As a teacher at Fairbanks’ West Valley High School in the late 1990s, Maida Buckley was on the lookout for a way to bring history out of the books. “I was always very project-oriented and I wanted to showcase history, just as science had a place to showcase its information,” she says. “I wanted something that could really connect history projects to the public.”
When a student first proposed doing a project for the National History Day competition in 1997, Buckley saw an opportunity to bring the program to Fairbanks.
These days, thanks in large part to Buckley’s tireless championing, the Fairbanks History Day draws hundreds of students, turns out national award-winning projects, and features a core group of experienced, expert teachers – all working to help kids find and tell stories of the past.
The National History Day program is a yearlong project-based competition for students in grades 6-12. Throughout the school year, students work individually or in small groups to choose a topic related to the annual theme and then present their research through a project in one of five categories: website, performance, documentary film, exhibit, or research paper.
The competition theme this year is Conflict and Compromise and it will begin in February with a local contest in students’ hometowns (this year, there are three local contests in Alaska: Fairbanks, Anchorage and Haines). Local contest winners advance to the Alaska state contest in March, which is online and coordinated by the Alaska Humanities Forum. State winners are then invited to the final round in Washington, D.C., where they compete against nearly 3,000 students from around the country.
Buckley recalls organizing the first year of the Fairbanks contest, calling up retired teacher friends to judge exhibits from two classes. The projects all fit in one room, but she knew she was on to something. “It struck a chord with many people that this was something our discipline needed… it shows how history can help you understand the world and can help shape your own life. [They saw] how much it connects students with the community.”
While History Day topics can be anything a student discovers, the program can really resonate when students choose topics close to home. Buckley recalls one student who called up Sen. Ted Stevens to talk about his experience writing and passing the Title IX law as a young senator in 1972 – an experience students in larger states may only dream of.
Students also get valuable in-person feedback from volunteer judges, who recommend project revisions and ask questions about the research process. Some Alaskan students have even researched history-making family members or community Elders. All of this serves to show students how history can be a tool to better understand not just one topic, but also the resources and stories in their own communities.
One unique aspect of the National History Day program is its adaptability to student needs and passions. Students can research any topic they like so long as they can connect it to the overarching theme set by the national organization each year (2018’s theme is “Conflict and Compromise in History”).
They can also choose which of the five project categories they want to enter. Buckley recognizes the importance of playing to students’ strengths. “I always say, for some people, words are their friends, for some they are acquaintances, and for some they are strangers,” says Buckley. “There are other ways besides papers for students to express what they have learned and what they know about history.”
Exhibits are still the most popular category in Fairbanks, and often inspire students’ creativity. Buckley has seen an exhibit on Amelia Earhart shaped like an airplane, a project on Martin Luther that looked like the doors of Wittenberg Church, and a first-grader’s cleverly titled project on the dodo bird. The theme was Exploration, Encounter, Exchange, and the student titled her project The Dodo: Exploration, Encounter, Extinct. ““How brilliant is that?” laughs Buckley. “A first-grader!” She also remembers a particularly powerful performance by a student who acted as a waitress in North Carolina during sit-ins in 1960. “She was serving people, making coffee, doing the whole thing,” she says. “We’ve seen students be quite imaginative.”
Buckley has also worked to grow a core group of expert History Day expert teachers in Fairbanks, who have in turn developed particularly strong programs at West Valley and Barnette Magnet schools. “Students are producing better entries when they have teachers with experience,” Buckley explains. Three Fairbanks teachers have won the NHD Teacher of the Year award, including West Valley teacher Heather Damario, who supervised the production of Alaska’s most successful entry of 2017: a 10-minute documentary film titled “Strange Fruit and Billie Holiday: The Union of Music and Protest”. The film was the project of Sydney Cox and Yuki Nagaoka, who took home the national African-American History Prize in June in D.C. The film also earned a special screening in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Cox and Nagaoka’s film will also be featured at Fairbanks’ First Friday on Feb. 2. Buckley is hosting the event at the Morris Thompson center to celebrate the start of Black History Month, and to kick off the local contest, called the Fairbanks History Day Fair, which runs Feb. 5-9. Buckley is quick to point out the importance of supportive partnerships to the program’s growth and success.
The UAF history department is a steady partner, contributing Fathauer Endowment funds and staff time, and the director of the office of public history, Professor Terrence Cole, has championed the program alongside Buckley since its beginning.
“This has definitely been a partnership between Terrence and myself over these years,” Buckley says. “In a sense he’s as much a part of this as I am.” The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District contributes personnel time, a registration system and help with paperwork, and the borough donates the use of the Pioneer Park Civic Center for the History Day Fair each year.
Since 1999, the Fairbanks contest has grown to about 350 entries each year. Buckley has also developed a Novice Historians category for elementary school students, who create exhibits. After 20 years at the helm, this year Buckley is training teaching assistants from the UAF history department to take over her role in the coming years.
“This year I’ll turn 70, so these decades are important to me,” she says. Buckley, who long ago retired from teaching, isn’t sure what she’ll do with the extra time. “I don’t have any definite plans yet,” she says. ““As you get older, it takes more time to be yourself. Maybe I’ll have a longer vacation in Hawaii!”
Alaska Humanities Forum is in its first year as the new state coordinator for Alaska History Day, the statewide affiliate of the national competition. Learn more, access resources, sign up to volunteer as a judge, or join us as a sponsor at akhf.org/ahd.