Students digging the past for National History Day

2014-03-27T15:00:00Z Students digging the past for National History DayPat McKnight Special correspondent La Crosse Tribune
March 27, 2014 3:00 pm  • 

The past comes alive for students through National History Day projects, and more and more area students are taking part in the annual competition.

Basing their research on this year’s theme of “Rights and Responsibilities,” middle and high school students can enter projects in five categories: research papers, documentaries, websites, exhibits and performances.

Started in Ohio in 1974 to develop research, thinking and communication skills through the study of historic issues, the nationwide contest draws about 500,000 students each year.

Students choose historical topics related to the theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews and historic sites.

The process starts with school level judging, with top notch projects moving on to regional competition, which this year will be held Monday, March 31, at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. The best projects from there move on to state and, ultimately, national competitions.


Freshmen and sophomores enrolled in U.S. history and sorld history classes at Bangor High School participated in the competition this year, a tradition that goes back 10 years. This year, 30 students qualified to compete at the regional event.

The stand-out projects for the judges included Breanna Leis’ website on the Katie Beckett Law, Sophie Scholl and the White Rose Resistance, and Kassidy Wuensch and Tommy Brennan’s group exhibit on the Geneva Accords.

Other projects entered in this year’s school competition include the creation of the first orphanage in Bethesda, Ga.; Milwaukee’s struggle to break down segregation; the importance of the La Crosse Rubber Mills to the community; thalidomide (a drug used to combat morning sickness that resulted in widespread birth defects; La Crosse native and early Olympic athlete George Poage; and the Articles of Confederation.

The projects offer students the opportunity to select an area of history they want to learn more about, create a thesis statement based on self-directed research questions, conduct research to support their thesis statement and determine cause-and-effect relationships between various events.

“The variety of topics students select each year demonstrates the need to give students opportunities to take charge of their learning and pursue their unique areas of interest,” said Deon Michels-Bowe, BHS social studies teacher. “The critical thinking skills that NHD promote are competencies we want all students to possess. Every employer and higher institutions of learning want people who can look at information, recognize assumptions, evaluate arguments and draw conclusions. Furthermore, the project aligns with many Common Core standards connected to literacy.”


Participation in National History Day is required for eighth-graders at Holmen Middle School. This year is the 13th year the students at the school have taken part in the competition.

The competition at the school level was held March 6 with one sixth-grader joining 285 eighth-graders entering projects in the judging. Fifty-five students from HMS will be heading on to the regional competition.

“Jackie Robinson (first black baseball player to play the major leagues) was a popular topic this year, probably because he fits so well with the theme of rights and responsibilities,” said Dayce McAndrews, eight-grade language arts teacher at HMS and team leader for the competition.

Other topics included Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”; banned books; the Miranda Rights law; Wisconsin milk strikes; the Berga Death Camp; Civil War medicine; the Berlin Wall; China’s one child policy; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender/transsexual rights; the Underground Railroad; and the NFL instant replay system.

“National History Day is an amazing project that allows our students to gain tremendous academic growth.” said McAndrews. “Working in an interdisciplinary model allows us to cover a greater number of academic standards, reinforce content and distribute the presentation and distribution of information and content.”

Eight teachers team up to make the competition come together, including eighth-grade language arts and social studies teachers, the talented and gifted teacher and the school’s library media center director.


Onalaska High School sophomores presented their NHD projects March 11 to panels of judges in the high school’s LMC. The students were enrolled in teacher Lisa Reimler’s accelerated English class.

“As part of English 10 and Common Core, sophomores are required to do a research project or paper, and after my son participated in NHD as a seventh- and eighth-grader, I was inspired by his positive experience,” said Reimler. “I really appreciate academics being rewarded, and the national contest at University of Maryland is extremely impressive. It takes place over four days, and kids can stay on campus if they choose. Many scholarships are given out, and it is awesome to see kids from every state and at all ages competing in the academic arena.”

Last year, five Onalaska students went to the national competition at University of Maryland at College Park.

“It’s a great way to teach research, and I thought it’s too bad it’s just me reading a paper,” said Reimler. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to share it?”

This is the third year OHS students have participated, with 50 students taking part at OHS and more doing projects at the middle school. The projects are judged by historians and educators.

As part of their interviews with the judges, students could be asked about the primary and secondary sources they used in their research. Primary source information is provided by someone directly involved in the events and secondary sources come from researcher who collect, analyze and interpret information about the people and event.

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