History Day: A Judge’s Perspective

By Carol Hinz
Editorial Director, Millbrook Press

NHD logo This past weekend, I was a History Day judge at the regional level. History Day in general is a big deal, and History Day in Minnesota is a really big deal. About 30,000 students start out every year, and roughly 55 of those students will represent Minnesota at the national level in June.

Students often spend months working on their History Day projects. And while we couldn’t send every student on to compete at the state level, each project I saw impressed me. It’s inspiring to see young students delving into a topic about which they might not have known anything beforehand. For many students, this is the first time they’ve done research using primary sources. Some make their first-ever trips to the University of Minnesota libraries or the History Center’s library, which is run by the Minnesota Historical Society.

NHD_innovation_logo This year’s theme is innovation in history: impact and change. I judged student exhibits at the junior level (grades 6-8). At this level, students often struggle to craft a clear, meaningful thesis statement. Here are a couple of online resources that provide information about how to write a strong thesis statement: the writing center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the writing center at Harvard University.

Two other big challenges for students are historical context and historical significance. It’s not enough to focus on the innovation itself—viewers need to know a little about other relevant things that happened in the years leading up to the innovation in question. (If the topic is the discovery of radium, for example, what were other chemists doing in the years leading up to this discovery?*) The historical significance part tells the viewer why this innovation mattered and how it influenced later events.

What’s interesting to me as a book editor is that when we are working on books on historical topics, it’s just as important for us to include information about historical context and historical significance. Many of the pieces of a History Day exhibit—a good does of research, original text, primary source quotations, photographs, captions, maps, charts, and timelines, are the same pieces that go into our books.

History Day is particularly close to my heart—not only have I been a judge for the past seven years, I also competed as a high school student. Don’t be surprised if I blog about History Day again sometime soon!

*Hypothetical example—I didn’t judge any exhibits on this topic.