My colleague, Mia Howerton, and I were invited to serve as judges for the National History Day (NHD) competition finals in College Park, Md., on June 17, 2014. History is an area of special interest for us, as we both serve as program officers for the Teaching American History program. Mia also taught social studies at the middle school level for six years in Richmond, Va. It was refreshing to have the opportunity to leave our Washington, D.C. office for a day and interact with students. Being able to see the exemplary projects students have created in pursuit of their quest for historical knowledge and understanding helped us to better appreciate the impact that national education programs can have on individual students.
NHD offers middle and high school students the opportunity to create a history project of their choosing based on an annual theme — Rights and Responsibilities in History for 2014. The project categories are exhibit, performance, documentary, paper, and website. All project types can be done by individuals or groups, except for papers, which must be individual. Projects are judged on three evaluation criteria: historical quality (60 percent), relation to the theme (20 percent), and clarity of presentation (20 percent). Prizes are also awarded to projects that focus on particular themes in history, such as the Civil War History prize sponsored by the Civil War Trust, the Outstanding Entry on an International Theme prize sponsored by The History Channel, and the Native American History prize sponsored by the National Park Service.
Students create their projects under the guidance of their teachers and must successfully compete at the local and state levels in order to qualify for the finals. During the year-long process, students receive feedback from the local- and state-level judges who evaluate their projects. This feedback is used to improve the projects in a variety of ways: more closely aligning the project content with the NHD annual theme, refining the historical research on which the project is based, or clarifying or upgrading aspects of the project’s technical presentation. In addition to the judges’ feedback, students serve as peer coaches to each other and support one another in all aspects of the project preparation. The students’ teachers and school librarians, many of whom have received professional development from NHD, play a critical role in assisting the students with the research and design of their projects.
Mia judged the Senior Individual Documentary category, and I judged Senior Group Documentary. One of Mia’s students received first prize in her category for the individual documentary entitled Rough in the Bunch: Appalachia’s Rayon Girls Fight for the Right to Strike. And one of the student teams I judged received third prize for Gorbachev: Wind of Change. Click here to see all 18 NHD categories and the 2014 winners.
Regardless of whether a student wins a prize, all students participating in NHD reap the benefit of conducting serious historical research and analysis. In preparing their projects, students engage in the work of historians and make connections between the history learned in school and the broader world around them. They gain experience in conducting interviews, documenting historic sites, interpreting sources, and collaborating with peers and mentors to assemble a finished product. And as their interest in and appreciation for history increases, they acquire important college- and career-ready skills relevant beyond the history classroom.
Margarita Meléndez is an education program specialist in the Teacher Quality Programs division of the Office of Innovation and Improvement.