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Tackling the Reign of Terror: Eighth grader Jessica Mitchell meets UW History Professor Jonas for National History Day

December 12, 2016

Eighth grader Jessica Mitchell, from Cedar Heights Middle School, is not afraid to look to the past. Last year, she made it all the way to the State Competition for National History Day (NHD), and she is planning the same this year. Each year, NHD creates a competition for students and teachers to engage in historical research and develop stronger skills in the field. When they announced this year’s theme, “Taking a Stand in History”, Mitchell knew exactly which topic she wanted to dive into – the Reign of Terror and the French Revolution.

“There’s just so much to learn,” she said when asked what she enjoyed about history.


Jessica Mitchell, an eighth grader from Cedar Heights Middle School

On December 7, CWES worked with the University of Washington’s History Department Professor Raymond Jonas to organize a formal interview, where Mitchell could gather information from area experts. “I want to do something engaging – I’m going to create a documentary that showcases not just my own findings, but what experts have to say.”

Mitchell came prepared with her own interview questions and a deep understanding of the period, and Professor Jonas was ready with detailed and thoughtful answers. Some of the topics covered included how the Reign of Terror started and events that led up to it, how initial goals of the French Revolution changed over time, and if the Reign of Terror contributed significantly, for better or for worse, to the development of modern democracy.

“They defeated a monarchy, and that was critical. They made nobility inconsequential, in the legal sense, at least. Of course, within a social sphere, that sort of change would take longer to come about, if at all,” Jonas responded.


University of Washington History Professor Raymond Jonas

When asked how the Reign of Terror transformed the movement, Jonas was thoughtful and pensive. “I think it’s important to remember,” he stated, “when fighting for something as important as freedom, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re fighting for, and only see what you’re fighting against.  In regards to the Reign of Terror, they simply had to defend the revolution at all cost, because not doing so would be a win for the monarchy, and that couldn’t happen. Imagine what their punishment would be,” he suggested, implying that a return to the monarchy would surely mean jail or even death to all supporters of the revolution.

Mitchell will continue to conduct interviews in the coming weeks, working with French Department Professor Hélène Vilavella Collins, who has spent the past few weeks in France. “The goal,” says Mitchell, “is to get a well-rounded discussion from experts across the field. Research can’t be one sided.”

National History Day is a great way to encourage students in grades 6-12 to practice hands-on research. Mitchell hopes to go all the way to National’s this year with her documentary. We’ll be keeping in touch with Jessica throughout the competition, so check back often for updates on her journey.

Find more information on how your school can participate in National History Day, or email and let us help you arrange interviews or gain access to our libraries.