Why History Day is a Great Day

Recently I had the opportunity to judge student work at my state History Day contest. It’s an opportunity I’ve had so many times that I can’t exactly remember when I started, but I do know that my involvement as a teacher working with my students on their entries began in the mid-1980s. If you don’t know what History Day is, I’ll give you a brief description. For more information you can click here.

Middle school and high school students are eligible to enter National History Day (NHD). NHD is a yearlong researchand presentation project, typically judged at the local, regional, state, and national levels.  Students, working with teachers and/or mentors, decide on a topic that conforms to the national theme for the year (this year the theme was “Leadership and Legacy in History”). Students decide on the category of presentation they think best suits the content available for their topic and best aligns with their talents. The categories are documentary, exhibit, research paper, website, and live performance. Students decide whether to work as individuals or as part of a team of up to five students. At each level teachers, historians, or other professionals in the community judge student work. A significant part of the judging is the interview, in which judges in several of the categories get the opportunity to question students about their topic, methods, sources, and conclusions. If a student competes and wins at any level below national, they may use the judges’ written comments as a guide to further refine or improve their entry, making the project a true yearlong experience.

Students are encouraged to research topics of local or regional significance that have likely not been the subject of repeated studies or media examination. They are encouraged to make use of primary sources rather than exclusively relying on secondary resources such as textbooks or reference works.  Long before the current emphasis on project based learning (PBL) students were entering History Day and learning to think like historians.

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to direct many student projects that competed at the state and national levels. For both teachers and students the excitement surrounding the day is palpable.  For teachers it is a culmination of several months of careful coaching. For the students it is their day to be the expert.

As a judge I usually request to judge the senior group documentaries. I like this category because I like to see the students interact in the interview with the judging panel. The really good groups love to answer questions and talk about their work. I also like the documentaries because I enjoy seeing how students choose represent historical phenomena with visual images. This is an opportunity for them to be quite creative.

This year I also reflected on how the changes in this documentary category provide a microcosm of the larger changes in education brought about by technology.  The early documentaries were slide shows-and by “slide” I mean photographic slides. Students would photograph their documentary images and load them in a carousel, then bring their cart, projector, and sound equipment to the contest. Timing the sound with the slides was always a challenge.

The next development came soon: multiple carousels that faded in and out! In this way student could let the presentation run by itself as the slides advanced automatically. Soon there were utilities that matched the sound to the images. This was an even more bulky equipment package.

Wary of equipment failures and transporting multiple devices, one of my student groups got access to a commercial video studio and taped their slide presentation onto a VHS tape. They showed up at state with a small TV and VCR and a tape. This was considered simple and elegant.

By the 1990s projects started getting digitized. Students could create their presentations in PowerPoint and show them on laptops. Contest host sites, usually high schools and universities, began upgrading to digital technology to the extent that students were showing up with a CD or thumb drive and playing their presentations on computers already installed in the classrooms. Ever more skilled students were using movie and sound editing software to present very sophisticated documentaries.

This year topped them all. A student group needed an interview with a primary source to round out their entry. This used to be tricky, as students would have to tape the interview, and then upload the tape or other recording onto their presentation. Sound quality was uneven. And what if the subject was out of town? Would the students be able to travel to get the interview? What if they had technical trouble and had to re-record it? All these problems are of the past. This year’s students called the subject on Skype and recorded the entire interview. No travel to (in this case) Washington D.C. was necessary.

For decades the inconvenience inherent in moving equipment or presentation media to the contest site produced frustration.  Equipment had to be purchased or borrowed. Projectors and monitors had to be returned undamaged. When equipment was present, the media formats were occasionally incompatible.  But this year it was all in the cloud. Students uploaded their presentations to a previously established YouTube channel, walked into the presentation room, pulled up the site, and played the presentation. Teachers schooled in apprehension advised a backup medium, but in most cases it was unnecessary (and of course most of the students had brought their laptops anyway).

In this one aspect of education we can clearly see the evolution of the technology from photographs to the cloud.  I’ll have more to say about this in future posts, but for now I’ll just say that technology has dramatically improved this particular educational experience, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

I’d love your reaction to this and would also love to hear of similar experiences you have had with History Day, technology, or other student centered work.

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