Building History Day

When it comes to the program History Day many teachers view it as daunting or scary. However in my experience it is actually very beneficial for students with their learning. It helps build confidence, instill the importance of research, learn about something they never knew before, public speaking experience, and knowing that there are many avenues to present your knowledge and findings. A big argument from some people is: I have no time, I have a curriculum to cover, there is nothing that my students find interesting. Sometimes it is harder to convince teachers to start this program instead of the students. The students will only go as far as their teacher and are a reflection of what we as educators become.

For those that are not familiar with the History Day program firstly, here is the link. This program is built for middle school (junior division) and high school students (senior division). Every year there is a theme that students must build their research and projects around. Students can research and present virtually anything that relates to that theme. They are judged by local teachers, professors, historical society members, museum curators, military officials, and so forth. These people provide guidance on how to enhance the projects. Those projects that are of the highest quality, first or second place in their division, move forward to the next level of the competition. If a student makes it to the national level, they represent their state at University of Maryland, College Park. The students who win at states have the opportunity for large scholarships and significant awards from nationally recognized companies.

I started History Day as a volunteer process and only had 5-6 students take part. Being new to the program, I was not sure how to best guide them. I taught them strategies similar to how I wrote research papers in college; using Chicago style citations and writing in depth. However, in further looking at the guidelines of History Day I found out that I was setting my students up for failure. If you are looking to start History Day read these guidelines. While the booklet is large, it is highly beneficial.

After a few years I became very knowledgeable of History Day. I developed a gifted and talented class that allowed for students to get in depth history knowledge. There were only 20 students and I made it a requirement for them. These students were identified as gifted and talented in history due to their COGAT (cognitive testing provided in elementary school) scores. The students used class time to research the information through the school library, the internet, and the Library of Congress website. My students, being gifted and talented, were always interested in this program and gave 100%. 

My students were making it to the state level competition and winning specialty awards, but I could make the leap to getting them to the national competition. The county competition was rather small compared to most (only 60 total students county wide were participating). I knew we had to make a better program. In 2014 I was given the opportunity to run the county History Day program. We only had 60 county participants that year. Our judges were family members of teachers, local teachers, and some members of the historical society. While it ran smoothly, our projects were not of the best caliber and our students were not fully prepared for the state competition. I began reflecting on how to make this a better process and came away with three major takeaways:

1. We needed better quality judges to legitimatize our competition. So I began outreach to local colleges, military facilities, museums, and historical agencies. Not only were they willing to take part, but they were willing to share their resources as well. This opened up a brand new opportunity for our students that they had never seen before. 

2. We needed better communication with our judges, students, and parents. Even though the competition was small people were confused as to where to go, judges were not fully aware of what rooms they were in, parents were not sure how to help their child on the day of the competition, and frustration levels were high. This was of the highest priority to me. 

3. Build better connections with the schools to advance the program. Provide them with training, resources, and the most important item: TIME. 

Before the end of the 2014 school year, I had contacted local colleges, military, museums, and historical agencies. In doing this it greatly helped to build the connections necessary for the following school year's competition. They also had time to gather resources to share with teachers for when they returned in August.

When teachers returned in August I shared the information that I had been provided by the local contacts. This was greatly beneficial to them because they had information they could provide to their students for help, it began the discussion of History Day that they had not had before. At that initial meeting we set an exact date of the History Day competition for the county. Never before had this been done. It provided transparency of the event and a feeling of involvement by teachers and staff. This also allowed for them to plan effectively in their classrooms.

In October we have a county based professional development program for teachers in the county. At this event I scheduled to have the Humanities Outreach Coordinator attend and provide guidance on how to develop History Day in the classroom, activities that are provided on Library of Congress website, and resources through National History Day's website. These are all free and can be found there. I highly recommend speaking to the outreach coordinator where you live to get this going. It really will help you, your students, and your fellow teachers.

By December I began emailing the local agencies again. This time I was asking for judges. As we had already spoken about six months before and I had a date for History Day, they were very willing to take part. I also informed them that I would be providing them with paperwork, maps, guidelines, and their topics to judge before the event began. This would help our judges to research any topics they may not be fully knowledgeable. In hearing that this was occurring I ended up twice as many judges as I had in 2014.

By February I asked the teachers to share projects with me. This year we had 100 projects going to the county competition. I would recommend developing a shared Google Sheet similar to what you see below.
This allows for the staff input their students information easily, no misspellings, and ease for all involved. I was able to quickly use this and develop a time sheet for the projects by each category. I then assigned my judges to those categories. Two weeks before the competition I shared this form with my judges so they could see the projects, students, and types of projects they would be judging. The judges were elated by this and were very well prepared on the day of our competition. 

Two days before the competition I had posters made of the schedules and times so that parents and students could see the exact location they would be located in for History Day. Time sheets were printed on 8"x12" paper. This would be provided to every person that arrived for History Day. 

On the day of the event, we ran smoothly. Parents were highly impressed by the changes in one calendar year. Judges were able to provide extremely beneficial feedback and raved about how efficient the competition had become. Everyone had a great time. 

Each year I have built more and more with the event. I have added presentations by local groups, had incorporated room numbers on the forms for ease of finding locations, and I have added school and location maps so that people do not get lost at the event. This calendar year the event has grown so large that it will be hosted at a college and food will be provided to the participants and their families. If you are in need of finding out more, I will post in later blogs how to expand your competition. If you want engaging activities check out my lesson link at:
Or my video links at: