I love the National History Day program. I first got involved with it as a teacher in Florida when I was invited to judge a local county-wide competition by a close friend. I instantly saw the way it could be leveraged to support the research and thinking skills that are so difficult to replicate in a classroom. When I relocated to China I was able to help a handful of students research topics and prepare to present at the local affiliate that hosted a competition in Shanghai. Now that I teach in Shanghai, I get the pleasure of hosting the event and teaching at a school where it is integrated into the 9th and 10th grade curriculum. Every part of the NHD process aligns to the C3 standards and the inquiry framework. Student learning deserves to be applied, and STEM courses should not be the only ones that get access to cool events where students feel as though they are part of something beyond the classroom. NHD is the best social studies style program I have seen that gets students to apply their knowledge and skills to a real world question, and engage with the wider community about their research and passions.
In March of this school year, the National History Day China affiliate will be hosting its first in-person competition since 2019. Last school year, the event did not happen, and the three years prior to that the competition was online only. No current high school students at my school have experienced this event in its full glory. I am committed to making this experience as bold and powerful as it can be for every student that registers.
A powerful NHD experience begins well before the day of the competition. Students need scaffolds, feedback, and support through the process. I mentioned earlier that NHD is built into my school’s curriculum as a core project for 9th and 10th grade. Doing this successfully means starting early and carefully planning how to organize the project steps over the course of the year between August and September.
I have learned a handful of lessons in the years I have been doing this as part of my courses.
- The project is about research, not the fancy presentation. Teachers and judges can tell the difference between a flashy project with no depth and a project that has been researched and analyzed from multiple angles. The process paper and bibliography are two of the first things I look at as a teacher as they give me an idea of the scope of the research and possible strengths and weaknesses of the student’s approach. The students need to know that good research is integral to a solid project.
- Keep everything organized. In graduate school, there was nothing more annoying for me than wanting to cite something and forgetting what source it came from. Good research and reading notes were essential. Students need an organizational tool to help them along the way. The better structures they use, the easier the later steps on the project will be.
- Identify research and narrative gaps along the way. The research process is fluid. Students should be constantly asking questions along the way and reflecting on what might be missing from their narrative. It is much easier to address this issues while students are still in the research process than to go back in January or February when students are building the presentation piece.
- Don’t procrastinate! This one is self-explanatory. Sadly there are always students that need reminders.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of sharing, collaboration, and feedback. Students can add value to each others process through sharing and feedback. In the past, I have had students present quick “updates” so their peers can ask questions and provide an outside perspective. As the teacher, I am also very involved in providing feedback along the way. This is where a lot of learning and growth can occur.
I like structure and organization. I think students, especially younger ones, need this to succeed with the NHD program. Here are some of the structures I am finding success with.
NHD: Unit 0
In my 9th grade course I use NHD to start the year and act as a curriculum anchor. On the first day, students dive into a primary source activity. I tend to prefer the Ordeal by Cheque mystery or the Man-Bats on the Moon mini-DBQ put together by the incomparable Steve Heimler. Regardless, students begin with some sort of mystery or guiding question that asks them to explore primary sources and get at the essence of historical inquiry.
For the rest of the week, I introduce the HIPP process and how we should analyze primary sources in order to deepen our understanding. We also work on writing compelling questions, research questions, and supporting questions. By the end of the week, students are in groups and are brainstorming topic ideas. I find this has helped to build class cohesion and provides a good “anchor” point to return to throughout the year.
All students deserve a clear and established set of deadlines to keep them on track. A sample of the schedule I give to my students is pictured below, the complete document is linked HERE. The majority of the formative checkpoints in the first semester are regarding research. After all, asking good questions, doing and refining strong research, and addressing gaps are what make strong projects and help build lasting skills.
Organization is key as students conduct and track their research. Every teacher knows most students need way more help with this than they should. The Process Plan can take many forms, myself and our other history teacher use it as the main organization document to track research and supporting questions, primary and secondary sources, main ideas and quotes, MLA citations, and HIPP analysis. A carefully kept Process Plan makes argumentation and project building so much easier. An example of one of our iterations is linked HERE. Include what your students need and adjust it to follow your teaching process and style. I also have each group work from a digital shared document so I can track their progress in real time and offer feedback when needed.
With the 9th graders I reserve some time to talk about conducting online research. NHD already puts out some great resources that help students explore the Library of Congress and National Archives. Don’t reinvent the wheel! However, many of my students do World History topics, and so need support with other databases. Providing a list of helpful websites and putting in some discussion and modelling time can make a big difference.
Students often struggle the most finding good primary sources. This year, I’ve been leveraging ChatGPT to help with brainstorming search terms, developing supporting research questions, and helping identify research gaps.
For US History topics, the DocsTeach page created by the National Archives is a fantastic reference. Every year I compile resources on a central page in our course Canvas to act as a “database.” I am also lucky that my school has invested in a large amount of primary source readers and collections across topics so students can begin some of their research the “old-fashioned” way.
Some groups develop their arguments more naturally, others need an extra scaffold or two. I have found some success using an argument outline to help students put the pieces together as they wrap-up their research.
A former student who came to speak to our 9th graders last year (she experienced pre-covid NHD) showed them pictures of her process, which was to print out various sources, quotes, etc. and physically organize and connect them into her argument/narrative. She was constructing an exhibit, so this was particularly useful for visualizing the layout and ensuring it supported both her narrative and argument. I particularly liked this strategy as it felt like the archival research I had done in graduate school and pushed students off of technology for at least part of the process.
If you have never considered using National History Day in your class, check it out. You won’t regret it!