In March 2019, I hosted a regional History Day competition and award ceremony. The competition and the celebration that followed were part of my incorporation of the History Day program into my 8th grade U.S. History curriculum. All of my 8th grade U.S. History students had to complete a project which began in August and ended in March. We started with student identity reflection and skills assessment, and then finished with a project that was meant to show students’ social studies abilities and the other skills they sought out to learn.
For a bit of context, when completing History Day projects, students can choose to present their historical work within the medians of a documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website. These different types of projects give students the chance to explore a variety of sources. More details can be found at the National History Day website.
The competition and award ceremony gave me a chance to behold the power of my students; from the morning of the competition to the award ceremony the next day, I cannot recall how many times I laughed, smiled, cried, and stood in disbelief at the strength, growth and knowledge of my students. Due to my emotional experience, I thought I would reflect on what I felt.
The students worked harder and were more determined to turn in good work. The project has a minimum that students must reach, but at a certain point the students do not have to work. I had students who stayed after school on several occasions, including weekends, to put more time into their project when they had already met the class standards. Students went above and beyond because of competition, but also because they had some agency in what they could learn. Due to my experience teaching through History projects, I firmly believe young people are not lazy, they are merely bored in classes that do not do anything to connect the material to their interests, especially modern day issues.
Students wanted to learn from their mistakes and make improvements. The same night of the awards ceremony, a student emailed me to ask how she could make her project better (this was also the night before our Spring Break). Two days later, a parent emailed me asking about the upcoming state competition for the history projects and informed me that her student worked on their documentary over the last two nights. I had several other emails and stories from parents, and they go to show how much students will put in when they believe in their work. More importantly, teachers should offer chances for students to improve their work and this should be reflected in their grade.
Students went beyond the textbook and learned to critically analyze history. It is true, my students did not spend a lot of time memorizing facts and dates, and they did not spend their time learning the Declaration of Independence by heart. Instead, we examined important documents, like the Declaration of Independence, challenged commonly held American myths, and learned a set of skills that will benefit their community and American society into the next generation. We did not remove memorization and learning of historical facts completely, but we did prioritize critical thinking in an American history classroom.
Parents were exuberant and respectful of the History Day program. At the competition and celebration events, and well after, parents expressed happiness with how their students learned, and pride with their students work ethic.
Parents must be included in their child’s learning, not held at arm’s length. Teachers have the ability, and the technology, to share with parents what their child is learning and should do so. Parents in turn should make an effort to help teachers with the learning. When I asked for help, parents volunteered often and were consistently in support.
Community support must happen. Especially in the social studies, a teacher needs the support of their community. In our information rich era, teachers, now more than ever, need community support. The community members I partnered with supplied resources and experience to help my students move forward with their topic selection and research. For example, a judge who was familiar with theater helped direct some of my performance category students. A museum director helped students find primary sources in the museum archives. Support beyond research and project creation was also helpful, like the parents who staffed our concession stand that helped fund our scholarship program. Support is out there, but teachers need to reach out for it.