Akron-Westfield National History Day participants: (left to right) Colleen Westergard, Ann Hedlund, Bailey Davis, Danika Tindall and Val Philips

Irish Writer and Poet Oscar Wilde once said, "Any fool can make history, but it takes a genius to write it."

This statement is very apropos and shows the effort it takes to analyze the events of the past so that its context has meaning and relevance for the future.

Wilde would be proud of the "geniuses" who participate in the annual National History Day (NHD) competition held at Northwest Area Education Agency (AEA) each March. Winners of the district competition go onto the state competition and, from there, the winners are invited to the national competition at the University of Maryland each June.

While moving to the national level is rare, students from Akron-Westfield Community School District not only proceeded onto the nationals last year; but, they captured a first-place finish in their division for Junior Exhibit. Students Bailey Davis, Ann Hedlund and Danika Tindall presented, "Wisconsin v. Yoder: Successful Debate of Freedom in Education."

This was the second top finish for Akron-Westfield, which has a very strong NHD program. Two teachers, Val Philips and Colleen Westergard, have teamed up each year since the late 1990's to help elementary and secondary students discover history in unconventional ways.

"Students grow so much through History Day—gaining confidence, speaking and writing skills, higher-order thinking skills, patience, friendships, the ability to evaluate. The list goes on and is very significant for them.  For some students, the experience is life-changing," emphasized Westergard.

Westergard says that 30 to 40 students typically participate in the annual event, which has a different theme each year. During a nine-week exploratory course taught by Philips, or in TAG classes taught by Westergard, students search for, and ultimately, choose a topic that pertains to the NHD theme. Then they conduct primary and secondary research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews and websites. After analyzing and interpreting sources and drawing conclusions about their topic's significance in history, they present their work in original papers, websites, exhibits, performances and documentaries.

"I feel that the students get a great start through the nine-week exploratory," said Westergard. "From there, it’s the students who dedicate their time to the project who find success. We offer two work nights per week for students to meet deadlines after the exploratory. Val and I, and our mentors, are usually at the school on Sundays working with students, as well. Also, parents taking their children to do extra research is extremely helpful, whether it be visiting a museum or a library that has a collection important to the topic."

While a project of this scope isn't for the faint of heart, it is one that Philips and Westergard believe challenges students to think critically and prepares them for future projects.

Westergard recommends that more teachers take the leap into the NHD competition. She says to start small with just a few groups in various categories.

"Start working with students before the holiday season begins, so they have the holiday break to do further research. Push them to finalize their projects during January," said Westergard. "We always host a locals event at our school in February so all of the students are able to showcase their work for the community. This is not a competition, although we do invite judges to provide feedback. Locals is great preparation for Districts in March."

She recommends teachers new to NHD should ask questions of the state coordinator and fellow NHD teachers in the area.

The district event for NHD will be held on March 12, 2012. The coordinator for NHD at Northwest AEA is Dr. Judy Sweetman, instructional coach. She can be reached at 800/352-9040 ext. 6088.

She, too, emphasizes the positive effects of a competition of this nature.

"The National History Day program helps to prepare students for college and life-long learning like no other program," said Sweetman. "The critical analysis students conduct for their projects prepares them to be responsible, participating citizens."

The National History Day website is www.nhd.org/.