Last night, I had the privilege to serve as a judge for National History Day Minnesota, an interdisciplinary history research project for students in grades 6-12. Students choose a topic that relates to an annual theme, research that topic, and present their research in one of five presentation categories: Research Paper, Exhibit, Documentary, Performance, or Website. Students may then enter their projects into History Day competitions at school, regional, state, and national levels. The History Department of Bemidji State University hosted the Northwest Region's competition last night, the first of the regional and virtual events leading up to state and national contests. The entire event is organized by the Minnesota Historical Society, which does a brilliant job promoting History Day, supporting students and teachers leading up to school and regional contests, and providing judges with excellent training before meeting with students.
Serving as a History Day Judge has always been a bit of a bucket list item for me (yes, I am that exact level of nerd). I LOVED the (what we called) Social Studies Fair. Creating project boards and cutting out headings and pictures and oh-so-much rubber cement. Staying up WAY too late the nights before the school and county fairs because my boards weren't quite ready. Completing research at the public library and the BIG (University) library, where my mom was completing her Master's degree in Nursing while raising three children. She would help me prepare and practice my speech and ask me interview questions, even though she often had to work the evening of the awards ceremony.
I rarely knew the judges I saw walking around to different projects and interviewing my classmates and competitors. One or two I maybe recognized from church, but what I mostly knew about them, or assumed, was that they were all brilliant. These incredible adults who were here asking me questions about my project, wanting to know about my research, taking notes about what they observed in my display. Several of them wrote nice comments, some helpful, some illegible. I always hoped that I could be like these folks some day.
And then, last night, I kind of was. My handwriting was not illegible: MHS uses an online tool for sharing feedback and comments, making it easier for both judges and students. The rest of it, though, felt so familiar. My partner (History Professor Dr. John Ellis) and I had the opportunity to judge six senior group projects - each an incredibly unique display board presenting a thesis and subthemes with images and text supporting their thesis. Each display accompanied a brief synopsis of their research process and an annotated bibliography.
Once we looked through their display and documents, we had the opportunity to interview the students about their projects. And, lemme tell you... I was nervous. Each of the projects shared by these students was absolutely brilliant. They displayed a passion for their topics- evident after only a few interview questions. Once the students could take deep breaths past their jitters, they spoke excitedly about their topics, their research process, how their thesis changed as their research developed, and - what was particularly striking - how they changed as people as a result of their research. Each display board was thoughtfully designed, using colors that provided a professional contrast highlighting their phrases and images and were representative of the topics themselves.
I always thought I wanted to be a judge - and I was right; it was an incredible experience, and I look forward to participating in future years. Following last night's regional History Day, though, I am grateful for the reminder of my privilege to be a lifelong student of history. We are still developing the thesis, digging into the research, developing exhibits, and sharing the thrill of new knowledge and meaning-making across our community - and I hope we express as much passion for this mission as the students did last night.
For more information about yesterday's regional contest, check out the article in the Bemidji Pioneer. Please reach out if you want to help us support History Day MN in future years!