The Breaking Barriers in History theme is an exciting lens through which to view historical events. Students have the opportunity to explore topics that have made a lasting impression and brought change to the world. Historically, barriers take time to break and most often are not recognized or appreciated until decades later. It is the historians who examine events, analyze, draw conclusions and document events from a historical perspective. Historians write what becomes the accepted description of the past. Historians decide the importance of people, circumstances, and events that will be studied in school textbooks and remain embedded in the subconscious of society through time.
It is important for students to dig deep and examine secondary resource descriptions that provide the long term impact of their individual topics. A project with balanced research will contain comparisons of multiple secondary sources with various interpretations. Comparing numerous perspectives will help students gain a well-rounded view of circumstances from which to draw conclusions. Many events have multiple interpretations and impacts that will challenge students.
Historical fiction books can provide exciting story lines to captivate young readers and introduce historical background information. The bibliography in the back of these books can also direct students to valuable resources they may not locate otherwise. Surprising facts may be discovered that contradicts present-day understanding.
Historical figures who were trying to break through a barrier during their lifetime could not know the resulting long term consequences.
For example, the Women’s Temperance Movement broke through the political and cultural barriers created by the male dominant society and sought a ban on alcohol. The enactment of the 18th Amendment, banning intoxicating liquor led to an organized crime ring that created a more destructive menace to society. In the end, the 18th Amendment did not accomplish what it set out to do in the first place, but its impact was not known until decades later. Secondary resources will provide students the opportunity to read the work of historians who have studied the ramifications on our society over time.
Many young students fall into the trap of believing everything is available on the internet. “You can Google anything.” By limiting research to online availability, students lose the depth and scope printed materials provide, in addition to losing valuable resources that can bring various perspectives and voices to their conclusions. Secondary resources give students the opportunity to actually measure the positive and negative outcomes that cannot be known or interpreted through a primary source. They can provide various viewpoints and analyses of the actual impact decades later.
Both the controversial Civil Rights Act and Voting Suppression Act of 1965 broke through major barriers politically and socially in the United States at the time. Their impact may be presented differently by historians in the different regions of the United States. Various ethnic groups will interpret the outcome of their personal experiences with a different lens. It is very important for students to examine all viewpoints before drawing conclusions. By doing so, they will have a deeper understanding of their topic and it’s major impact and ramifications through history. Time and place help us to observe and be the most objective of historical events. It is the distance and perspective of time that gives secondary resources their most value to researchers. Secondary resources will provide students the cohesiveness to draw conclusions and develop a full picture of their topic.
Sharon Wlodarczyk is a longtime CHD educator who works with students in Region 15.
In middle and high schools all across Connecticut, colder weather and shortened days signal the beginning of the winter-long process of developing a National History Day project.
Time for inquiry, time for research, time for interviews. Time to hunker down and pore over volumes of research, journal articles, and hundreds of Chronicling America newspapers. Sound unappealing? Don’t worry. It doesn’t sound particularly appealing to me either.
History Day is a whole lot more than a dry textbook or memorized dates. It’s an opportunity to discover a gem of a story thinly veiled beneath the surface level history you learn in school. Hundreds of thousands of people and narratives are yours for the finding. It can all seem overwhelming at first, which is why topic selection is so critical. Find something based on your interests, and narrow in until your focus is just broad enough to find an abundance of sources but narrow enough to be fascinating, unique, and manageable. As cliche as it sounds, your topic should make you excited to learn.
But in the throes of research and thesis development, don’t forget what I have found to be the most rewarding part of History Day--making connections. Talking with experts, teachers, librarians and historians will give you new insight and bits of knowledge you never expected. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people to ask any questions you may have. Never hesitate to request an interview with an expert--chances are they’ll be thrilled you care about their area of study! Revise, revise, revise--be open to suggestions and seek feedback on your work. Nothing is perfect the first time. Doing more research often forces you to reevaluate your claim, and that’s part of the process. You owe it to your topic to examine it from all angles.
History has living consequences. The topic you’re researching likely has real, human connections, and finding these people will elevate your project to a level you never anticipated. My project took me from a bookstore in Damariscotta, Maine, to dark library stacks, to a basement vault in the Maine State Library. From archival rooms to an archaeology lab, to the white shell beach of an abandoned island, to a seafood restaurant and a tiny historical society. I met professors, historians, archaeologists, and the descendants of the island people I researched. If you let it, National History Day will bring you on a similar and fascinating journey.
Best of luck, and don’t hesitate to reach out to me with any NHD questions at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’m happy to help in any way I can.
Margo Pedersen is a junior at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, CT. She has participated in NHD four times, competed three times, and attended the national contest three times. Her paper, “Malaga Island: How the State of Maine Devastated a Resilient Island Community in the Name of the Greater Good” won first place at the 2019 National History Day Contest in the Senior Paper division.