HM - Nov. 2013 - Ohara

Partners in History

National History Day
by Lynne O'Hara
Director of Programs
National History Day

When students graduate into the real world, what do teachers of history want for them?  Most history teachers want their students to enter the world as inquisitive learners, who seek meaning, consider multiple sources, analyze perspective and bias, and form their own, well-supported opinions.  The National History Day (NHD) program is designed to do just that.

National History Day is a program where over 600,000 students take leadership in the educational process.  They choose if they want to work independently or collaboratively.  The student or group selects a topic, researches it, writes a thesis statement, ties it to the annual theme and develops their choice of final product.  Students write papers, develop websites, create documentaries, build museum exhibits, or develop performances to present their work.  The program allows students to investigate areas of their own interest while learning key skills.  Here they hone the ability to sort through research, work with others, produce a technologically competent piece of work, edit their writing, practice their speaking skills, and most importantly, produce a piece of work of which they are proud.

The annual theme helps the students to focus their analysis.  An NHD project is not a history report – the goal is not to recite facts and rattle off dates.  The theme (Rights and Responsibilities in History in 2014 and Leadership and Legacy in History in 2015) helps the students to frame their analysis and make a case why their person or event in history matters.  It helps students set a context and make a conclusion.

NHD then provides a tiered contest structure.  The contest is an avenue for students to exhibit their work to a panel of community members – often historians, museum experts, teachers, veterans, or local volunteers.  These judges review the students’ work, and question them on their research and choices.  This gives students the authentic experience of having to show their work and receive feedback from unfamiliar adults.  Many areas have regional contests, where the best entries advance to the state level and then on to the national contest, held at the University of Maryland each June.
NHD expanded from one contest in Ohio to an international network of programs.  There are NHD programs in all fifty states, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Department of Defense Schools, as well as international schools in South Korea, China, and Indonesia.  There is growing interest among schools in Latin America and the Middle East.

I can attest to the power of this program – I was an NHD kid.  I wrote papers – one on the history of radio, one on the D-Day Invasion, one on the Yalta Conference, and one on the desegregation of my school district in suburban Philadelphia.  Through these experiences I learned to investigate, ask questions, consult primary and secondary sources, conduct interviews, deal with conflicting evidence, and write a coherent paper arguing my case and supporting it with historical evidence, reasoning, and argumentation.  I learned to write and re-write (and re-write again).

As a teacher for 12 years, my favorite component of teaching was working as an NHD coach.  I like the term coach because it was the segment of my course where the students were on the playing field of history and it was my job to structure the plays, keep time, and assist them in planning their next move. 

My role with NHD is to develop teacher and student programming that improves history education across the nation and around the world.  While the contest is the flagship program, NHD is a leader in producing quality curriculum materials.  In addition to resources on oral histories in World War II and reframing scholarship on the Civil War, NHD produced a new teacher resource in 2013 entitled U.S. History in Global Perspective.  This resource models approaches for how to connect American history with broader world historical trends. Produced in conjunction with the Longview Foundation for World Affairs and International Understanding and HISTORY™, the resource features nine chapters that demonstrate how to view traditionally taught American history topics, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Civil Rights Movement, and the American Civil War through an international lens, thus coming to a more complete understanding of how world history shaped and was shaped by these events. This resource is available for free at this link or for only the cost of shipping for the print version here.

In addition to materials, NHD offers Summer Institutes for teachers and students.  The Summer of 2014 will mark the fourth year in which NHD has led fifteen secondary teachers (each accompanied by a high school student) on a two-week institute to study World War II through the lens of the D-Day campaign.  The pairs begin in Washington, DC, and proceed to Normandy, France.  They study the war through various perspectives – political, military, social, and then through the eyes of one “Silent Hero” – a soldier, sailor, or Marine from their home state who died and is buried at the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.  Often walking where “their” soldiers did, they finish the trip by paying tribute at their grave sites in Normandy and building websites to tell their stories.  Applications are being accepted for the 2014 trip – information is available at this link.

Please consider making National History Day a component of your history classroom.  It is an authentic learning experience like no other – it makes your students historians and puts them in the lead in their education.  It links to Common Core Literacy Standards for History / Social Studies and the C3 Framework for Social Studies (for more details click here).

For information, classroom resources, and support materials, visit the Classroom Connection section of the NHD webpage.  Here you can link to sample student projects or download classroom materials.  You can also find your state or affiliate coordinator and learn more about entering a regional contest and getting started.