National History Day Competition comes to Baltimore City Public Schools…

Posted on February 17th, 2014 by

This past week, Ilene and I had the honor of being judges in a National History Day Competition at Mount Washington Middle School (Ilene actually was a judge at several other schools’ competitions as well, but I was only able to attend this one). The competition has existed for many years, but this was the first year that Baltimore City public schools have participated, which we learned when three different schools asked us to volunteer as judges for their school’s competition.

Each year, elementary and secondary school students can participate by selecting any topic in history that relates to the annual national theme. This year, that theme is “rights and responsibilities.” Students can work by themselves or in small groups to research and present their topic as either a small “exhibit” (think science fair presentation board), a paper, a performance, a documentary, or a website that they design. They must make use of both primary and secondary sources and make connections not just between their topics and the theme, but also to current events that demonstrate the topic’s relevance. The first step is the school-level competition. The winner from each school goes on to the local competition, and the winner at that level goes on to a state-wide competition, and then that winner proceeds to the National History Day competition, held each year at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Mount Washington Middle School is one of our newest partner schools. One of our favorite teachers, Ryan Kaiser, just moved there this year from Patterson Park Public Charter School, and it was he who invited us to be judges for their school level competition. The judges were pulled from various educational institutions across the city–teachers from other schools, educators and administrators from the District Office, the Maryland Humanities Council, and us, the Jewish Museum of Maryland!

Ilene and I were assigned to work together. We were handed folders with the names of the students whose projects we’d be judging as well as the rubrics and rules for grading. As a first time judge of anything, it was a little overwhelming, so I was very glad that the folder also included a list of suggested questions to ask the students, such as “Why did you choose this topic?” and “What was the most important thing you learned from this?”

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The projects we saw covered a wide range of topics, including Nelson Mandela, Child Labor Laws, and Grave Robbery. As expected, there was also a wide range of ability, but given that this was probably the first big research project many of the students had undertaken (many of the students we were judging were 6th graders), we were both impressed by the scope of each student’s project and also by their clear enthusiasm.

We were especially impressed by one girl’s project which compared the murders of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. Not only was she able to make a connection between an historical event and a current event, but she was also able to articulate other comparisons between the two cases. Her exhibit included sections on two different, flawed systems of justice that existed, or still exist, in the U.S., as well as how the two cases influenced and inspired contemporaries.

Overall, the experience of judging the History Day competition was a very positive one. I wish we’d had more time to look at other projects besides the ones we were assigned to judge. And I’m already looking forward to judging again next year!

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