Nellie Bly Makes History

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National History Day is a creative way to make the subject of history accessible, interactive and fun. Every year nearly 600,000 middle school and high school students from around the world compete in NHD and bring to life all sorts of key issues and individuals. Contests are held throughout the U.S. and at various international affiliates. Students first compete at a local level and can then move on to state and national levels.

National History Day began on April 11, 1974 at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. The idea originated with CWRU History Professor David Van Tassel who thought the subject of history was often taught in rote and boring ways. He wanted to make history more exciting and engaging for students and teachers.

In 1980, NHD became a national and annual event that featured the theme, “The Individual.” Since that time, history projects have continued to showcase an annual theme for its relevance to ancient or recent history. A few themes have included “Trade & Industry,” “Conflict & Compromise,” and “Liberty: Rights and Responsibilities.” The theme for 2016 is “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange.”

In addition, there are five competition categories for history projects including: documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website. Students are encouraged to conduct original research via primary and secondary sources.

When my daughter was in middle school years ago, she and a classmate gave a presentation about the history and activism of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons production facility. My son gave a solo presentation about Guglielmo Marconi and the radio. This year, I started thinking about National History Day once again.

In January, I was delighted to receive an email from Wendy Martinez, an eighth-grade student from Kings River Union Elementary School in Kingsburg, California (Tulare County).

Wendy Martinez a.k.a. Nellie Bly Photo: Courtesy Wendy Martinez, 2016

Wendy Martinez a.k.a. Nellie Bly
Photo: Courtesy Wendy Martinez, 2016

Wendy told me she was working on a NHD project about early investigative journalist Nellie Bly and she wanted to interview me about my book, Nellie Bly and Investigative Journalism for Kids. We soon set up a time to talk over the phone.

I learned that Wendy was an experienced and accomplished NHD presenter. In 2015, she, Jairo Aguilar, and Matt Dunn from Kings River won the group performance prize for their presentation, “The Unlikely Union of Three: Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Fred Ross.” The three students traveled to College Park, Maryland, to compete at the NHD national level.

This year, Wendy gave a solo performance about Nellie Bly titled “Nellie Bly: Exploring Investigative Journalism, Encountering Dark Corners of Society, and Exchanging Words for Actions.” The focus of her performance was about the ten days Nellie Bly spent at Blackwell’s Insane Asylum for Women in 1887. Nellie feigned insanity and was committed to Blackwell’s as an undercover reporter to investigate the abuses at the institution. It was a gruesome ordeal. When Nellie was released from Blackwell’s, her newspaper articles helped bring about change.

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Photo Credit: New York Public Library

Photo Credit: New York Public Library

After reading many books about Nellie Bly, Wendy also traveled to Los Angeles with her mom to view the 2015 movie “10 Days in a Madhouse,” written and directed by Timothy Hines.

Wendy chose to feature Nellie Bly for NHD because she admired Nellie’s spunk and determination. “What fascinated me the most was that she was doing all these incredible things where women at her time weren’t allowed to – and she still did it anyway,” Wendy said. “I know that her investigations also inspired me to do more because she saved a lot of people from Blackwell’s and she showed that women could do anything.”

Wendy was a finalist in the Individual Performance/Junior Division of Tulare County’s National History Day, and she also won a Tulare County Historical Society Madeline Franz History Day Scholarship. This past May, Wendy competed at the state level in Sacramento and said, “I was in the top nine of California, but sadly I am not going to Nationals.” The final Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest for 2016 will be held from June 12-16 at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Wendy sees the relevance of Nellie Bly’s story in our world. “I think her story is very important because people are still being mistreated today,” Wendy said. “And when you look back at Nellie Bly’s investigation at Blackwell’s, she made a difference to so many lives – not just the patients, but also the outside world too.”

National History Day has support from a wide range of individuals, foundations and corporations, and offers students various awards and special prizes from a number of sponsors including organizations such as: The National Endowment for the Humanities, The Library of Congress, and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Wendy appreciates being able to participate in National History Day. “Before I was in History Day, I was very very shy and I couldn’t really talk to people. So, when I joined History Day and started getting the feeling of it, I could speak in public and I could also interview people and go deep into research on my project.”