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Make History Exciting Again for Students (Opinion)

I’ve always been intrigued by history, geography, and civics. Of course, I used to teach this stuff. While not everyone feels similarly, I suspect a lot more students would share my enthusiasm if they encountered rich, textured, all-too-human humanity rather than yawn-inducing texts or politicized caricatures. That’s why I’m so taken with National History Day, a competition established 50 years ago for middle and high school students. The contest debuted in 1974, bringing 127 attendees to Cleveland. This year’s version, which will culminate next month in Washington, has engaged over 600,000 students. Cathy Gorn is the executive director of National History Day. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Case Western Reserve, serves on the White House Historical Association Education Committee, and has been a presidential adviser for the National World War II Museum. With its 50th anniversary just weeks away, I thought it a terrific time to ask Gorn about the competition and the state of history. Here’s what she had to say.


Rick: So, what is National History Day?

Cathy: National History Day, or NHD, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It began as a small, local program in Cleveland by professor David Van Tassel and the members of the history department at Case Western Reserve University to try to change the way history is taught and learned. In 1974, 127 students in the Greater Cleveland area took part. Today, more than half a million students participate in every state, the District of Columbia, American territories, and international schools.

Rick: When you say the architects wanted to “change the way history is taught,” what did they have in mind?

Cathy: Van Tassel was dismayed with the way history was taught at the middle and high school levels. Too many teachers assigned students chapters from a textbook and then asked students to fill out a worksheet and take multiple-choice tests. Not only did students find this boring, but the process did not teach students much beyond memorization and a basic recall of facts that lacked meaning and perspective. NHD was designed to counter that approach by engaging students in an active study of the past that would help them develop research and critical-thinking skills.

Rick: How’d you get involved?

Cathy: I was in the right place at the right time. I started grad school at Case Western Reserve in the fall of 1982 and needed a part-time job. Someone told me to go to the Western Reserve Historical Society down the street, where they always hired a grad student to help with the Ohio History Day contest. I had no idea what it was, but that year, the theme for NHD was Turning Points in History. That was fitting because it was the biggest turning point of my life. When I saw what it could do for kids and how it could change how history is taught in the classroom, I was hooked. I lobbied the then-executive director of NHD for a job with the national office, which I started full time in January 1984.

Rick: So, what does participating in National History Day actually entail?

Cathy: Students in grades 6 through 12 can participate, but some of our state programs include 4th and 5th graders as well. Each fall, teachers introduce the program and the annual theme—for example, Triumph & Tragedy in History, Taking a Stand in History, Leadership & Legacy in History, and more. Students can choose any topic that they are interested in, and, with their teachers’ guidance, map out a research journey that takes them to libraries, archives, and museums, among other places. They learn how to conduct research and interpret primary materials and thereby gain analytical skills as they consider how their topic relates to the annual theme. This forces students to draw conclusions about the historical significance of their topic. The theme this year, once again, is Turning Points in History. Next year’s theme is Rights & Responsibilities in History.

Rick: How are winners judged and selected?

Cathy: After students draw conclusions about their topic’s significance in history, they present their findings in papers, tabletop exhibits, dramatic performances, websites, or documentaries. This way, they have a creative outlet for their research and analysis. They then enter competitions at the local level, after which winners move on to state or regional contests and finally to the national level. Their work is evaluated by professional historians and educators at each level, and participants can improve their work based on those evaluations as they move up the contest ladder.

Rick: Can you talk a bit about the philosophy behind the exercise?

Cathy: The philosophy behind NHD is to engage young people in a meaningful and active study of the past in order to understand historical perspectives. This, in turn, helps them become active citizens. NHD is designed to move teachers and students away from boring textbooks and instead engage them in doing history as historians do—to consider a topic, develop questions related to that topic, and dig into the research to answer those questions. To guide students in such a study, teachers need help learning and understanding the art of historical inquiry and argumentation, so NHD also offers teachers professional development programs.

Rick: How do teachers get involved? And how do you find judges?

Cathy: Teachers are recruited in a variety of ways and learn about the program via newsletters, contacts made by NHD coordinators, and by teachers themselves who go to the NHD website and contact the local and state or regional coordinators in their areas. Individuals recruited to serve as judges at the contests come from historical societies, colleges and universities, archives, and museums. But judges also are journalists, attorneys, teachers, and other educators who have a background and interest in history. After all, many attorneys, for example, major in history as undergrads.

Rick: What are some of the projects that recent winners have presented?

Cathy: This is a difficult question to answer—there are so many incredible projects every year! Since students can choose any topic, their choices are all over the map, literally: from local topics to national topics to world history topics and from any time period. Of course, some students choose the obvious topics such as Rosa Parks, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the airplane. But I love how creative many students are in choosing their topics. Last year, for instance, the theme was Frontiers in History. Wining projects had titles like “A ‘Social Frontier’: Boy Scouts, Progressive Education, and the Turner Thesis”; “The Panama Canal: A New Frontier for Tech, Trade, and Travel”; “On Top of the World: The Frontiers Faced by Matthew Henson and Robert Peary in their Quest for the North Pole”; “The Papunya Tula Art Movement: Crossing the Frontier from Ephemeral Indigenous Australian Art to Cultural Preservation”; and “The Harlem Renaissance: A Frontier for 20th Century Black Identity.”

Rick: History has obviously become pretty polarized in recent years. How has that affected your work, and how have you sought to navigate the divides?

Cathy: It certainly has. Who said history was boring?! NHD does not advocate any particular agenda or interpretation of the past, so we’ve been able to stay out of the political arena. We encourage students to choose their own topics and follow the research. But we do emphasize the importance of evidence. Evidence matters. This is not about students’ opinions. When students create an NHD project, they have to show that they’ve done extensive research into a variety of primary and secondary sources and back up their conclusions with solid, historical evidence.

Rick: It strikes me that there’s a tendency among teachers to try and make American history relevant by emphasizing its relationship to contemporary political and cultural disputes. If so, how does that approach relate to the work of National History Day?

Cathy: Absolutely. Studying the past helps us make sense of the present. How did we get to where we are today? What were the causes? What were the effects? What were the consequences of similar events or situations in history? How have people reacted and responded to similar issues, and what were the results? Understanding history makes one a more informed citizen and voter and allows for a better understanding of current events.

Rick: OK, final question. What’s something you’ve learned that might help educators seeking new ways to get more students excited about American history?

Cathy: Allow students to take ownership of their learning. Give them some control over the learning process. Let them choose an area of study and map out a research journey. Take them to an archive and have students look inside those gray boxes and discover the past for themselves. Most of all, allow the historical characters to speak to the students through diaries and letters, or if the topic is more recent, by conducting oral history interviews of those involved in a historical event. For example, when the theme was Taking a Stand in History in 1996, a student chose to focus on the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. She was able to secure an interview with Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, the African-American students who attended the previously all-white high school that year. Eckford invited the student to visit and took them on a tour of the high school and gave an emotional interview to the student, who then developed a documentary about Eckford’s experience. Two other students asked Eckford if any white kids were kind to her. Eckford told them there was one student, Kendell Reinhardt, who said hello to her each day. The students tracked Reinhardt down in Kentucky and interviewed him for their NHD performance. Both Eckford and Reinhardt attended the NHD national contest to support the students, reuniting for the first time since 1957. They all remain in close contact, and Eckford and Reinhardt attended the students’ graduations and later their weddings.

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