Publication Date

March 14, 2022

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education


  • United States


Public History

In 1974, David Van Tassel, a professor at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU), became worried about increasing reports that students were learning less and less history and its related skills. Proposing that giving students opportunities to actively do research and interpret historical knowledge would increase their excitement about the subject, he organized the first National History Day (NHD) contest in Cleveland, Ohio, and invited local teachers to participate by asking their students to complete history research projects. What began as a small local event soon went statewide across Ohio, then national and international. According to the National History Day office, more than half a million students in grades 6–12 now present their research in exhibits, papers, performances, digital documentaries, and websites annually.

Two children in blue polo shirts stand in front of a cardboard trifold board and present their project to three adult judges.

National History Day at the regional level brings together student contestants with members of the community who act as consultants for their projects and judges for the contest. Sarah Brosious/Western Reserve Historical Society

The contest that Van Tassel started is now the Region 3 Ohio History Day contest. Though it has changed substantially in its 48 years, it continues to draw hundreds of students to the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) and CWRU each year. Region 3 is the largest of Ohio’s 10 regional contests, with an infrastructure built by Van Tassel himself, subsequent coordinator John Vacha, and WRHS staff. Van Tassel’s original motivation—broadening and deepening the history that students learn—remains relevant in 2022, when information literacy and historical thinking skills remain central to our civic needs.

NHD encourages contests to seek community connections that support their students, and Region 3’s long history gives us a robust support system. The five counties that Region 3 encompasses have a vibrant community of historical societies, libraries, monuments, and other local history organizations across the greater Cleveland and greater Akron areas that connect regularly through state and local professional groups. Partnering with this community has been crucial to sustaining our vast, supportive infrastructure, and in turn, the contest provides a centerpiece that brings history lovers of all ages together at least once a year to serve as judges, mentors, and prize sponsors. As many as 13 of these organizations offer additional special prizes to the students participating in the contest that celebrate the depth of their engagement with particular subjects or themes, including local history. These partnerships help ensure that our contest meets its goals: to give students a meaningful sense of heritage and place, to foster an understanding of what careers in the history field look like, and to provide an opportunity for students to feel included in intellectual debates about history and how it is produced.

To engage partners even further, our region heartily encourages students to pursue topics that relate to both NHD’s theme (in 2022, Debate & Diplomacy in History: Successes, Failures, Consequences) and the complicated, often perplexing history of greater Cleveland. In one sense, this is admittedly selfish—we can encourage students and teachers to make use of the WRHS Library, a research facility with over 250,000 books and 10,000 linear feet of processed manuscript collections among its holdings related to the history of Northeast Ohio. We invite and train students to handle these precious primary sources in the hope that they will learn something of the work of researching and preserving history. For our staff, largely composed of people with graduate research experience, demystifying the research process is something that we hold dear. Students in Region 3 come to understand research libraries and public libraries with special collections as meaningful, yet accessible, repositories of knowledge rather than institutions reserved for the trained elite.

The contest brings history lovers of all ages together to serve as judges, mentors, and prize sponsors.

In another sense, though, we have seen firsthand how exploring local history topics gives students a sense of place and pride in their home—even when their topic covers one of Cleveland’s notorious failures. A student conducting research on the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire will learn that it was not the first such fire, only the most famous, and then might connect this incident to the broader history of environmental activism and today’s debates on climate change. A baseball fan might research Louis Sockalexis and the history of Native American players in Major League Baseball, fact-checking and contextualizing the immensely complicated debate behind the recent decision to rename the Cleveland baseball team. Because of Cleveland’s wide-ranging histories in athletics, arts, and culture, students can pursue local topics that relate to their extracurricular interests, and so they become excited about the process through their subjects.

As the NHD slogan says, “It’s not just a day—it’s an experience!” Our community partnerships help elevate NHD beyond other projects that students are completing simply for a grade. Because teachers and students often begin the research process in September or October for the contest in March, students embrace doing history as a process with stages and multiple points for feedback and editing. In aiding that process, WRHS and our community partners fashion a calendar of events to help the students ramp up their skills through the fall and refine their projects in the winter. Some welcome all participating students and teachers, such as Research Days held at the WRHS Library or the Cleveland Public Library. During these events, contest staff teach workshops on topics like conducting oral histories for research and locating and addressing bias in primary sources, while students have the chance to talk with librarians about creating a research strategy before digging into the sources available on-site.

The teachers themselves, an intensely creative and dedicated group, are the backbone of our contest. Some participated as Region 3 students and returned after college and graduate school to become Region 3 teachers. While some do projects as assignments in class, others gather enthusiastic kids for after-school clubs and independent study arrangements. Some have also created their own library partnerships to create lasting relationships between their students and library staff. For example, the after-school NHD club at Shaker Heights Middle School collaborates with their local public library each year. Students take a trip to the library, and the librarians explain how to access and use various materials they have on-site. Some schools also hold in-school celebrations of the students’ work, bringing in staff and local history leaders to give feedback on projects, with enough time that students can use that feedback to revise before the contest. At these events, students and adults move quickly from being strangers to having passionate conversations. Students have become experts, often sharing detailed information that the adult history professionals may not know.

Our teachers and contest staff also connect students to people within the community who can serve as primary sources. Hearing firsthand accounts enlivens how students view and process information, while providing a more complex understanding of the narratives in their textbooks. Because Kent State University is nearby, the May 4, 1970, eruption between student protesters and the Ohio National Guard proves a popular topic. Teachers, parents, and contest staff often have worked their networks to find interview subjects who were present on May 4 and could give perspectives of the conflict. Another example, a staff favorite, is that one of our museum security guards, Paul Landis, served as a Secret Service agent to Jacqueline Kennedy. He witnessed President John F. Kennedy’s assassination from the car following the presidential limousine. He is often willing to share his unique knowledge while providing students with a potentially life-changing experience.

Students have become experts.

Through all of these events, activities, and connections that lead up to the contest day, students refine skills that contribute far beyond their ability to conduct historical research and present historical arguments. Some teachers use email communications to archives, interview subjects, or other institutions as one of their tiered assignments leading up to the project, giving students a framework for politely and expeditiously presenting themselves and their ideas while asking for assistance—skills they may one day use in contacting internship supervisors or applying for jobs. Surveys of student participants have identified time management and collaboration as other skills that they have gained through NHD projects.

Beyond those college and career skills, students find joy, a level of enthusiasm that lifts history beyond the dates-and-major-events approach we try to avoid in the classroom. While many students interview and learn about notable community members, others dig deep into their family heritage, interviewing relatives and sharing information during family events. For example, over two years and contests, a student of Latvian descent researched two crucial moments of cultural awakening in Latvia, one of which likely led to her ancestors leaving home for the United States. We see students choose topics that they discover on family vacations or that relate to the professions and interests of their parents and grandparents, coming to understand the lives of their ancestors better in the process. No matter how the placements shake out on contest day, students take these experiences forward into the rest of their lives.

Consequently, our regional contest day serves as a culmination of so many events and actions that occur in the preceding six months. We believe that any region, even without Van Tassel’s legacy, can build such a community to enhance their participation in National History Day. When asked about her favorite part of the contest, one former Region 3 staffer said, “I saw these students when they came into the research days in the fall, cautious about their ideas, timid about sharing them, and unsure of their process. Then I saw them at the end when they had completed projects and demonstrated confidence in both themselves and their ideas to a room full of strangers. That, to me, is the benefit of NHD, wherever students go afterward.” Because Region 3 students experience history as an active process that surrounds them, we know that NHD remains, after all these years, one of the strongest tools we have for ensuring that our students grow into adulthood understanding their responsibility to history and, in turn, how historical events continue to impact their lives.

Mary Manning is the PK–12 education coordinator at the Cleveland History Center of the Western Reserve Historical Society and coordinator of the Region 3 Ohio History Day contest. She tweets @lamaryanne.

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