Why we do NHD – and why you should too

Every year around this time – National History Day crunch time – as I am digging through annotated bibliographies, helping eighth graders find that ultimate primary source (which should have been found months ago), and spending hours upon hours reviewing student research all while taking time away from our daily curriculum, I ask myself the same two questions – “Why do we do NHD?” and “Will the hair that I lose every year during NHD crunch time ever come back?”

The second question is easy to answer – no. The hair is gone, kaput, like the dinosaurs. But the first question requires a lot more in-depth analysis. Yes, NHD takes a great deal of time, in and out of school.  Yes, my students and I do feel some stress about the NHD project process. Yes, I do get worries from parents, anything from my child is overworked to my kid’s partners aren’t holding up their end of the bargain to my child is dreading this process. And yes, I do have to confer a grade, which is not my favorite thing in the world – more on that in a later blog post.

So why do we do NHD considering all of those challenges? I have a litany of reasons for the positive, and they far outweigh the few negative factors. Consider the following:

National History Day is challenging.

In fact, you could basically say NHD is hard – really hard –  and my students would agree with me.  I like that. I’m not trying to be an old codger or masochist, but life is hard, full of challenges, and our students need to develop that resilience and grit that is essential to succeeding in anything. If it was easy, and everybody could do it, why bother?

National History Day is as close as I can get my students to become real historians.

The process of developing an NHD project is similar to job of the professionals. Students find a topic that really interests them, making sure it is related to a theme. They read for context, develop search terms, dig for excellent primary and secondary sources, interview experts,  develop subtopics in their research, take notes and organize them into their subtopics, dig for more resources, analyze what they have found in order to develop a thesis, and combine their research into effective method of presentation.  My students have interviewed Joan Baez, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, the Captain of the 1980 Olympic hockey team, members of the Little Rock Nine, the first African-American member of the NBA, and the first test tube baby. They have talked with the makers of history, delved into archives and search through the stacks of historical societies, and run into roadblocks while finding new paths for research. Sounds like the quest of a typical historian, right? Throw in an incredibly supportive librarian (like I have) and the research process is powerful and productive.

National History Day hits many if not all of the important standards for history and social studies education.

Students develop disciplinary literacy skills as outlined in the C3 framework, along with the ability to create research questions and analyze resources for bias and relevance. They integrate the Thinking Like a Historian areas of literacy that we desire, along with 21st-century skills of communication, critical thinking, creativity, and (if they choose a partner or two) collaboration. There are many posts about how NHD aligns with the standards, and I firmly believe the process is my best assessment of my kids as young historians and overall students.

National History Day offers a framework for the rest of my curriculum.

In many ways, I can organize my survey of American history using the NHD theme in process each year. The yearly theme always provides a way to look at American history through a specific lens and help students categorize events and ideas.  We also use some common subtopics in our NHD process, and students can utilize these “buckets”  as we go through the course of American history. We look for context, causes, events, reactions, impact, and legacy in our projects, but we can also use these terms in our day-to-day discussions. In addition, student NHD projects can be referenced throughout the study of a class. I have used student websites and documentaries as resources for my classes, even in the same curricular year.

National History Day improves students’ writing.

We always want to get writing into the social studies curriculum, and NHD involves a ton of it. From crafting an excellent topic selection proposal to taking notes from resources; from developing detailed annotations in a bibliography to writing a concise yet informative process paper; and in the writing of a script, exhibit text, or a formal paper, various types of writing are involved in National History Day. Teachers have the opportunity to really get to know their students’ abilities through the writing and help them improve in that all important life skill. I’m fortunate to have my English expert (and American Studies partner) as a co-coach in our process – it makes a huge difference.   

National History Day provides rally points for students and our community.

A few years ago, we had a consultant examine our overall schedule, and she highlighted the concept of “rally points” – major events in the school year where an entire grade for school looks comes together. NHD has served as one of those not only for my eighth graders, but for the middle school and our eighth grade community. We hold an annual showcase in which our students show off their work, and we always get parents, teachers, past students, and members of the local community to attention. The regional competitions are at a local college on a Saturday, and students get to show off their stuff and also hang out together as a group outside of school. Parents are involved, and they get to see students that they may not know very well while also increasing our community connections.

National History Day offers a lot of student choice.

Many research projects that are assigned in school have a specific topic limit and defined method of presentation.  With NHD, students can research almost any topic of their choosing. While there is an annual theme that must be utilized, the themes are broad and applicable to nearly any historical topic, era, and grade level. Students can choose a project category that fits their strengths and interests. Strong writers can select a paper, while creative visual-spatial learners can go with exhibit. Tech dogs can develop a website, young Spielbergs can create a documentary, and those that love the stage and perform. In addition, students can choose to work alone or collaboratively.

 

National History Day offers great deal off support and professional development.

The support materials available in print and online online and in person for NHD rival any other academic program that I know of. The national headquarters offers a ton of PD, from webinars and podcasts to “how to” materials available online.  Every state has an affiliate organization with a  wealth of support materials as well as a professional staff dedicated to helping teachers integrate NHD into their curriculum. Plus, there is a cadre of teachers in every state that are always more than welcome to help out with ideas and materials.

Students like National History Day

To be honest, they like it after it’s done. But I do see a great deal of satisfaction when student show off their work, when they utilize feedback to improve, and especially when they present their work to people outside of school. Having students  hear their names called when it comes time for awards and get noticed for their work as young historians makes me smile.  My most recent survey of my students regarding the National History Day project demonstrate that they overall endorse to project.

Is NHD for every class? I would argue yes. It may be hard to fit into an AP curriculum that needs to cover a breadth of content. However, the skills that we try to develop in any history class of any content at any grade level can all be strengthened through National History Day. If you haven’t considered integrating NHD into your curriculum yet, contact your state NHD organization and see what they have to offer.  Also, use Twitter as a resource by following @NationalHistory and connecting with other NHD teachers. Give it a whirl – its a win win win!

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