HM - December 2017 - Nasson

Partners in History

Students at the Center
Robert Nasson
National History Club
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in a craft.  In a section about Bill Gates and the Beatles, he asserts that although both were blessed with extraordinary talent, they also put in the necessary time and hard work to become experts. In essence, they became who they were because of practice.
In today's history and social studies classrooms, students are no doubt working hard and putting in quality time: How might we provide students with opportunities to practice doing the work of history?
I think one of the best ways is to get students interested in the subject outside the classroom so that they can develop a passion for history on their own. By getting students learning and thinking about historical events, figures, and eras outside the classroom, they will be more likely to remember the content from previous classes and, in turn, it will also make history in the classroom more approachable and valuable to students.
As Director of the National History Club (NHC), I have seen middle and high schools try this approach with much success. Created through The Concord Review in 2002, the NHC was designed to promote the reading, writing, discussion, and enjoyment of history at the secondary level and to allow after-school history clubs to share ideas and activities with each other. The thought was that by getting students involved in history outside their own classrooms, we would be able to connect schools around the country and create a structure where chapters could learn from each other.
Our model was based on a bottom-up approach, where students and their advisor(s) would design and implement their activities, rather than take orders from us on what they should or should not do. We use the “teach-by-example” approach, and this has led to a wide array of activities in over 570 chapters, ranging from Veterans Day ceremonies in their schools, to field trips to such historic sites as the 16th Street Baptist Church, Alcatraz, Gettysburg, and Arlington National Cemetery, to hearing such speakers as Howard Dean, Elie Wiesel, and Colin Powell.
While we leave the direction of each club up to the student members and the advisor, we produce newsletters and use other communication methods to highlight the chapter activities, providing each school with fresh ideas for students to consider. In addition, we run a few contests and awards programs that recognize the truly exemplary students and chapters that are part of the NHC. We hope that every student who is a part of his or her school's history club chapter will be a lifelong lover of history.
I often say that history is like a jigsaw puzzle—what starts out as a collection of pieces can be put together with patience and passion. As the jigsaw puzzle comes together you begin to see the picture more clearly. With history you may never have that perfectly clear picture because events and historical figures are so complex, but the more you know, the easier it is to understand the world that we live in. By studying the events of the past, we can better prepare for the future. And if the leaders of the future are to come from the students of today, then it's essential that they understand who we are and where we came from.

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The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.