History Day

I have had the pleasure of serving as a History Day judge over at Wayzata East Middle School for the past few years. This year I also helped one of the seventh graders at Wayzata West Middle School, a family friend, with his project, which to our delight earned a spot at the regional competition on March 15.

From the National History Day web site:
Each year, more than half a million students, encouraged by thousands of teachers nationwide participate in the NHD contest. Students choose historical topics related to a theme and conduct extensive primary and secondary research through libraries, archives, museums, oral history interviews and historic sites. After analyzing and interpreting their sources and drawing conclusions about their topics’ significance in history, students present their work in original papers, exhibits, performances and documentaries. These products are entered into competitions in the spring at local, state and national levels where they are evaluated by professional historians and educators. The program culminates in a national competition each June held at the University of Maryland at College Park.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, all of this may smack to you of the educational fads of the 1990s designed to minimize academics in the school day, and make learning "fun:" performance-based learning, group learning, discovery learning, lite content, time-consuming, what-did-we-really-learn learning. And I have seen groups of students spend more time on technical issues of PowerPoint, iMovie, and DVD formats, and less time actually learning history.

But what struck me this year about History Day at both middle schools (it's a seventh-grade event in our school district) was the high energy level, the excitement, parental and community involvement, the anticipation, the pride, all over history. I am an advocate for good history education: I served on the citizen panel that wrote the imperfect, though improved, state standards for social studies. So I feel that an event that actually gets kids excited about history can't be all bad.

Something else that I found remarkable was the extensive amount of research that the Internet makes possible. Most student projects I saw were richly illustrated with historic photographs and drawings, gleaned from the Internet. The required bibliographies revealed some Wikipedia citations, but also contemporary newspaper stories (web searches sure beat microfiche searches — remember those?), online encyclopedias, specialized history web sites, and even good old fashioned books. The most ambitious students conducted primary-source interviews and displayed actual artifacts.

Volunteer a few hours of your time next year at your local school to serve as a History Day judge. Your participation will benefit the students, earn you the thanks of teachers, and give you a real appreciation for history education.