Closer Readings Commentary

What ELA Teachers Can Learn From National History Day & Chronicling America

National History Day, held every year in June at the University of Maryland College Park, is a wonderful opportunity for students to engage in a serious academic competition in the humanities. Last year 600,000 students took part, along with 25,000 teachers. In the age of the Common Core State Standards, this exemplary program should be on the radar of every teacher, student, and parent.

The research process

Every fall, students start research on historical topics of their own choosing within a broad theme—this year it is “Rights and Responsibilities in History.” Next year the theme will be “Leadership & Legacy in World History.” Students must make choices about the topic and their research. They must find, analyze, and present a variety of complex informational texts, especially primary sources. This “allows them to take ownership of learning; it makes learning an exciting endeavor,” says the director of National History Day, Cathy Gorn. Some students start in sixth grade and participate every year, she adds. “We had one who said, ‘history is not my favorite subject, but I love History Day.’”

The different ways to present

Students also have to decide how to best present their findings. National History Day “started from the science-fair model, with the choice of doing a paper or an exhibit,” says Gorn. “We added documentaries, live performances, and, more recently, websites.” The variety helps students see that “history works in all kinds of fields, from Ken Burns [type] documentaries to museums.” With the inclusion of a website option, “there was a big jump in participation, because teachers got other kids interested. And, lo and behold, they produced the websites, and they learned history, too.”

How NEH supports NHD

The National Endowment for the Humanities has been a supporter of National History Day since the program began in 1965. NEH grants were instrumental in helping National History Day grow from a pilot start-up project in Ohio into a national (and growing international) program.

Recently, NEH sponsored a series, “Advice from Experts.” Teacher and students asked real questions and heard advice from experts in the fields of documentary filmmaking, websites, exhibitions, performance, and research papers in the format of engaging one-hour Google Hangouts that are archived on EDSITEment’s Chronicling America portal.

The EDSITEment connection

Last year for the first time, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded prizes to students who incorporated research using Chronicling America (a free online database of five million pages of historic U.S. newspapers dating from 1836 to 1922,and digitized through a partnership between NEH and the Library of Congress) into their projects. To accompany the new prize category, EDSITEment, NEH’s educational website, also created a set of online resources around Chronicling America to assist students and educators in using the newspapers in historical research.

Two $1,000 Chronicling America awards were made last year. The junior individual documentary award went to Richard Hernasy for “Unexpected Verdict: The Trial of John Peter Zenger.” The senior individual documentary winner was Joanna Slusarewicz for “It's a Jungle Out There: Upton Sinclair Turns the Tables on the Chicago Meatpackers and the Food Industry.”