History Day

An American student, regardless of race, religion, or gender, must know the history of the land to which they pledge allegiance. They should be taught about the Founding Fathers of this Nation, the battles that they fought, the ideals that they championed, and the enduring effects of their accomplishments. They should be taught about our nation's failures, our mistakes, and the inequities of our past. Without this knowledge, they cannot appreciate the hard won freedoms that are our birthright.
—Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-West Virginia)

So, we've got to teach history based not on what's in fashion but what's important...If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual.
—Ronald Reagan

Take away a nation's heritage and they are more easily persuaded.
—Karl Marx

Yesterday morning, Scholar had an opportunity to study his favorite topics — curriculum and instruction, and United States history — as a judge at the Wayzata East Middle School History Day competition.

The History Day competitions among the seventh graders at Wayzata East, Central, and West Middle Schools (and many other schools nationwide) are the first rung in a National History day program that leads to regional, state, and national History Day events. This year's theme is "Taking a Stand in History: People, Ideas, Events." According to the Minnesota History Day web site:
Students make history come alive as their research leads to imaginative exhibits, original performances, media presentations and papers in junior and senior divisions in seven categories.

History Day demonstrates that students learn history when they do history. This program provides the ideal format to meet the inquiry component of the state graduation standards.

Performance-based learning

The old Profile of Learning "performance packages" are dead, but long live performance-based learning anyway. Taken to its extremes, in performance-based learning, the process of doing is equally or more important than the academic content. In addition, teachers are encouraged to be a "guide on the side" rather than a "sage on the stage:" students direct their own learning. They choose the topic, whether to work alone or in a group, even what sort of product they will create.

For performance-based activities like History Day, in which seventh graders produce multimedia presentations, poster boards, or performance art, the devil is in the implementation details. The subject may "come alive" for students, or students could spend weeks trying to schedule a time when everyone can meet after school, or mired in the technical minutiae of PowerPoint, scrapbooking, or DVD burning, to the detriment of learning the ostensible subject at hand. Others may choose a topic with only tenuous connections to the assigned theme, reducing the benefits of the exercise from the start. In other words, it can be a rich learning experience and lifelong memory, or a profound waste of time.

How they fared

So how did the wide-eyed, energetic scholars at Wayzata East fare on History Day 2006? Results varied. Perennial topics like Jackie Robinson and Harriet Tubman were treated with less depth and imagination than original choices like local hero Bob Fisher, who founded The Sleep Out fundraiser for the homeless. Experienced scrapbooking girls produced much more attractive poster boards than most of the boys. Kids with access to technology at home produced some impressive iMovie and PowerPoint projects. Almost every student produced neatly word-processed reports, with an extra copy available for the judges. One judge told of an exhibit about Patrick Henry taking a stand with his "Give Me Liberty" speech, but its creators could not identify whether Henry fought on the side of the Colonists or the British!

Some individuals and teams (the students could choose whether to work individually or in a team of two or more) did well at learning about their topic in depth. One duo tackled the life of Hubert Humphrey with gusto, interviewing family members for their favorite Humphrey quotes and memories, taking in Humphrey exhibits in a museum, downloading Humphrey images from the Internet, producing an attractive three-panel exhibit, compiling an extensive bibliography, and even creating props like campaign buttons from historical sources.

Yet according to its creators, even this stellar entry (we recommended it for advancement to the regional competition) was sidetracked by issues like matting photos and spray painting. Each team was required to write a "process paper" that summarizes technical challenges, and how the team worked together.

The student-directed approach to process-based learning should signal parents to pay extra attention to their child's project assignment, their choice of topic and work product (report, exhibit, performance, multimedia, etc.), their choice of working in a group or individually, and their progress during the project. They should also find out how much guidance students receive on the project in class. The nature of student-directed, process-based learning will ensure that results will vary widely since every student will get a different experience. Schools should balance performance-based instruction with direct instruction. As one student put it, "We come to school because people who know more than we do have something to teach us."