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Project-Based Learning (PBL)

A Beginner’s Guide to National History Day

National History Day—which, despite the name, runs through the school year—is powerful project-based learning for middle and high school students.

April 21, 2021
Middle school student participates in presentation during National History Day
AB Forces News Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Think of National History Day as a science fair for history classes. It allows students the opportunity to engage in historical inquiry on a topic of their choice and—if they’re interested—enter their project in regional, state, and national competitions.

In our experience, National History Day (NHD) is one of the best forms of project-based learning; it prompts students to engage in sustained inquiry as well as in critique and revision, all the while making a public product for an authentic audience—hallmarks of effective PBL. This rigor is particularly relevant as state and national social studies standards, like the C3 Framework, encourage students to analyze, explain, evaluate, justify, and interpret content. Real history goes beyond the memorization and recall of names, dates, and places, and NHD can be key to supporting students in making that leap.

Running an NHD competition for the first time can be quite complicated, but here are some steps to simplify it.

Step 1: A Quick but Deep Dive Into NHD

Get your feet wet by exploring the NHD website, which includes inspiring examples of yearly winners and advice on how to create competitive historical arguments. Two shining examples of winners include the documentary By Chance: The Story of the First Code Talkers and the website The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill: The Tragedy That Struck Alaska.

The site also shares details on the five NHD project options for participating students:

  • Website (with interactive multimedia)
  • Documentary (including recording interviews)
  • Paper (good for students who like to work alone)
  • Exhibit (three-dimensional and placed on a physical structure)
  • Performance (presented live by individuals or groups of students)

Each category requires access to specific materials in order to be successful. For example, exhibits require access to trifold boards, documentaries require editing and recording software, and performances demand simple props and backdrops. (Take an inventory of your school’s technology so that you know what’s available to students; at a minimum, students need access to word processing software, consistent internet access, and video recording and editing equipment.)

Once you are familiar with the NHD basics, contact your state National History Day affiliate to help you better understand the process. (Every state and territory in the United States has an affiliate.) Typically, students begin researching their topic in late fall in preparation for a school competition in January or February, with upper levels of competition lasting until June.

Step 2: Assess Local Expertise and Student Capacity

If you’re the lead facilitator for NHD at your school, make preliminary contact with area experts who have knowledge of performance arts or documentary making; ideally they’ll be interested in assisting students with their projects.

Also recruit individuals and organizations that can assist students with different stages of the history projects. For example, local librarians can help students find resources, historical societies and museums can help search for unique (local) historical topic ideas, and businesses and booster clubs can support students with travel stipends and scholarships.

Finally, take stock of the strengths and abilities of your students:

  • Are they familiar with argumentative writing versus a standard report?
  • Do they have familiarity with thesis statements?
  • Have they had experience with making citations?
  • Are they sufficiently versed in PBL success skills such as collaboration and communication to work in groups?

Once you have answered these, ask yourself how you might help the students build on these skills as they prepare for the rigor of NHD.

Step 3: Facilitate Project Ramp-Up

NHD demands that students be supported by significant structure, scaffolding, and feedback when drafting their projects, particularly given that many are developing their skills with research, thesis statements, and argumentative writing. (Note that this breadth gives you an opportunity to partner with your ELA department on an integrated project.) Students often benefit from having NHD broken into smaller chunks with frequent teacher check-ins for feedback. Suggested opportunities for check-ins include thesis statements, citations, drafting, and rule compliance on the final product.

Keep in mind that NHD isn’t just challenging for students—it’s an immense undertaking for a teacher to organize student projects across the five categories throughout an entire year. To keep yourself organized, try recording weekly video summaries that capture how students are progressing with their NHD projects. These videos can help keep parents informed and engaged with preparations for the big day.

Step 4: Run the School Competition

School competitions require significant planning, which can be difficult when you’re providing feedback on potentially dozens of projects, so start early. NHD competitions require all projects to be judged; recruit judges six to eight weeks ahead of the event. Students often value being judged by members of the community outside the school setting, so work with your local community organizations to recruit judges, although this is not required.

A background in history is not required to be a judge at the school competition, just a willingness to engage with students. Judges, typically assigned in pairs, are provided five or six projects to evaluate on the night of the school competition. We’ve found that the local Chamber of Commerce can be a great resource for recruiting.

Reserve school facilities for the event (plan it for the evening to accommodate judges’ work schedules). Finally, communicate with the community via email and social media to promote the event and competition. On the night of the competition, your main responsibility is to have fun; talk to excited students; and, when judging is over, tabulate results to determine which projects can move forward to the regional competition (your local NHD affiliate will let you know how many top-scoring projects from your school can advance to compete several weeks later).

Step 5: Take Time to Reflect

Both students and teachers learn a great deal when running an NHD program. Ask yourself and your students what could be done differently or better next time. For example, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How can I introduce necessary reading, writing, and research skills earlier in the year to make the NHD process easier?
  • What other resources might be needed in our school to take students’ NHD projects from good to great?
  • How might we better connect students with primary source interviews to further the depth of their research?

Questions to ask students include the following:

  • If you were to relive your NHD journey, what would you do differently?
  • What were some of the extraordinary things you did to learn or to overcome obstacles?
  • How do you think you might use information or skills learned during the course of this project in the future?

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Social Studies/History
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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