Judging and the Annual Theme

Hi folks!   I’ve got a really good blog post for you today, and I hope that you will find it very helpful.  Back in October I wrote a post about how to define compromise with this year’s annual theme, “Conflict and Compromise in History. ” I received a great comment from a History Day teacher and parent regarding judging and adherence to the theme, especially regarding last year’s theme, “Triumph and Tragedy in History.”  In typing my reply, I realized that it may be beneficial for everyone if I posted it here, as I am sure Mr. Blendell isn’t the only one with these concerns.  So, without further ado, I present to you Mr. Karl Blendell’s thoughtful and compelling comment (as pulled directly from his comment on my post, “Defining Compromise”), and my response:

 “Karl Blendell replied:


I am writing in response to your blog.
I was reading the following entry :

Defining Compromise
This year’s History Day theme, like last year’s Triumph and Tragedy, is a two-parter.  However, unlike last year students had to incorporate two differing perspectives of one topic, this year’s Conflict and Compromise seems to be a little less distinct.  

You seem to be indicating that the theme from last last year required students to incorporate BOTH triumph AND tragedy.

This is not correct.

The NHD website and written materials from last year state the following:

“For national History day 2007, students are encouraged to select an individual, idea or event and demonstrate how and why their topic was a triumph and/or a tragedy in history.”

Note the last segment , AND/OR .

I emphasize this point because I am aware of 2 specific examples where judges wrote on written evaluation forms that a student did not address both a tragedy and an triumph. I was disappointed and concerned about this because it appears that some judges were under the impression that both elements needed to be addressed. This is not true ! As a result some students were improperly evaluated. This is a point of significant concern given the time commitment that some students commit to the project. In some cases this might entail hundreds of hours of work !

How are judges trained on the regional, state and local levels to ensure that they fully aware of the contest rules and themes and that they themselves have adequate background in the discipline ?

As far as this year’s theme the rules for conflict and compromise are virtually identical to last years. “Students may choose to focus on a conflict or a compromise, but if the topic includes one as well as the other, the student needs to address both sides of the theme.”

Hopefully, students, teachers, AND judges will all have a very clear understanding of this year’s theme.

Thank you for your attention I look forward to your reply.


Karl Blendell”

And here is my reply:

“Hi Karl,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment on my blog post.  I do want to address your concerns about last year’s theme and the judging process.  

I think it is important to remember that the key purpose of the annual theme is to provide students with a framework for conducting analytical research and scholarship.  It also helps students understand multiple perspectives of history and learn that history isn’t a static and unchanging compilation of dates, names, and facts.

“Triumph and Tragedy in History” was a wonderful vehicle for helping students see these multiple and changing perspectives, and NHD encouraged students to maximize their analysis by including both in the their entries.

While you are correct in that the theme sheet did include the “and/or” clause, the context of the document (and the examples that it gave for topics) stressed the importance of looking at both triumph and tragedy.  Here are a few examples pulled directly from the theme sheet:

Students should keep in mind, however, that often the same topic can be viewed as both triumph and tragedy depending on the experience of the participants, the perspective of historians and the passage of time. One person’s triumph was often another person’s tragedy.


“Studies should include an investigation into available primary and secondary research, an analysis of the materials, and a clear explanation of the relationship of the topic to the theme, Triumph & Tragedy in History. Students should pay special attention to the possibilities of triumph and tragedy within the same subject.

During competition, 60% of a project’s evaluation is based on historical quality, which includes research, analysis, and interpretation.  Students who took both triumph and tragedy into account with their topics generally showed more compelling analysis and interpretation, and therefore, were judged to be stronger entries.  

And yes, not including both aspects of the theme in the project legitimately could affect a student’s ranking IF an entry that included both triumph and tragedy was deemed superior in analysis and interpretation.  Judges did not lower a student’s ranking simply because he or she chose to focus on only one of the theme components. If judges wrote something to the effect that the entry only included one, I can guarantee that the intent was only to suggest that the entry could have been analytically stronger had the student considered both.

Among other items and strategies used for training judges, the NHD office provides detailed judging instructions for each category.  (These are available from the NHD website store.) They are the main publications from which all other judges training stems, which in New York includes on-site orientations on contest days and other supplemental materials on citation formatting, a full judging rubric, etc.  Within the judging instructions are detailed instructions on how to assess the use of the annual theme in an entry.  The following statement may lend a little more clarity to why the judges made the decisions they did last year:

While entries should clearly be related to the annual theme, they need not address every aspect of the theme. For the 1998 theme, “Migration in History: People, Cultures, Ideas,” students could examine people OR cultures OR ideas; they did not have to include all three. The 1997 theme, “Triumph and Tragedy in History,” presented a different challenge. Triumph and tragedy are often intertwined: what appears to be a triumph from one perspective might look like a tragedy from another. Since students are to consider all appropriate perspectives, most entries that year addressed BOTH triumph and tragedy. In a few cases, however, it was acceptable to focus on one OR the other, rather than both.”

I hope that this clears up some of the confusion with History Day themes.  In this contest year with “Conflict and Compromise in History,” I can assure you that projects will be judged similarly to last year.  Judges are again looking for strong historical analysis and interpretation, and I will guess that student entries that try to demonstrate both conflict and compromise will end up being judged as the most compelling.

Best,  Tobi”

“Hmmmmm,” you may be thinking, “This is quite alarming.  I only chose to focus on one aspect, and the contest season is upon us.  What can I do?”  Here’s the good news:  If you have already won at your regional competition (or haven’t yet competed) and addressed only conflict or compromise, it isn’t too late to incorporate both.  You have the ability to make any changes to your project between now and the state competition (or April 1 for web sites and papers.)  The only think you CAN’T change between now and states is 1) your topic and 2) your category.  Other than that, start thinking about how you can boost your analysis for the state contest.  It will be a very competitive contest, and if you are serious about advancing to nationals, you really should consider accounting for both Conflict and Compromise in your entries.

HOWEVER, I will end with this last disclaimer:  If you chose to only focus only on conflict or compromise and you feel you have a clear thesis statement and argument, provide compelling evidence for your stance, show change over time, and meet every other judging criteria for your entry, then you shouldn’t sweat it.  Again, judges are not going to penalize anyone for focusing only on one aspect of the theme.  Their main purpose is to assess the students research, analysis and interpretation.  If you have done that well with just one theme component, then stand behind your work and take it to competition with your head held high!  That’s what makes a compelling History Day project. 


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