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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Better History Day: Secrets to Successful History Day Projects

Annette's Note: If you're not familiar with National History Day, you might want to take a look at the official site.

The first time I judged student projects at National History Day was while I was an undergraduate in Sacramento, California. I well remember my bewilderment.

One project was on the history of shoes: The main part of the exhibit was a home-made poster, covered with a collage of pictures of shoes, all cut from magazines. Of course, this was during the mid-Eighties, when standards were higher, and the kids had to actually search through magazines. Today, I suppose, the pictures would be found instantly on Google, printed, and then cut out. The only problem was that the exhibit didn't actually have any history in it. Shoes could have made an interesting topic, but only if they could have given the judges some hint of why and how shoes have changed over time…Only then would it qualify as history.

Then there was the kid with the project on solar energy. I tried, in vain, to draw him out about the history of the development and use of solar energy. Nada. Then it became apparent that the project was recycled from a Science Fair.

Of course, these are extremes, and most of the projects I have judged over the years have been better than this . But this didn't mean that their designers were much up on their history. One project at that first fair was about the Battle of Something or Other. Two boys had painstakingly made a papier mache model of the fort where said battle took place. It was a terrific model. But the boys didn't really know much about the battle, much less about the war, or why anyone else should care. This, unfortunately, is more typical than it should be.

Back in the day, because I was young, arrogant, and brash (even more than today), and, most importantly, because I hadn't yet drunk the Kool Aid, I insisted on telling the students the truth. I think I was hard on them because, after a pretty decent British education at a no-name school in a rough working-class town, I coasted through my undergrad years. I knew that American high school-age kids ought to be capable of more, and I told them so. I still think it's better to be honest with teenagers, although I'm sure I could have been less damning in my tone back in Nineteen-Eighty-Whatever. I have got nicer (or more dishonest, your choice) over the years. But I'm still not convinced that most History Day projects reflect the abilities and potential of their creators.

So…I suggest that teachers and students take a look at the examples of first-rate projects that have won the national contests in the past. Unfortunately, in my experience, too few projects even get close…and they should. Students are capable of more, and given the right conditions, they can and will rise to the challenge.

Because I would like to see more and more projects that are genuinely outstanding, here are a few of my suggestions for History Day project success.

  1. Projects that reflect a real passion for the chosen subject on the part of the student(s), NOT a parent or teacher, are most likely to win. DON'T, parents, do the project for your student: It's painfully obvious when you do that, and you are harming your child's education. Further, don't choose subjects for students, or they are more likely than not to be a bit halfhearted about it. On the other hand, DO make them aware that the range of possible subjects is much larger than what's in a school textbook.
  2. Local history may not have the same immediate appeal to students as, say, the Salem Witch Trials, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, or one of the many battles of the Civil War. But a local history subject is far more likely to engage the student(s) , not least because it will require a bit of legwork. Students might want to look at a national or international event or phenomenon through local eyes: What was it like to live through the civil rights era in your small town? What was happening in your neighborhood during World War Two?

    Alternatively, a project could reverse that emphasis by focusing on a particular local event and putting it in national context: Recently, I saw a story about a small town whose only claim to fame was a water tower disguised as a ketchup bottle, originally put up by a defunct ketchup manufacturer. Students in that town could focus on the landmark, and how automobile travel led to the creation of crazy roadside attractions beginning in the 1920s. Alternatively, they could (if ambitious) interview former ketchup factory workers and ask about what life was like for them before and after the plan closed. The limits on subjects are the student's imagination and the availability of evidence. Which brings me to…

  3. Please, students (and especially high schoolers) read books for your projects. Get the help of your town librarian or school media specialist (that's librarian in real English) to find relevant books that you can handle. Visit your local university library, and ask the reference librarians to help you locate books and articles, which you can at least read in the library. What's on the Web is a tiny fraction of available evidence, and so much of what is online is dreadful. Primary source documents on the web are often just the tip of the iceberg on the subject, presented as disconnected from the huge archival array of sources to which they belong, and unlikely, by themselves, to offer much in the way of evidence. Certainly, the situation on the web is getting a little better, but not much. And using a real archive will be a memorable experience (I did it in high school, and you can too). Plus it will, I promise, impress the judges. See #5 for ideas.
  4. And don't just print stuff from the web. If you didn't write it, judges are not interested. Teachers and parents should help students evaluate the reliability of web sites. Believe it or not, I once saw a project on Hitler that reprinted material from a Neo-Nazi site. The student wasn't a Neo-Nazi (and, hopefully, neither were his parents), he just didn't know.
  5. Students: Do the best and most creative possible job you can in your research, not just your in presentation. Most judges will interview students on History Day, and many of us will make much of our judgment based on that interview, regardless of what the official NHD judging forms may say. We tend to be college professors and history graduate students, and many of us are unimpressed by PowerPoint bells and whistles, especially if the actual subject matter is very thin, not least because we know how little intellectual effort the bells and whistles represent. We are far more impressed by students who have gone the extra mile. You may take the initiative to do research in real archives, which is not nearly as hard as it sounds, and a lot more interesting: Churches, local libraries, state libraries, school board offices, even your attic… all are sources of primary source material! Think diaries, letters, newspapers, committee records, or census records, all of which can be the basis for a project, especially if you consult with the archivist or librarian, who can point you toward interesting and manageable collections. And many archival collections are available in libraries as published books or on microfilm. Another source? Do oral history. Grab a video camera and interview people who lived through history. I guarantee you will have a great time.

Other History Day judges, teachers, parents, students, what do you think? I look forward to an ongoing discussion…

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