Now that the school year is over, it’s a perfect time to thank teachers. 

In my job, I’ve been particularly impressed observing the work of passionate teachers who have mentored students to become detectives of the past through the National History Day program.

Over months of skill building, Utah’s National History Day students have learned how to work with history’s raw materials. They gathered primary and secondary sources, studied historical documents and photos, and then drew reasoned conclusions based on evidence. 

This kind of education matters: As it turns out, historical thinking and research skills also form the foundations of engaged, informed citizenship. Data from Utah’s National History Day students bears this out.

Of the 1,035 Utah students who participated in History Day competitions this spring, 97% reported it had improved their ability to find credible information on the internet, and 93% reported it helped them to understand current issues in our society. In addition, 80% of the students said learning about their topics inspired them to make a difference in their own communities. 

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Students don’t develop these complex skills and insights in a vacuum. Passionate teachers who see the value of learning history through inquiry guided these students every step of the way.

Some 80 teachers from Wasatch Front, Logan, Price and southern Utah schools guided students through History Day research projects this year. Holli Mattingly, who teaches in Taylorsville, said she values observing the connections students make. “They would come in first thing and say ‘Guess what we learned?’ or I would get an email saying ‘Will you read this? What do you think?’” Mattingly said. “They became really motivated, more so than in any other project I have seen. They really owned it.”

In June, 59 middle school and high school students represented Utah in the national competition, which hosts more than 2,000 students from around the world. 

At nationals, Orem students Hazel Wheeler and Eden Jones received the African American History award sponsored by the National Park Service for their project, “Raising Voices of Diplomacy: The First Tour of the Fisk Jubilee Singers.” The project was also a national finalist and featured in the National Museum of African American History and Culture Documentary Showcase. 

Wheeler, after spending months researching and filming the project, said she was struck by how “small and hidden stories from history can have a much bigger impact than you would expect, and that it doesn’t take violence or even arguments and/or controversial speeches to bring about change.” 

She and her colleagues across the state have come to see how and why history matters. These students were able to draw connections between the decisions people made in the past and the legacies of those actions in the present. Moreover, they come to see how history connects with their own lives and shapes the future.

Ogden High student Brook Hardin explored her culture and ancestral history with a project researching the boarding school experience of Native students, their extended families, and communities. “It allowed me to understand how (history) still affects not only myself, but American society as a whole,” Hardin said. “It has changed my perspective forever.” 

Through her journey of discovery, Hardin learned to recognize history’s power to inform her life. “It helps us understand who we are, how we got here, and could inspire us to take a stand against issues that have passed (down) through generations,” she said.

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Charlotte Boothe, of Matheson Junior High in Magna, studied Phyllis Schlafly’s successful fight against the Equal Rights Amendment. “The coolest thing I learned from doing my project is that one person could change the world,” she said. “You don’t need to be powerful, just persistent.” 

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Most educators would agree inquiry-based teaching methods require more extensive preparation than simply presenting facts for review on bubble tests, but the rewards are lasting. More informed and engaged students, after all, grow to be more informed and engaged citizens. This is the kind of learning that can address Utahns’ declining rate of civics knowledge, skills and dispositions, as recently reported by UVU.

Inspiring student scholars to become detectives of the past models a kind of learning that is engaged and authentic. The National History Day program prepares young people with skills to aid them in school, college, and career, as well as helping them become engaged community members.

Wendy Rex Atzet, a public historian, is the National History Day state coordinator at the Utah Division of State History. Write to to volunteer, celebrate a history teacher or student scholar, or learn more about the National History Day program.

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