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History Day: changing futures

Discovery of the past is changing the future for many of Minnesota's young minds.

May 7, 2013

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450 he probably couldn't imagine that some 560 years later, using plans found on something called the "Internet" and a saw guided by a "laser," a rosy-cheeked Minnesota 8th grader from Salk Middle School would build a miniature, fully functional version of the press that revolutionized printing. But such is the pace of history.

Every year the pace quickens and the past comes alive for 6-12th graders throughout Minnesota schools during State History Day, a remarkable partnership between the Minnesota Historical Society, the University of Minnesota, and others.

On May 4, more than 1,000 students competed at National History Day in Minnesota, held on the U of M campus. They had advanced from among some 30,000 students participating statewide at schools that implement the program to provide structure (and outside support) for learning goals in history and language arts, says Tim Hoogland, History Day coordinator for the Minnesota Historical Society and U of M affiliated professor.

"The concept was modeled after a science fair," says Hoogland. "The basic idea is that when kids study something like chemistry, one day they're in desks and chairs learning the concept, and the next day they're in the lab putting that concept into practice. So History Day is essentially history lab."

Every year, some 30 U of M undergraduates act as mentors at participating schools (there are some 250 statewide). Mentors help kids on projects ranging from a research paper to live performances, documentaries, website creation, and more, on topics the children choose.

"If History Day helps you to engage with what’s going on in your world, that’s wonderful. And if it inspires you to get a Ph.D. someday—that’s wonderful, too." ~Torrie Jay White, U of M senior and History Day mentor.

One performance at this year's competition was an original play written about Vietnam by three students from Holy Rosary School in Duluth. The students not only learned about the history of that war, they created a narrative of a soldier killed in battle, as told to them personally by that soldier's surviving brother, who was also in the war—impressive research (and acting) for anyone, let alone students so young.

More than 3,000 students visited Wilson Library on the U of M campus this year to learn and do research, including finding primary and secondary sources, with the help of their mentors and University librarians.

"Of all the things that we measure, the academic impact of History Day goes up if two things happen," says Hoogland. "One is interaction with someone other than a teacher; and two is if they get into a library outside of their school—and that means, also, off the Internet—so they're not just trying to Google their way through a project."

Students inspiring students

U senior Emily Klipp has been a History Day mentor for four years, the last three at Anwatin Middle School in Minneapolis. She sees part of her work as helping to close Minnesota's achievement gap.

"Working in the Minneapolis public schools, you see a lot of different levels of kids, and they all need different types of help," she says. "An achievement for one of my students might be just finishing a project—that could be a huge achievement for them—and for others, it's getting all the way to the state competition." Klipp estimates that she has spent more than 200 hours in the past months with about 125 students.

Torrie Jay White is also a U of M senior, with three years as a mentor at Como Park Senior High. She participated in the program when she was in high school. Her project as a tenth grader was also about Vietnam.

"We searched archives at the U and got our hands on actual pamphlets about protests—we got our hands on what felt like the actual history," says White. "It was the first time that we realized that our school work, that what we do for our grade, can extend beyond the classroom."

She sees her role as instilling in kids the value of education. "My goal," she says, "is to find students who haven't been pushed, haven't been encouraged, haven't been told you can do great things—and tell them they can." And while a four-year degree may not be for everyone, White has seen History Day change the perspective of dozens of her students.

"What is for everyone," she says, "is to live an engaged life. And if History Day helps you to engage with what's going on in your world, that's wonderful. And if it inspires you to get a Ph.D. someday, that's wonderful too."

The College of Liberal Arts' History Department has sponsored History Day in Minnesota since 1980. The History Day mentor program is one initiative in the U's ongoing goal to strengthen K-12 education throughout the state. Learn more.

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