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.