Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Danielle Stuckle's blog

National History Day: The Kids Are All Right

I have good news and bad news. First: the bad news—we are living in troubled times. However, that’s not really news. As a historian, I assure you, people have always been living in troubled times. Now: the good news—I have seen the future, and things are looking up. I see the future each year as students from around the state participate in the National History Day in North Dakota contest.

Group photo of NHD award winners

Students and teachers from Elgin-New Leipzig Public School participated in National History Day in North Dakota on April 7, 2017.

The state contest is affiliated with the National History Day contest that takes place in College Park, Maryland, in June. Similar to a science fair, the national contest has been around since the 1970s. If you ever need proof that the kids are alright, I encourage you to visit the National History Day website and review some of the past contest entries. I think you’ll agree with me that these kids are ready to take on the world.

Display board featuring Galileo

Exhibit Entry, Galileo, from the 2018 National History Day in North Dakota State Competition, Junior Group Exhibit, by Abigale Berger and Ruby Brunn of Dickinson Middle School.

Display board featuring Chicago skyscrapers

Exhibit Entry, Tragedy of the Great Fire and Triumph of Skyscraper City, from the 2019 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Exhibit.

We work with teachers across the state all year to plan the state contest held each April. Workshops for educators and students in grades 6-12 provide a general overview of the program. We break things down into digestible parts that include selecting a topic, conducting historical research, and creating a contest entry. Entry categories include papers, documentaries, websites, performances, or exhibits. Students can work individually or in groups of up to five students. They compete to qualify for school, regional, state, and national contests. We also provide training to help students do more in-depth research, and better understand what our judges are looking for.

Documentary Entry, Echo of Falling Water: The Inundation of Celilo Falls, from the 2019 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Documentary.

I’m so passionate about this program because students learn a variety of skills through National History Day, including strengthening their reading, research, and writing abilities. They select a historical topic they are personally interested in, which helps make history relevant and exciting. They flex their creativity muscles in developing an entry for the category of their choice. Research skills help with critical thinking and a build a more rigorous framework to analyze information. If they choose to work in a group, they learn collaboration skills. Explaining their work to adult judges helps them develop communication skills.

Performance Entry, Territorial Diplomacy: Seo Hui’s Compromise and Demands for the Goryeo Dynasty, from the 2018 National History Day Contest. 1st Place Senior Group Performance.

If you are a parent, student, or educator who would like to learn more about participating in National History Day in North Dakota, please contact me, Dani Stuckle, at dlstuckle@nd.gov or 701.328.2794. Our pool of judges includes a wide-range of professional backgrounds. Judges work in teams where seasoned judges help new judges learn the ropes. Contact me as soon as possible to be added to the 2020 judge roster. The state contest will be on Friday, April 17, 2020 at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. The contest is open to the public.

If you need to know that our future is in good hands, come check these entries out. You’ll go away feeling very reassured that things will be okay. Learn more at history.nd.gov or NDStudies.gov.

The Persistent Myth of the Flat Earth and Why Historical Research Matters

In 1828 Washington Irving published A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, in which the story’s hero audaciously proves to medieval Europeans the world is not flat. American school children ever since have learned the story of how Columbus “proved” Earth is round. Unfortunately for critical thinkers everywhere, Irving, famous for stories like “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” exercised a great deal of artistic license. He was more interested in telling an electrifying story than an accurate history.

The truth is, Columbus’s peers generally believed Earth was round. In fact, the awareness of a round Earth dates back at least to Pythagoras during the 6th century BC. It is unfair to generations of students to mislead them with an unnecessary story that is debunked with some basic fact checking and historical thinking.

A boat going off the edge of water with a sea monster waiting for it

The edge of the (flat) Earth: Here There Be Monsters. Image courtesy of www.john-howe.com

Historical thinking involves repeatedly asking, “How do we know?” It is important to be skeptical and verify information using the same methods historians use to evaluate sources. Every day we encounter and process information that needs to be evaluated and analyzed for accuracy, perspective, and potential bias. We consume a great deal of content through social media, websites, newspapers, books, movies, television, and countless other media. It is crucial for society that citizens learn how to apply historical thinking skills to this material, especially when so much, like Irving’s, might have more in common with an article from The Onion instead of an encyclopedia entry. How is a person supposed to navigate all this material and trust what they read?

Earth as viewed from space

A photo of Earth from space looks pretty convincing to me. NASA image courtesy of the DSCOVR EPIC team.

Guiding people through historical thinking methods is part of my job as a museum educator. This requires a reader to understand the context of an issue, and consider multiple perspectives. When a historian sits down to read a book, reading the main text is not likely the first thing she does. A historian first focuses on the introduction to understand the point the author is trying to convey. They study the bibliography to get an idea of what sources the historian used and the breadth of their research. They also evaluate whether an author’s interpretation is supported by evidence from a variety of sources.

Before digging into the main content, we might also do a little bit of digging to learn more about the author. What are their credentials? Are they an expert on the topic? What overarching point, the thesis, are they trying to make?

Historical reading and thinking is a critical skill for readers of all ages to develop. By thinking historically and critically, we can catch Washington Irving’s mistake of playing fast and loose with the facts. We can also avoid the mistake of teaching false and misleading history. Let’s all practice thinking more like a historian and think critically about the media we are exposed to.

Historical Thinking Chart

Ask these questions of images, text, and other media to avoid falling for Washington Irving–style whoppers. Image courtesy of Stanford History Education Group.