Closer Readings Commentary

“Let Us Now Praise” National History Day

National History Day, held every year in June at the University of Maryland College Park, is an outstanding opportunity for students to engage in a serious academic competition in the humanities and to acquire the prestige that comes from participation in such a competition. This year over 600,000 students will take part, along with 25,000 teachers. In the age of Project Based Learning and 21st-Century Skills, this exemplary program should be on the radar of every teacher, student, and parent.

Tens of thousands of volunteers—lawyers, journalists, archivists, historians, curators, educators, and others from many walks of life—serve as judges at the program’s local, state, and national contests. National History Day participants come from all fifty states, Washington, D.C., Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, Defense Department schools overseas, and international schools in China, South Korea, and Indonesia.

The research process


Every fall, students start research on historical topics of their own choosing within a broad theme—this year it is “Taking a Stand in History.” Next year the theme will be “Conflict and Compromise in 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 NHD fits with larger trends in education

As one can see from even this short description of the process, the NHD approach maps well with two of the hottest trends in secondary education, Project Based Learning and 21st-Century Skills. The structure of NHD not only allows students to work on a project of their own choosing for almost an entire academic year but also to collaborate with their peers, interview experts, and manage their time. Many students learn for the first time what they can really do. For the Common Core Teacher, it’s worth knowing that NHD students will acquire the complex research, interpretive, and presentation skills required for success in achieving CCSS goals.

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.

This past year, EDSITEment collaborated with the Smithsonian Learning Lab on a series of eight collections of resources drawn from both organizations' archives. Topics include Alexander Hamilton, American Revolution and the Founders, Women's Suffrage Movement, NAACP and the Birth of a Nation, Brown v Board, Freedom Rides, and the American Civil Rights Movement. In addition, EDSITEment put together its own guide to resources.

NEH sponsored a series, “Advice from Experts.” Teachers 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 YouTube videos.  

The EDSITEment connection

Each year, the National Endowment for the Humanities awards prizes to students who incorporated research using Chronicling America (a free online database of almost 12 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.

Two $1,000 Chronicling America awards were made last year: In the Junior category the award went to Jessica Connelly & Caroline Turochy & Sydney Smith (School: Auburn History Club, Auburn, AL); in the Senior category the award went to Linzy Woods & Justice Tautfest (School: Canton High School, Canton, OK). All of last year's awards are listed here.

To accompany NEH Chronicling America 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.