National History Day: Too Good to Be True?

Barbara Franco | Mar 1, 1996

When you read what participants in National History Day say about their experiences it sounds too good to be true. After all, this is history, the subject most likely to be voted last in popularity polls among students in the nation's schools. And these are the students that, according to study after study, know nothing about history. Yet stories about History Day and its impact on participants abound, whether the participants are students, judges, teachers, or parents.

A high school counselor in Houston described how a student with high motivation and grades but low test scores had difficulty getting into the University of Texas but was later accepted unconditionally after the dean's office received his History Day work from the state competition. A History Day coordinator wrote from Hawaii that “to see my students, who included at least two teenage mothers, get genuinely excited about matching or exceeding the standards set by last year's national champions ... was awe-inspiring to me.”

Students are often surprised at how much they learn from History Day. A high school student from Wyoming, who admitted that she wasn't particularly fond of school, participated in the national competition last year, and her project board was displayed at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. "I don't like reading page after page, sitting in a boring classroom," she told a Washington Post reporter, “I like doing the work on my own time, showing other people what I've done and teaching them something new." Another student from last year's competition commented that he liked the fact that he and his project partner were “asking and answering our own questions," rather than "four questions at the end of the chapter." The project that he worked on helped him understand that "a lot of things are tied into each other .... I used to think that facts just happened."

Parents are equally enthusiastic. One pleased father recalled that his son's participation in 1990 was a "defining moment—perhaps the most important single experience to date—in his academic career." Another parent observed her son tracking down primary evidence from sources in the community and commented, "I studied history and I never did anything nearly as exciting."

The first time they participate as History Day judges, academic historians, writers, educators, librarians, theater and media specialists, museum professionals, and public historians are usually surprised that students 11 to 18 years of age have done substantive research using primary sources and have effectively presented their findings as research papers, performances, media presentations, and exhibit boards.

I must admit that for most of my career in history museums I was only vaguely aware that something called History Day existed. For those of you who may share my former ignorance, History Day began in Cleveland in 1974 when David Van Tassel of the history department at Case Western Reserve University started a local history contest patterned after the Science Fair model. From the first 129 students, the program expanded through Ohio, and the first national contest was held at Georgetown University, in Washington D.C. In 1995, 500,000 students nationwide participated in National History Day, bringing the total number of students who have participated over the years to nearly 4.5 million.

Although History Day has not succeeded in attracting as much publicity as contests like the National Spelling Bee or Science Fair, it is gaining recognition among educators who see its potential for incorporating current educational theory and practice involving project learning, parent and community participation, mentoring, team process, and the use of multimedia.

Each year History Day selects a broad theme. The 1996 theme is "Taking a Stand in History: Individuals, Groups, Movement," Students choose a topic in the fall and winter, often with help from classroom teachers, and begin the process of research. History Day projects must be based on primary as well as secondary sources. Some students choose to work alone; others prefer to work on group projects. Students also choose the category of presentation, ranging from a traditional research paper to theatrical presentations, video documentary, or exhibit project board. Throughout the process students have an opportunity to combine historical research with other skills and talents, including some not necessarily recognized or rewarded in more traditional formats. School competitions send the best projects on to regional, then statewide competitions, and finally the state winners compete at National History Day, which is held on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park in early June.

At each stage of the process, students' work is judged by professionals engaged in history or media fields who review the work and offer constructive criticism to improve the projects. History Day is definitely not a pass-fall situation. Perhaps the most enduring lesson that students learn is that first drafts can be improved and that incorporating judges’ suggestions into a project before the next competition can improve their chances for success. Students who get to National History Day have reworked their projects several times, putting in additional hours to improve their work. Even those who don't continue to compete learn important tips to make their next year's project better.

And chances are that if students participate one year they are likely to take part again. A parent recently wrote to support National History Day. "Our own family established a tradition in 1984. Each of our four children, upon entering the 6th grade, would participate in the National History Day competition. Each child developed an enduring appreciation for history and its relationship to present-day world conditions and the future. Each child also developed a healthy respect for good writing, the research process and hard work." Another student regretted that her elementary school did not take part in History Day. "I never heard of the fair until 7th grade," she wrote. “Our system takes great pride in the Science Fair; I did my first science project in kindergarten. Why do we lack the initiative and zeal in history? We really ought to expand the fair and its publicity so that even the [youngest] of students knows of it, as most do of the Science Fair."

Judges also return year after year, fascinated, as I was the first time I judged, by the array of ordinary kids who produce extraordinary projects. Students who one minute may be fooling around with friends suddenly transform as judges approach their project and become scholarly peers who authoritatively discuss their sources, cogently define their theses, and clearly describe their process for developing both ideas and presentation.

The interaction of students and adults engaged in the field of hi story is one of the most satisfying aspects of the program. Students have an opportunity to interact with people who work in a variety of history-related fields as librarians, archivists, professors, museum curators, and the like. A history professor recounted how he corresponded with a young History Day student via electronic mail; he said that he found their correspondence more stimulating than similar exchanges with his professional colleagues. History Day also brings together members of different fields who may not otherwise know one another. In one experience as a judge, I was paired with a university history professor to judge exhibit project boards. We were able to bring the different perspectives of museum and academy as we evaluated students' work, but we also learned from one another. One History Day judge commented! "It was a stimulating experience and I was very impressed with my fellow judges." Mentoring programs extend these interactions throughout the experience by pairing students with historians and archivists who help them to identify sources and to shape the questions that they will pursue.

History Day encourages collaboration at many levels. The best state programs are cooperative ventures that combine the re-· sources of universities, libraries, schools, and historical societies to best serve teachers and students. For example, the Minnesota Historical Society serves as state History Day coordinator and works closely with the University of Minnesota history department to bring History Day to more than 16,000 students statewide. At a time when fragmentation of the historical profession and separation of public and academic historians are decried, History Day offers a unique opportunity to bring diverse members of the historical profession together to reach young people and support the efforts of teachers in the nation's schools. For many historical societies and universities there are added benefits. Active involvement in History Day brings new community interaction, outreach, and support through positive experiences with schools, parents, and students.

As public debates about history have become more acrimonious and divisive, a more engaged and belter educated public is more important than ever. While politicians are debating the pros and cons of for ' adopted history standards and school curriculum, students participating in History Day are setting their own standards and achieving levels of excellence that continue to impress the professional historians who have an opportunity to judge their work.

The Historical Society of Washington, D.C., is one of the growing number of historical societies that sees the potential of History Day as a vehicle to reconnect student to history as a lively and engaging subject School systems are also recognizing the value of History Day as part of their social studies curriculum. The Houston Public Schools have made History Day a mandated program throughout the city. Many history professors around the country are active participants in History Day and some universities have stepped forward to lend institutional sponsorship.

The historical profession often bemoans the lack of interest in history, but I return to one student's challenge that, compared to Science Fair, "why do we lack the same initiative and zeal in history?" The students who participate in History Day bring enthusiasm for history and demonstrate their commitment to the highest standards of research and analysis. As the director of a local historical society, I am committed to nurturing that enthusiasm and assisting these young people in their pursuit of academic excellence. They deserve support from the entire historical profession.


Barbara Franco is executive director of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.


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