National History Day 2021 in Review

National History Day (NHD) is by far one of the most notable Montrose projects. This week, 31 Montrose students are representing the school in state-level competition, and you can view their projects in an engaging display on the second floor. Depending on their grade and AP placement, 9th and 10th grade students spend two-to-four months of their school year researching and developing a project on a historical topic of their choice, which connects to the annual NHD theme. In some ways, this might sound like an enriching experience; in others, it may seem daunting. 

9th-grade History Teacher and Humanities Coordinator Mrs. Whitlock described the purpose of the project as “an opportunity for Montrose students to learn how to do the real work of history: to follow their curiosity, develop a careful and thorough research process, and to interpret historical evidence and add to scholarship on their topic.” The NHD process is truly both a struggle and one of the most rewarding experiences of our Montrose careers. This year’s theme of “Communication in History” offered students an opportunity to explore historical topics that interested them, such as “The Symbiosis of Electric Telegraphs and Railways in Nineteenth Century Great Britain” or “Militancy as a Form of Communication in the English Women’s Suffrage Movement.” Now that those four long months are over, students took time to reflect on their experiences. 

I, as well as most other Montrose students, have heard the countless NHD stress stories from upperclassmen, which usually convey the idea that, in our freshman and sophomore years, we would be faced with the most rigorous and stressful project we’ve yet done. Having just submitted my NHD research paper for the second time as a sophomore, I can confirm that those rumors are true. It is in fact time consuming, frustrating, complex, and challenging. After all, in what scenario would writing a 2500 word research paper, crafting a performance, building a 10 minute documentary, or designing a website all based on historical research, ever be easy? After finishing this year’s projects, many other freshmen and sophomores expressed their understandable frustration. Julie Baker ’23 stated: “It was inconvenient timewise and stressful.” A sophomore who wished to remain anonymous said: “To some extent it is good, but in another sense it adds a lot of stress to the pre-existing.” 

Other students expressed more positive views on the NHD process. Cecilia Ashenuga and Helen Olohan ’24, who created a documentary on the Jonestown Massacre and patterns of communication by its leader, had a more positive view, saying: “Sometimes it was a little inconvenient. It sometimes took away from other class subjects, but overall it was really great.” Rosie Reale ’24 reinforced the outcome of the project as worth it, stating: “I think it’s a learning experience and it’s really hard and really annoying, but at the end of the day you get a lot out of it.” Rosie developed a museum display about the role of US anti-Communist propaganda during World War II that targeted children through television and trading cards.

As Rosie said, we definitely do get a lot out of the project because there are so many beneficial aspects that come from NHD. We’ve gained skills that go beyond the scope of what we normally get in a classroom. How to be inquisitive, thoroughly conduct research, interview experts, and interpret and analyze primary and secondary sources to form confident arguments, are just some of the many things that we’ve learned along the way. Mrs. Whitlock revealed: “This project helps students work every single humanities skill, from reading comprehension to sorting for analysis, identifying keywords for digital and book research, and synthesizing for effective argumentation.” She added: “The different methods by which a student can present her research offers variety and an opportunity to develop specialty skills for film-making, web-designing, artistic displays, performances, or paper-writing.” 

And, for the most part, students agree. “I 110% wouldn’t have been able to do it without something that interests me,” said Julie Baker ’23. She added that both of her NHD projects, especially the second one, allowed her to “be confident by clearly making a claim, stating a point, and supporting it. You definitely learn how to research with keywords.” Caroline Shannahan ’23, who made a group website for her project, said: “I had never used coding before, and it was a lot of fun to learn how to make a website. We decided on electric telegraphs because we all knew that they were very important, but we didn’t know much about them. From there, we learned how essential they were to safety along railways.” Helen and Cecelia revealed that having freedom over their topic allowed them to choose something they wanted to know more about, stating: “We’re both really interested in criminology, so we chose the Jonestown Massacre. The most valuable thing we’ve learned is how to look at a subject from multiple perspectives. Also, how to dig deeper into the material — when you think you can be done in terms of research, then you can dig even deeper and keep finding new doors that are open.” And, as many students did, they also added that they gained “the ability to not just go directly to Wikipedia, but instead to find primary source documents, interview people, and learn how to be confident enough to find a random person to contact.” 

It’s apparent that overall, despite the massive amount of hard work required of us and the fact that most of our grade was up all night on multiple occasions working on these projects, we’ve all gained something valuable. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have the research, analysis, or writing skills that I do now had we not done National History Day. As much as I disliked it at times, I’m also grateful for the experience. And, of course, it’s so worth it to see all of our final projects come together in the end. 

Mrs. Whitlock summed it up perfectly, adding: “Because students choose their own topics, they get to practice their intellectual freedom and develop expertise, which always results in a deep sense of pride.” Caroline Shannahan ’23 further reflected on her experience, saying: “The research and editing processes were definitely difficult; but, when the project is finished, you know you learned a lot and feel proud of your hard work.” In the end, we’ve come out of the NHD process with more skills and knowledge of our topics than we ever could have imagined, and a sense of pride is definitely among both freshman and sophomores at the moment, who are all relieved to finally be done with our National History Day projects. 


Chaitanya Arora ’23, Staff Writer