by Toben Traver
What happens when we engage students in the process of historic documentation and research? This is the question that drives the annual Vermont History Day (VHD) program and competition. Since 1983, VHD, administered by the Vermont Historical Society(VHS) in affiliation with National History Day (NHD), has worked to provide Vermont 5th–12th grade students with opportunities to develop research skills,grapple critically with historic topics, and present the fruits of their labor to their peers and community. All student projects are organized around a common theme selected each year by NHD, a national non–profit organization committed to teaching, preparing, and inspiring the next generation of historically–grounded citizens. Students are charged with delving into the topic of their choice, and encouraged to bring in creative skills and interests; projects –solo or in groups of up to five –can take the form of an essay, a performance, an exhibit, a documentary, or a website. Placing first or second in the statewide April competition qualifies students to compete at the national level in June. In 2021, as in 2020, these competitions will be virtual events due to the ongoing COVID–19 Pandemic.
VHD fits squarely within the mission of the VHS, which is to engage a wide audience“in the exploration of our state’s rich heritage… through our outstanding collections, statewide outreach, and dynamic programming”(Vermont Historical Society, 2021). The program provides an opportunity for students, parents, and teachers from across Vermont to connect with and learn to value historic materials. VHS also demonstrates a clear understanding of how they can tailor their services to this group of users by highlighting possible project ideas oriented to the issues that animate them –environmental degradation, social justice, and indigenous rights, for instance. How–to guides and tutorials are written with grade–school students in mind, using language and imagery they might find approachable. Resources on the VHS website guide participants in how to locate and evaluate primary and secondary sources, a critical component of building archival and information literacy. Further, resources link to various other libraries, museums, local historical societies, and repositories throughout the state. In this way, the project helps raise awareness of the broader environment of cultural heritage centers throughout Vermont, and provides avenues for outreach to critical partner organizations and future potential allies of the VHS.
Students are one of the primary audiences for VHD, though they are certainly not its only beneficiaries. While, according the VHS website, one hundred and sixty–seven students participated in the VHD competition in 2020, a virtual exhibition allows a broad swath of the public to learn about the individual topics and projects, and perhaps connect with the VHS, Vermont State Archives, or other organizations that house cultural heritage materials (Vermont Historical Society, 2020). Educators are a central target of this program as well. VHD provides tools for incorporating historical teaching and learning into the classroom, including suggested topics of study relevant to Vermont’s history, and creative methodologies for engaging in research, such as oral history.
While many of the students engaged in this program have benefited immensely, judging by their glowing reviews on the VHD webpage, it is difficult to quantify the program’s impact. Many of the winning projects in 2020 originated from one school and one town,suggesting that some teachers and communities have found ways to fold the program into their classrooms successfully, while others may have not. That said, local history, culture, and politics have long been celebrated in Vermont, and the VHS has secured a prominent role in educating, promoting, and preserving Vermonters’ connections with their past. VHD provides a clear avenue for this kind of wrestling with history, offering students the chance to direct their own learning, and showing all involved the power that historical materials can have. In this way, the program helps secure a loyal base of support for the VHS, and ensure the organization can continue its mission into the future.
Links for further reading:
The Vermont Historical Society: https://vermonthistory.org/
Vermont History Day: https://vermonthistory.org/historyday/
National History Day: https://www.nhd.org/
Vermont Historical Society. (2020). Vermont History Day 2020. Vermont History. URL: https://vermonthistory.org/vhd–2020
Vermont Historical Society. (2021). Mission & Strategic Plan. Vermont History. URL: https://vermonthistory.org/mission–and–strategic–plan