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Switch Witch Trumps Elf On The Shelf

halloween candy

Every Christmas, inevitably, my friends tease me about my fear and loathing of the retail-created Elf On The Shelf tradition.

You know what I am talking about – the annoying little creature who looks like Isaac from Children of the Corn and shows up in countless Facebook pictures during the month of December. I’m usually tagged in half of them because, apparently, it is hilarious to get on my nerves.

Sorry, but the thought of a little man dressed like a psycho hiding in my house and posing in weird scenarios doesn’t exactly put me or the kids in the Christmas spirit. It is a great way to sell poorly written children’s books though.

But I digress…

evil elf on the shelf

Cute Christmas tradition… ?

Elf on the shelf is evil

…Or Isaac from Children of the Corn?








Before you go calling me a buzz-kill, let me state for the record that I do not despise all make-believe characters. I like Santa. The Tooth Fairy is pretty cool too. We even have our own make believe character “The Goatman” that we use to keep the kids from wondering off at airports.

I also really like the Halloween Switch Witch.

The Switch Witch is a health and wellness minded witch who takes some of that nasty Halloween candy and (you guessed it) switches it for a toy. The Switch Witch lets the kids control what she does. Put some, all or none of the Halloween candy out for her – she doesn’t care. But the more you give her, the bigger the gift.  She won’t hide in your house or, worse, require you to purchase a Witch On The Shelf kit. She just comes and goes on Halloween night, taking whatever your kids want to give her, and leaving behind a present.

With three kids trick or treating, there have been years when we’ve filled a 60 quart storage box full of candy. Add to that the candy they get from school and parties and the corn maze and the pumpkin patch and the bus driver and the mailman and grandpa, and I end up with a candy staging area in my dining room… (chocolates in Box A, lollipops in Box B, gross Candycorn and no-name peanut butter chewy things in Box C – who eats those?)

Hey, if the Switch Witch can help with that, then sign me up.


The Story of the Switch Witch.

The Switch Witch lives in Candyland and so has a serious need for candy. In fact, the whole town of Candyland can’t live without it so they make really cool toys and things hoping that children will trade all their candy on Halloween night for a pair of rollerskates or a doll or whatever and help keep Candyland running strong.

To let the Switch Witch know that you are ready to make a trade, the kids leave a few pieces of candy on the front porch. I suggest Candycorn or those peanut butter chewy things. The kids then leave a bag of candy in their room and a special note asking for a toy. After the kids go to sleep, the Switch Witch will do the old switch-witcheroo. Sometimes she leaves a note too.

In my house she also leaves an apple and a new toothbrush.

Glinda from Wizard of Oz

Are you a good witch, a bad witch or a Switch Witch?

If your kids are afraid of witches, tell them that the Switch Witch is the kind and beautiful sister of Glinda from The Wizard of Oz. Whatever works.

Inevitably, my kids will not give her all of their candy. They keep some of the good stuff. And despite my best efforts, their father usually keeps his stash too.

But, if I can condense the 60 quart candy box down to a couple of ziplock baggies then I am happy.


The Switch Witch Spirit

In full disclosure, my kids know good and well that I am the Switch Witch. They don’t believe that Candyland story anymore than they believe the whole Easter Bunny thing.

Comme çi comme ça.

I actually prefer the version that doesn’t include the Elf-On-The-Shelf-like story anyway so nowadays I just say – “Hey, kids, if you donate some of that massive amount of candy to Treats for Troops then I’ll replace it with something cool.” It’s a win-win-win – Me, the kids and the troops

… or, at least the troops who like Candycorn and peanut butter chews.




Create a Tradition Your Kids Will Love: Personalize Mailboxes

kids mailbox tradition

Family traditions are important to us. Ice Cream Friday has been a thing since our first daughter was born. (Yes, real ice cream. Don’t judge!) We always bring a rock home whenever we go on vacation despite the fact that it always seems to get us delayed in customs. We leave a quarter in a secret place whenever we travel just in case we ever return. We sleep under the Christmas tree in sleeping bags the night before we take it down. We always watch the movie together after someone finishes the book. (I’ve been forced to sit through the entire Harry Potter series twice now. Just one more kid to go!)

But, our favorite tradition is probably our mailbox treats. We started doing this when our first daughter was a baby more than 10 years ago, and it is still going strong today. We ordered some personalized mailboxes for each kid. (I got mine from PotteryBarnKids). At night, after the kids fall asleep, we slip a little treat in their mailbox. Sometimes it is just a note or drawing. Sometimes it is a pack of raisins or sugarless gum. On special occasions it might even be a small toy or a book. It’s not everyday. Keeping it completely random adds to the fun. Nothing is more exciting for them than waking up to see the little flag raised on their mailbox alerting them to the fact that a special treat awaits!


letters from mom for kids mailboxes

Letters from mom

You’ve Got Mail! 

This doesn’t have to be expensive or time consuming. Your “mailbox” could simply be a jar or shoebox. I find that those cardboard, cylinder oatmeal containers work particularly well. Just have your child cover the outside with construction paper and decorate. Wah-lah! Instant mailbox.

Letters with a special message from mom or dad are my favorite but small books, stickers or healthy treats are fun too. Sometimes we do mailbox treats that give away a big surprise like a picture of Mickey announcing an upcoming Disney Cruise. Mailbox treats are a great way to support important milestones in your child’s life too, for instance – handlebar streamers after your daughter learned to ride her bike without training wheels or a pair of goggles after your son learned to dive. You could give them a pretty hair bow on school picture day or a blow-up beach ball on the last day of school.

The idea is to keep it simple and random. And don’t give too many “big” surprises. Your goal should be to remind your child that they are special and loved, not spoiled.


Mailbox Treat Ideas to try:

  • A short letter or note from mom or dad or another family member
  • Books
  • Crayons, markers, chalk, colored pencils
  • Coloring book, activity books, educational prep books, MadLibs
  • Toothbrush (Make it from the “tooth fairy” after your child loses a tooth!)
  • Playdoh or silly putty. Make your own!
  • Keychain (great for after you move to a new house)
  • Small stuffed animal (to announce you are going to the zoo)
  • Puzzles
  • Jump rope
  • Finger paint, bubbles
  • Bubble bath
  • Small flashlight
  • Hair accessories: clips, ribbons, bows
  • Small toys: Matchbox cars, Legos, Petshops, slinky
  • Stickers or temporary tattoos
  • A small jar with holes in the top (for lightning bug season!)
  • Journal or Diary
  • Disposable camera (before a trip!)
  • A flower or flower/vegetable seeds
  • Money (for their birthday)
  • Bike accessories (horns, pom-poms, streamers, etc)
  • Tickets (movie, sporting event, concert)
  • Magazine such as National Geographic Kids
  • Drawing or photograph
  • Sugarless gum, pretzels, sunflower seeds
  • Painted rocks or other gifts from nature
  • Healthy treats: apple, banana, orange, raisins, or a a mix of strawberries, blueberries and other small fruit with an invitation to “bring to kitchen – let’s make a smoothie!”
  • Kitchen spatula, whisk, etc with invitation to “help mom cook”

See our Pinterest for more ideas!



A Mom’s Opinion of NHD – National History Day


Virginia History Day National History Day

Our daughter, the Virginia History Day Logo Design Winner

Our daughter participated in NHD in Virginia in 2011, 2012 and 2013, making it to the National competition in 2012.

We’ve always been supporters of the program. We volunteered our time, helped with donations and even spoke publicly at school board meetings attempting to seek more participation in NHD.

Sadly, due to inconsistencies, lack of oversight, and absence of standards, we can no longer support the program. At least not in Virginia.


First – a little “history”…

In 2012, our daughter and her partner won first place in Regionals and States in 2012 with a rather simplistic and hastily assembled group exhibit on Louis Pasteur, a topic they picked from a list in history class and was required for a grade.  This allowed them to attend the NHD National competition in College Park, Maryland. We were surprised given the scope of their work (or, should I say… lack thereof), but figured – Hey, these NHD folks must know what they are doing.

Once we arrived in College Park, we saw the competition and the serious nature of the judging at the National level, we quickly realized that Louis Pasteur was way out of his league here. Lesson learned: if you want to compete at Nationals you’d better show up with your A-Game because these kids are in it to win it. So, our daughter, high on a combination of inspiration and determination, decided to try again with a better project. A project so epic that Louis Pasteur himself would be impressed.


Public Hospital Museum Williamsburg Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg, VA

A few months later she began researching Eastern State Hospital, also known as the Public Hospital, in her hometown of Williamsburg, and where her grandmother is employed. Eastern State was the very first public mental hospital in the U.S. and one of its early doctors, Dr. John M. Galt, is considered an early adapter of moral treatment of the mentally ill. What a great “turning point”: Dr. Galt and America’s first public hospital devoted solely to the mentally ill!  This topic would give her access to some seriously awesome primary resources, something the judges at Nationals said was lacking in her 2012 entry. The Public Hospital museum is located here in Colonial Williamsburg. The artifacts are here. The experts are here. The current Eastern State Hospital is still in operation here. This was something that would allow her to really get her hands dirty with research. No Wikipedia needed.

Her research for the exhibit took her to the William & Mary SWEM library Special Collections Department for viewing 200 year old diaries. She rummaged through files of old documents and photographs at the Colonial Williamsburg operated Rockefeller library. She deciphered scribbled letters from the early 1800′s in the Eastern State Hospital private archives. She held pieces of patient pipes and medical tools in the employee-access-only rooms of the archeology department. Museum experts and historians were interviewed. Visual and reference librarians were contacted. Eastern State staff, doctors and executives were consulted. The executive director of Eastern State assigned a specialist to give her private tours and talk about outcomes. She visited Shomer Zwelling at his home, author of Quest for a Cure: The Public Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, 1773-1885, one of the only books published about the history of Eastern State and Dr. Galt. For a modern-day perspective, the CEO of Diamond Healthcare Corporation was interviewed, and to tie it all together, our daughter interviewed the director of one of the largest mental health care organizations in the world, NAMI. That’s right… our 13 year old daughter managed to get an interview with the head honcho of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who had recently appeared on CBS News and Face The Nation.

She left school early to work on the project. She stayed up late to work on the project. She spent weekends at home working on the project. She talked and talked and talked about Dr. Galt to the point that the rest of the family felt like we knew him personally. We joked about setting a place for him at the dinner table.


Her research was amazing. Her exhibit was spectacular too.

She designed an interactive model of the hospital made from cardboard. The left side represented the “Age of Restraint” with bars on the windows, pictures of shackled or tortured patients and corresponding research inside the flaps. The right side, representing the “Age of Morality”, had curtains in the windows and positive images to depict the changes in care and outcome of Dr. Galt’s reforms. A video display was included in the “door” of the exhibit and showed related images including original hospital excavation photos loaned by the archaeologists.  She even put flickering, battery operated candles in the windows. So very “Williamsburg” of her.

National History Day NHD Virginia History Day complaints problems

Quote from the Director of NAMI which appeared on the exhibit.

The exhibit listed clear proof of the thesis and an impact statement linking Dr. Galt’s reforms to outcomes in modern care.

She even managed to get a quote from the director of NAMI about the importance of Dr. Galt and the turning point of moral management. Score!

The thesis statement alone took months of work. The supporting documents were incredible. The research was impeccable; broad and balanced. The layout was intriguing. The annotated bibliography was over 40 pages. Yup. You read that correctly…. a 13 year old put together a 40 page bibliography of mostly “wow” primary resources.

The title: “Restoring Reason: Dr. Galt’s Humanitarian Reform at America’s First Public Mental Hospital” (“Restoring Reason” was taken from a quote by Francis Fauquier, an  early Governor of the Colonies – “…Every civilized Country has an Hospital for these People, where they are confined, maintained and attended by able Physicians, to endeavor to restore to them their lost reason.” The letters that made up the words “Restoring Reason” were crafted from copied pages of Dr. Galt’s original diaries. You could see his handwriting and patient names and treatments if you looked closely.

Oh, yea! Bring on Regionals! This girl is in it to win it.



National History Day, Virginia History Day Turning Points in History 2013 Junior Group Exhibit

Lower / Left side of exhibit.

National History Day, Virginia History Day Turning Points in History 2013 Junior Group Exhibit

Lower / Right side of exhibit









March 2013 – Virginia Regional District 6 Competition, Norfolk VA

Jaws dropped as she set up the exhibit in the viewing room. People mumbled and pointed. Teachers brought groups of students to the exhibit and told them “Now THIS is a National History Day project! This is what I want you to do.” Visitors posed next to the exhibit for photos. People thumbed through the bib and process paper. They shook our daughters hand and hugged her. “Incredible” they said.

Guess what the judges gave the project?

Third place.

Third place behind two other projects that were a C-game at best. Even the teacher who represented the 1st place winner gasped in disgust. “What the hell happened?” she said to me afterwards. Good question.

Last year our daughter went all the way to Nationals with a poorly researched and conceptualized exhibit. This time, with an entry worthy of a Masters level college student, she didn’t even make it through Regionals, losing out to projects that were far inferior in both research, conceptualization and scholarly analysis.

We actually have a rather funny video from the Regional competition where you can hear the collective hush of shock and then gasp of disbelief that fell over the audience as the winners were announced. Well, it is funny NOW. At the time is was devastating to our daughter.


Virginia History Day Officials Investigate

After the competition, swarms of people gathered around to share their disappointment in the judging. People wrote us letters. They called us. They texted. People Tweeted and Facebook’d. They were angry too. Some said they would never participate in the NHD program in Virginia again.

We knew the judging was clearly flawed, but also realized it was final. We prepared the “sometimes life just isn’t fair” speech.

Then we were given the bibs and process papers for the first and second place Regional winners. Bibs that contained a handful of citations to an online magazine and nothing else. No interviews. No primary sources. No annotations. No real research.


It was later determined by NHD officials that there were numerous judging inconsistencies and problems with the Region 6 competition including:

  • Judges were inexperienced with NHD and not qualified to judge (one was a 19 year old college student)
  • Judges did not ask any questions about the topic, turning point, thesis or research
  • Judges asked only questions about the size and construction of the board
  • Judges interviewed contestants while parents and other students were in the room
  • Judges did not view the bibs or process papers
  • Interview lasted approximately 6 minutes (when 15 minutes was allotted)
  • NHD representative signed judges up “at the last minute”
  • NHD representative said the Region 6 competition “should haven been canceled” because they failed to get judges
  • One judge actually said he selected the first place winner because he was alive at the time it happened and therefore “liked” the topic because he remembered it
  • Out of 120 students who participated in Region 6, 90 came from ONE SCHOOL (Region 6 includes all of Hampton Roads including Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Newport News, Hampton, Yorktown and Williamsburg)

Other judging issues were noted by the NHD coordinator for Virginia, although she would not elaborate on her findings. Whatever it was, it was enough to admit wrongdoing on their part and invite our daughter and her partner to compete as a “wildcard” at the Virginia State competition.


Preparing for States, aka – How to Overcome The Accusation of Being “Over curated” by Colonial Williamsburg”?

In preparation for States, the Virginia History Day representative told our daughter that the Regional judges thought the exhibit looked “over curated” and had too many references to Colonial Williamsburg. I guess the judges failed to read the 550 words of original analysis on the exhibit, none of which made one mention of CW. (You guys who are familiar with the rules for NHD exhibits know that there is a 500 word limit. Oops). The judges also seemed to think the exhibit was “too nice” for a 13 year old, even going so far as to ask if she received helped from her parents or the Colonial Williamsburg art gallery during the interview!

Clearly, these judges have never seen the projects at Nationals…

TJ STYLE Virginia History Day NHD Turning Points in History

Virginia History Day Delegration wearing “TJ STYLE” shirts

Ironic too, given that our daughters drawing “T.J. Style” was chosen to represent the 2013 State of Virginia NHD logo.

It appeared on the buttons and tshirts and all other State of Virginia History Day programs, events, literature and materials.

Clearly she has SOME artistic and creative abilities, right?

Too much Colonial Williamsburg?

Colonial Williamsburg – the state sponsor of the Virginia National History Day program? Colonial Williamsburg where the Eastern State Hospital (Public Hospital) museum is located? Where the Galt family burial plot is? Where the artifacts from the hospital excavation are? Where the Rockefeller Library is located? Where the experts are employed? Where about 80% of the NHD judges and the NHD state coordinators are employed? Colonial Williamsburg, publisher of Quest for the Cure, the book authored by Shomer Zwelling who was interviewed for the project?

What about Nami? Diamond Healthcare? William & Mary? The state of Virginia operated ESH? The Library of Congress Chronicling America website? The Galt Family Diaries? Disordered Minds by Norman Dain? Fauquier County Virginia? The Virginia Historical Society? And the countless of other journals, newspapers, archives and resources that were used or cited that had no affiliation with CW whatsoever?

Me-thinks someone forgot to look at that 40 page bibliography…

Then a previous NHD judge told us that “projects based on Colonial Williamsburg topics are never selected because it looks like favoritism by the State sponsor.”

Another told us that in the last 3 years (at least) Virginia has had a very poor showing at Nationals. No winners from one of the most historically rich states in the Country? Shame.

Things are starting to make sense now.

Virginia History Day is not based on 60% research quality. It is based 100% of whether or not the judge is employed by Colonial Williamsburg. It also helps if the judge was “alive at the time” of the event you are studying.

So, our daughter prepared for States by removing as many references to Colonial Williamsburg as she could, including ones that had significant historical meaning to the project, such as the image of the Colonial Williamsburg Public Hospital “cell” showing patient care in the 1700’s, the only representation of its kind.

FYI… There was ONE quote from Colonial Williamsburg on the exhibit. That’s right… ONE. Just to be safe, she removed that too.

National History Day Virginia History Day Junior Group Exhibit

After measuring and cutting the cardboard, the girls began painting the exhibit.

National History Day Virginia History Day Junior Group Exhibit

Scholarly research: journals, interview notes, dissertations, articles, diaries, books, magazines and newspapers.










Virginia State Competition: SSDD 

On April 20, 2013, the Virginia History Day event was held and the competition was noticeably light. There were far fewer entries than the 2012 competition. With a quick glance it was easy who came to compete at the National level and who did not. Bibliographies that were only one page and contained typos, references to Wikipedia and “Google Image Search”, and exhibits that kept falling over.

So, guess how our daughter’s project did this time?

It didn’t place at all. 

This time, instead of tears of devastation from my daughter, she looked at me and snorted. I must admit, I chuckled. The audience scratched their heads and shrugged.

Below is only a PARTIAL list of the sources that appeared on the 2013 Eastern State Hospital / Dr. Galt project bibliography:

  • Eastern State Hospital Archives, Hospital Tour and Interview with current doctor who is also a historian and expert on the topic & contributor to book about the history of the hospital
  • CW Digital Library and CW Rockefeller library
  • Interview with archeologists and tour of department housing original artifacts
  • The Director of NAMI, the largest mental health organization in the WORLD
  • Galt Papers and Galt Diaries (these are the ACTUAL journals. They are over 200 years old and require special access at the library)
  • Letters from Patients about Dr Galt and care at the mental hospital
  • Original Letters from Dr Galt authorizing purchase of therapeutic tools for patients
  • Dr Galt’s Essays on Asylums
  • Original journal of the Association of Medical Superintendents of America (known today as the American Psychiatric Association)
  • Penn Medicine and the National Institute of Mental Health
  • Report of the General Assembly from 1770 and 1766
  • National Library of medicine and the Foundling Museum London
  • Journals of the House of Burgesses of VA 1766
  • US House of Delegates 1846
  • Secondary bib includes ChroniclingAmerica,, & a variety of books of newspapers


How did the Virginia Regional and State judges rate this amazing, broad and college level research from the 2013 project?

On April 20th, the day of the State competition, Alexa felt fairly confident that her topic was strong and research unmatched, yet she knew she had little chance of placing for Nationals.   She was right.   Shows Wide Research... “Good” Uses available primary sources... “Good”  Research is balanced... “Good”   Yes, one up from “needs improvement” !   Pictured at left: State judge scores for Research: “good”...

State judging sheet

Shows Wide Research- “Good”       Excuse Me?

Uses available primary sources- “Good”     HUH?

Research is balanced- “Good”        WHAT?

Yes, one up from “needs improvement” !

Pardon the pun, but have they gone crazy? Because we know of a great public mental hospital that might be able to help them.


Research is balanced score- “Good” … Oy vey.  

What other resource could have been included to make the research more “broad” or “balanced”? How can a judge write “primary source focused” and list all the “wow” sources in the comment section and then check only “good” on the evaluation?

National History Day Virginia History Day group exhibit judging sheets

Primary source focused in notes-  But just “good” on eval

National History Day Virginia History Day judging sheets group exhibit

Judge lists some primary sources then gives low marks for research








Two Thumbs Up For The Lincoln Movie

A few days after the State competition we were given the bibs, process papers and copies of the evaluation sheets from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place finalists so we could see cold, hard evidence of how the judges scored the exhibits. While it is tempting to post them, it just wouldn’t be right, so instead I will just say … ridiculous inconsistencies are apparent in the Virginia History Day competition.

Interestingly, BOTH the 1st and 2nd place winners had exhibits on the same topic – Lincoln. Yes, out of 15-20 projects on a variety of subjects, the winners going to Nationals were both about Lincoln. It’s almost as if the judges had all recently seen the popular Lincoln movie just released on DVD the week before the contest.

The boys who won third place had an amazing project about the War of 1812. It was clear they were in it to win it too. In fact, most people thought they would get first place. We spoke with them briefly and was so impressed by their work. They deserved to go to Nationals. My guess is that the judges did not like the fact that they had long hair.

Needless to say, Virginia didn’t have any winners at Nationals again… which tells me this problem is prevalent throughout all categories – not just exhibits.


In 2012 my daughter made it to Nationals with Wikipedia… ?

A Closer Look at the 2012 First Place Winning Louis Pasteur Exhibit

Here’s some more evidence of problems with the Virginia History Day program – my own daughters work – her 2012 project “Louis Pasteur and the Germ Theory: A Revolution in Medicine” which, as I mentioned before, placed 1st in Region 6 and 1st at States and went all the way to Nationals.

This project received nearly all “SUPERIORS”. It contained a few cheesy pictures, a basic timeline, some general facts and a list of obvious outcomes that required only a quick glance at the Louis Pasteur Wikipedia page to create. Not one Regional or State judge noticed the worthless cite sources on the bib or even ASKED about the research during the interview. Heck, not even her history teacher noticed.

Take a look at just a few of the “primary” resources that our daughter and her partner included in the Germ Theory bibliography: 

  • (online quote aggregate – anyone can submit a quote!)
  • (Internet based humor magazine)
  • (I am sure you are aware of the issues with Wikipedia)
  • (internet based “human” guide site)
  • (free website that allows anyone to create a timeline)
  • (social media site for people to share what books they are reading)
  • Unreliable “blogs” (youdonthavetovisit.blogspot, blog.discoveroptions,, etc. Even an Internet novice should be able to judge the quality of these sources!)
  • Advertising and “spam” sites such as and that contained ZERO real content
  • Bill Nye the Science Guy’s Great Book of Tiny Germs (reading level 5-8 years old)
  • (an undocumented home improvement blog)
  • (a Spanish language site. Ironically, our daughter and her partner do not even speak/read Spanish!)

I am sure that I do not need to explain why these websites cannot be considered reliable and scholarly sources for a National History project. Besides books, there are NO SCHOLARLY SOURCES CITED for this first place winning project! None of Pasteur’s original works. No diary, journal or medical file.

Yet this was judged as “superior” and awarded first place over all other entries?

This was “the best” for the state of Virginia? Goodreads and Wikipedia?


This is what NHD considers “historical quality”?

National History Day Virginia History Day judging sheet evaluations for group exhibit

2012 Regional (white) and State (pink) judging sheets. Nearly all “superior”!

Apparently  - it is.

At Left:

Regional and State of Virginia judges gave this 2012 project almost ALL SUPERIORS despite these obvious and seriously flawed cite sources and incomplete research.

No wonder Virginia never has any National winners.

How can NHD call itself a HISTORY contest when, according to their own judging sheets, 60% of the criteria is based on “historical quality”, but then award “superior” and First Place to a project that used such blatantly unreliable cite sources in the research, as evident in our daughter’s 2012 project? Xtimeline? Wikipedia!! Seriously, NHD? Wow.

It pains me to think that there were children at the 2012 competition who lost unfairly because the judges just “liked the germ topic better”, or thought the girls had cute personalities, or liked the fact that they put hand sanitizer on the table in front of the exhibit. Or had just seen a movie about Louis Pasteur.


Judging Sheets from 2012 Nationals – Louis Pasteur Project.  More accurate, fair and qualified, don’t you think?

I guess the National judges understand that you can’t use Wikipedia and as a scholarly cite source on an academic history project. All National judges gave the Pasteur project low scores (rightly so!) in most categories and noted the lack of quality primary resources:

National History Day NHD Virginia History Day judging sheets

National Judge justifiably calls them out on quality of their research.

National History Day NHD Virginia History Day judging sheets

Another National judge asks them to “rethink” their primary resources

Ha. Come on. At this point you have to laugh too.

Clearly, Virginia History Day considers Wikipedia “superior” and the 1766 Journals of the House of Burgesses just “good”.

Oy Vey again.



This is exactly why standards, consistency and oversight are desperately needed in Virginia. You cannot allow judges to simply pick their favorite topic or favorite kid, and then ignore the HISTORICAL QUALITY of the projects. You can’t give “superior” to Goodreads and Brainyquote for research quality.

The fact is,  the 2013 project did not “lack context, connections, analysis or impact” – it lacked qualified judges who take the time to read the bib, paper and exhibit, consider the subject and pick winners based on merit, not on recent movies they’ve watched on DVD. Or, that the topic had roots in Colonial Williamsburg (the state sponsor who provides about 80% of the judges), and they didn’t want to “make it seem like they were showing favoritism.”

For us, this experience put into question the validity of the entire NHD contest.


While Virginia NHD judges seem to have a difficult time recognizing scholarly research, other experts get it right away.

Just ask Colonial Williamsburg – who sent our daughter a letter of appreciation for finding a research discrepancy on their website!

After her research on Virginia Gov. of the colonies, Francis Fauquier, our daughter determined that Colonial Williamsburg was using the wrong image. She presented her findings and they agreed. CW corrected the image and sent her a personal thank you. (Not considered “superior” research?)

You can see the CW page in question HERE. The incorrect photograph has been removed. But thanks to web archives, you can see a snapshot of what the page looked like before our daughter presented her research findings to them:


This dude is NOT Francis Fauquier!


She also discovered that the Fauquier County (named after Francis Fauquier) Virginia website, tourism department and courthouse were also using the wrong image. You can see the page HERE, image removed. Here is what the page looked like before:

Who is this guy anyway? Not Francis Fauquier, that is for sure!

Who is this guy anyway? Not Francis Fauquier, that is for sure!

The local newspaper is preparing to write a story on her findings.


Eastern State Hospital Intervenes

The director of Eastern State Hospital, disappointed in the Virginia History Day process, asked our daughter and her partner to present their exhibit to a group of doctors, historians and other specialists as a way to educate their staff about the history of the hospital and the treatment of mental illness. The girls summarized their project and findings and then answered questions from the audience and, took part in a lengthly analysis and interpretation discussion. What Virginia NHD judged as “good”, the Eastern State folks thought was one of the best things they had ever seen on the history of mental illness in the United States.

Only the first few rows of people pictured. It was standing room only!

Eastern State Hospital Grand Rounds – Only the first few rows of attendees pictured. It was standing room only! So fantastic the girls were finally recognized for their amazing research.

The girls donated the exhibit to Eastern State Hospital, where it remains today as part of the permanent collection. They are extremely proud of the HISTORICAL ACCURACY of the project and plan to use the exhibit at their various seminars, meetings and educational events. Our daughter was honored, and so glad to see that all of her hard work could be utilized to educate others.

She has also been invited to present the project at a state of Virginia mental health educational event which will be attended by state dignitaries, commissioners and other leaders.

Our daughter and her partner also received the Mary Bicouvaris Award in Virginia History, the first ever recipients of the honor. Our daughter donated her winnings from this prize and contributions she collected from friends to Eastern State and NAMI.


Pros and Cons of NHD: a Poorly Managed State Contest but Exceptional National Contest

As the above examples indicate, NHD led to opportunities that are not available to most 13 year olds, and these experiences were wonderful. Our daughter understands what a scholarly resource is and what it is not. She knows how to interview a professional and present a project to a group of experts. She learned how to question research – and that looking at something further often only brings more questions.  She learned the right way to annotate a bib and narrow down a thesis statement.

So, my advice – if you are considering NHD. Yes, it is well worth the experience. Most states seem to have a much better program as is evident by the contest winners and their amazing projects. Take a look at the NHD website to see a list of previous winners. Certain states do very well year after year, I am assuming thanks to well managed local contests.

If you are considering Virginia History Day, I would think a little more seriously about entering the contest. You will need to weigh the extreme amount of work it takes to win at the National level against the fact that a National level project will not be chosen by the Virginia judges. The best bet might be to enter at the Regional level with a hastily assembled project and then build on it for States. Make it good – but not too good.

Then ask yourself – what is the point?


Turning Points in History, group exhibit

2013 – Did not place

Virginia History Day complaints problems judging

2012 – 1st Place Regionals 1st Place States ?

We are taking a “wait and see” approach. While our older daughter certainly has no plans to take part in the NHD program again, our younger ones might be required to as part of the school curriculum. It is my sincere hope that by that time the Virginia History coordinators have found ways to correct these program deficiencies and improve the judging – perhaps by establishing better guidelines for judges, the judging process and the overall consistency of the program. I would like to see them get more than ONE school to participate. I want them to stop the practice of hastily assembling judges at the last minute. I hope they provide better training to the judges.  Without these changes, I will ask our school board to end the NHD participation requirement, instead making it an optional project for extra credit.


What good is a competition if the contestants cannot count on the published guidelines?

We often compare it to our neighborhood swim meets. Imagine the outrage if swimmers thought they were being judged based on their form and speed but were actually judged on their bathing suit and which street they lived on! I can tell you that the kids would go to the pool for fun but not to participate in the swim team competitions…  that is exactly how I would advise you to consider NHD.

Artifacts provided to the project by Colonial Williamsburg Archaeology Department for National History Day

Artifacts provided to the project by Colonial Williamsburg Archaeology Department

Public Hospital, Eastern State Williamsburg Virginia Colonial Williamsburg

Tour of The Pubic Hospital Williamsburg VA

Galt Diaries, SWEM library, College of William & Mary

Galt Diaries, SWEM library, College of William & Mary


With Shomer Zwelling, author of Quest For The Cure - book about the history of the Public Hospital, Colonial Williamsburg NHD Virginia History Day

With Shomer Zwelling, author of Quest For The Cure – book about the history of the Public Hospital

Interview with doctor and expert from Eastern State Hospital, primary and secondary source for NHD Virginia History Day

Interview with doctor from Eastern State Hospital

Tour of Archealogy Department to see Public Hospital Eastern State artifacts Virginia Colonial Williamsburg

Tour of Archealogy Department to see Public Hospital Eastern State artifacts Virginia Colonial Williamsburg

Healthy Father’s Day Gifts for Dad

Bobble water bottles

It’s Father’s Day again so you are probably scratching your head trying to figure out what gift to get your dear husband or dad. Another neck tie? Socks? Grill accessories? Yawn. We can do better than that, can’t we?

One of the greatest gifts we can give the men in our lives is the gift of health and happiness so here are a few of our favorite gift picks:




All Weather Sun Hat


Mens Sun Hat

Encourage dad to get outside and get active by giving him an all-purpose sun hat. These are great for working in the yard, hanging at the beach or doing activities such as fishing, kayaking or hiking. Most have a UPF rating of 50 which is great if dad doesn’t have as much hair as he once did.

Check stores such as REI for good quality outdoor hats.



Water Bottle

Bobble water bottles

Encourage dad to drink less soda (or beer…) and try (gasp!) water by giving him a reusable water bottle. And not just your regular, old, plastic variety with the little flippy sip thing. He probably already has one of those. Instead, get him a BPA free water bottle with filtration system. BPA stands for the chemical bisphenol A and is used to harden plastics for the production of things like plastic bottles. It has been linked to hyperactivity and learning disabilities in children, immune deficiencies and other serious conditions. The bottom line – a quality, BPA free, reusable water bottle is a MUST.  There are many to choose from so just make sure the one you purchase says BPA free on the label. By far, my favorite water bottle is the Bobble. These awesome little reusable bottles come in a variety of colors, are BPA, Phthalates and PVC free, and start at around $10. Fun fact; every Bobble filter equals 300 plastic water bottles so you get to be a good environmental steward too. Get dad a manly green or black one!


YMCA Membership or Class

ymcaIf dad hasn’t been particularly active for awhile, buying a big chain fitness club membership might leave him feeling a tad intimidated, so for this reason I prefer the YMCA.  There are thousands of locations worldwide, each offering a variety of fitness, sports, educational, community and enrichment programs. Whatever your dad or husband is into, the YMCA probably offers it. If your dad is retired many YMCA locations offer a “Fit Over Fifty” class that focuses on cardiovascular and endurance training. For the younger guys, they offer everything from Adult Soccer to Karate. You could purchase your favorite guy time with a personal trainer or sign him up for message therapy. Visit the YMCA website to find the location nearest you to find out what classes and programs are available.


Baseball Game Tickets

minor league baseballFather’s Day is the perfect time of the year to get the family together to enjoy an evening or afternoon at a local baseball game. You do not have to live near a professional Major League (MLB) team or stadium. There is probably a Minor League affiliation near you. You can check the website for more information. Minor League teams often have theme and special nights where they give away prizes. Our local Tidewater Tides has a fireworks show after selected games. You can usually purchase a gift certificate that will cover a couple of tickets, drinks and snacks. Check with the colleges or high schools in your area too. It doesn’t matter who is playing! The gift will be hanging out with the family for an afternoon of good, old fashioned, American summer fun. But beware the ballpark food! Keep it healthy by staying away from the chili dogs and cotton candy.


Smart Pedometer

striiv pedometer

striiv pedometer

If the man in your life is more of a tech guy than a jock guy, then this little gadget is pretty cool. It’s a “smart pedometer” that does all the stuff a traditional pedometer does but with the added bonus of monitoring your activity and behavior and motivating you to do more. It tracks your progress too and allows you to compete with friends. They aren’t cheap though – the Striiv website sells them for just under $100. Amazon and Best Buy offer them for around $70. If your dad already has an iPhone then you can probably get an app for free that does everything the Striiv does but, for all the other dads out there, this little tool might just be the perfect motivator to get them moving.


Fitness Tracker

Nike+ fuelband

Nike+ Fuelband

I don’t know how these things do it but they monitor your daily activities – fitness, sleep, what you eat, calories burned, heart rate, and then syncs the data to your Smartphone. Oh, and it also functions as watch. There are a variety on the market but the most popular are the Nike+ Fuelband, Fitbit, and Jawbone. Unlike the Smart Pedometer mentioned above which is aimed at beginners, these devices are better suited for dads who are already a little active. Basically they consist of a simple band that you wear on your wrist. Monitoring your data can help you with everything from knowing how much to increase your physical activities to realizing that you need more sleep. If you are super competitive, get one for yourself too and then brag when you have more “fuel points” than your husband.


D.I.Y. Father’s Day Idea: We Love Dad Because Photo…

i love dad becauseThis is simple, cheap and effective. Have the kids write why they love daddy on a large sheet of paper. Decorate it. Color it. Whatever. Try to make them as personal and heartfelt as possible. “I love daddy because he makes funny sounds when he reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar to me.” will probably mean more to dad than “I love daddy because he is nice.” When the drawings are done, line the kids up and take their pictures holding up their signs. Print. Frame. Done. Bonus – the kids can give dad their drawings too. Make sure they sign and date them.

This idea would work for your husband or your father. Use baby pictures of yourself with your dad, caption them and frame. Might want to give dad a box of tissues too ;-)