If you follow Accents, you’ve probably noticed my announcements about the Missouri Region 6 History Day contest held each March at MSSU and about the fortunes of participants who go on to the state and national contests.
If you know me, you may have said “that’s nice” and then moved on to the next article, probably without a very clear idea of what National History Day is, why the Social Sciences Department sponsors it, and why I devote a fair amount of time to an activity that, to be frank, for the first few years ruined quite a few weekends, cost me quite a bit of sleep, and for weeks on end made me an irritable, distracted colleague & husband. [Experience, the online registration system devised by National History Day, good advice from my wife, and great student help have made it a somewhat less burdensome responsibility.]
It took News Bureau Manager Stephen Smith to help me see the obvious. After I had sent him the umpteenth History Day new release, he tactfully suggested that I write a short piece to explain to the campus community why History Day matters to me and, I think, to MSSU.
So let’s start with the basics. National History Day was founded in 1974 by Dr. David Van Tassel of Case Western Reserve University, my undergraduate alma mater. Since 1981, Missouri Southern has hosted one of Missouri’s 9 regional contests. It is basically the history equivalent of the better-known Science Fair [though with about ½ million participants annually, History Day is hardly unknown.] All students in grades 6-12, whether in public, private, or home school, are eligible to enter projects in the form of original papers, websites, exhibits, performances, or documentaries. A project may be on any topic in local, national, or world history, so long as it is clearly related to the annual theme. For 2014, the theme is Rights and Responsibilities in History. A list that suggests just a few topics related to the theme may be found at http://nhd.org/images/uploads/2014_Sample_Topics.pdf .
Creating a History Day project first of all involves extensive research through libraries, archives, online collections, museums, oral history interviews, and historic sites. In the History Day project itself, students must offer a clear and engaging presentation of what happened, how it relates to the theme, and what makes these developments historically significant.
As you can tell, History Day involves a lot of work for students and teachers as well as for the 50 or so judges who include my colleagues, a number of MSSU faculty from other departments, and volunteers from the wider community. The main thing, I think, that makes this work worthwhile is the educational benefit to the students. History Day students do not learn history simply by studying assigned chapters of a textbook. Instead, they start by selecting a topic of particular interest to them. But even though from start to finish it is their project on a topic of their choice, in the course of doing it they fulfill quite a few of the larger objectives that I think makes history such an important part of the middle and high school curriculum.
They first of all learn about the broader historical context within which, for example, new ideas led people to adopt new solutions to age-old problems, a new invention changed the workplace or home life, an important battle changed the course of a war or even the nature of warfare, or a particular community dealt with fortune or adversity. They also learn about the different kinds of primary sources [that is, documents or artifacts produced by participants in or witnesses to the events in question] that enable historians to reconstruct the past and about the secondary sources in which scholars provide background and perspective on the topic. They also come to see how many things they take for granted – political arrangements, social institutions, technology, values — are not really timeless but have resulted from alternatives chosen by people in particular places at particular times.
Empirical data shows that students do indeed gain these insights and a broad range of academic skills from History Day. A national study conducted during the 2009-2010 school year showed that “students who participate in the program perform better on high-stakes tests, are better writers, more confident and capable researchers, and have a more mature perspective on current events and civic engagement than their peers. Participants also show a greater ability to collaborate with peers, manage their time and persevere.” http://www.nhd.org/NHDworks.htm
The Social Sciences Department puts a lot into History Day, but we get a lot out of it. Some of our best students choose their major and for that matter MSSU because of their History Day experiences. For example, History major Jon Carr, who graduated with honors and who served as my History day assistant for 3 years, participated in History Day when he attended Sarcoxie High.
Through History Day, we have also formed strong ties with local teachers. In the course of conducting History Day workshops, not only am I able to provide them with advice about History Day preparation and resources. My colleagues and I also learn quite a bit from the teachers about resources suitable for our classes too, how History Day fits into their curricula, how they need to balance it with practical constraints, how they motivate and guide students, and how we can better prepare our Social Studies Education majors for teaching careers.
In short, History Day has made us better partners with area schools. It has helped prepare area students for college, be it MSSU or another. The contest may last just one day, but History Day is not just a day. It’s an experience that can enrich teaching and learning at all educational levels.