Qualifier in group exhibits, shed light on how much work went into these projects, noting that her partner and she collectively spent over 100 hours preparing their website. “It definitely taught me how to research at a higher level than most high school students are ever expected to,” says Simpson. She also noted that her bibliography was over 30 pages. While it exhausted her to just talking about all this work, when asked what she liked about it, a smile spread across her face and her eyes lit up. She went on and on about everything she loved: the bond she had with her partner and teachers, and the value of it all. “My partner and I spent so much time together and were constantly talking about our project. We got really close, and we experienced the highs and lows of it all” said Simpson. Her reflective last statement in our interview— “It was fun” was telling to how these students felt about NHD.
All of the Truman students that competed last year were juniors, most of them taking multiple AP and dual credit courses. Adding this to their already heavy load did not seem desirable. When asked how he managed to add this to his busy schedule, Onyeka Chigbogwu— NHD State Qualifier— said “well I didn’t.” He noted there were several times he didn’t have it all together, missing deadlines and pulling all-nighters. In fact, he didn’t film the outro for his documentary until the night before regionals. “It was more work than my partner or I expected. Needless to say, I got a lesson on the evils of procrastination” Chigbogwu said. While many students like Chigbogwu struggled to manage the extra load, they still enjoyed the process.
This impact of NHD was had on every type of student that took the opportunity. Halimo Nur noted the support she received from peers and teachers alike was a top motivating factor for her partner and her. She said she spent nearly every day after school in Mrs. Harker’s room in the weeks leading up to the state competition. “Other history teachers that I had before would come in and give us advice or just let us explain our topic. They were genuinely impressed by our topic and interested in it. They even invested in our journey, asking us about our interview prepping in the days before we competed and how our judges were after we competed” says Nur. She loved the process, noting “I like learning a lot, and this made it feel more normal to be passionate about learning.”
Senior Rachell Sandoval does not have a particular passion for history or for school in general. Speaking on NHD being a part of the class, she said “I loved it. I didn’t expect to love it, but I really did love it.” She notes the great friends she made, people who she otherwise never would have spent time with—the type of people she “felt smarter just being around.” She, too, left with a passion for her topic. Sandoval says she definitely plans to participate again this year.
When Mrs. Harker announced that she was leaving, students were disappointed for several reasons, but especially because they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to find a new History Club sponsor. Harless took initiative, searching for a sponsor at the beginning of the year, finding a new teacher this year, Mr. Pennington, the perfect candidate. History Club President, Emilee Harless, is already in contact with the region’s organizers and several of the students will be attending a workshop this upcoming Saturday.
None of these students expected to care about National History Day, and if you asked them while they were preparing it, they would probably be questioning why they were in the first place, but somehow not a single student that competed last year was missing from this year’s first History Club meeting. It is inspiring to see how passion is cultivated, and this was a firsthand example of it. While classrooms around Truman typically hold apathetic students, students who don’t bother being concerned about what they learn or the grade they earn, a classroom holding any of these students buzzes with a deep, burning passion for learning and a thirst for knowledge.
Why?—because this competition builds a passion for the pursuit of knowledge and learning like no other thing could.