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Program Design, Development, and Quality

Igniting Students’ Passion to Learn Through National History Day

National History Day

Due to the nature of my work as a researcher and evaluator, I do not work directly with students.

My classroom and out-of-school time visits usually involve me sitting in the back as a non-obtrusive visitor noting the interactions between the teachers and students. Typically, I will note the types of questions students ask and how the teacher responds. At the end of the session, I thank the teacher for letting me observe the classroom, and that usually ends our interaction.

That being said, it is a real treat for me to be able to engage with students and hear from them about the work they are doing, what they learned from it, and how the experience ignited their passion for learning. I had such an opportunity when my sister, who is an International Baccalaureate English Language Arts (ELA) middle school teacher in Traverse City, Michigan, invited me to visit her classroom to see the products her students had made for National History Day (NHD), a national competition that allows students to showcase their learning through a variety of medium.

To meet NHD requirements, students must address a theme selected annually by NHD.

They then must put a presentation together. Students may also choose to work collaboratively in groups or individually. The presentation can be a documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, or website. A process paper, which explains how the student put the presentation together and how the topic relates to the theme, must accompany each presentation.

Last year’s topic was Leadership and Legacy. The projects evolved from the books students were reading in their ELA book clubs. The topics from the students who showed me their projects ranged from Catherine Rosamund Fitzgibbon, Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Lightoller, Nelson Mandela, Oskar Schindler, and Emmett Till. The projects were a mix of exhibits and websites.

My sister explained what she hoped the students got out of the experience:

I hoped they would develop the skills needed to comprehend informational text as well as skills required for argument writing. In addition, I hoped they achieved these skillsets through an authentic mechanism. Researching a topic in history and having it be displayed as an exhibit or website form hopefully made it more meaningful. The projects gave students a more authentic context for which to display their learning and show their engagement.

From my conversations with the students, they agreed. The group who presented Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. said they learned that “being nice and peaceful and not violent is definitely the way to live your life. If you ever become a leader, that’s how you can lead.”

National History Day

Part of the Malcom X/Martin Luther King Exhibit representing picket lines and the Civil Rights Movement.

Students also learned that not everyone starts out as a natural leader. For example, the students who presented Oskar Schindler explained that Schindler “was not a good leader at first until he switched against the Nazi’s.” Taking their learning a step further, the students compared Schindler to one of their IB learner profiles, “He was a risk taker,” they said. “He took the risk of helping so many Jews be safe and not be harmed.”

National History Day

Part of the Oskar Schindler Exhibit representing the Jews that Schindler saved.

Students also took the opportunity to use the exhibits to create symbolism for their projects. For example, the student who created the Nelson Mandela exhibit explained that he chose the fake wallpaper to represent a jail cell. He also used chains around the display because they did not use handcuffs.

National History Day

Part of the Nelson Mandela representing symbolizing a jail cell and chains used on prisoners.

Some students also took the opportunity to discuss historical figures that may not be as well known. For example, Catherine Rosamund Fitzgibbon, who helped establish the New York Foundling Hospital, was highlighted by a student because “she was a girl who wasn’t recognized as much as other people. I wanted to do something I could to let other people know about her.”

National History Day

Part of the Catherine Rosamund Fitzgibbon exhibit representing the New York Foundling Hospital.

After the students’ exhibits were judged locally, some students were selected to go to the state competition. From the students I visited with, two were selected to go to the state competition. One student had an exhibit on Emmett Till and a pair of students submitted a website on Charles Lightoller, a survivor of the Titanic, who saved over 300 lives the night the Titanic sunk.

National History Day

Part of the Emmett Till exhibit representing the fight to end segregation.

These finalists spoke about the preparation that went into the presentation. The student who created the Emmett Till project said that you need to “put all of your effort into it and eventually you’ll come up with a really great product. Have fun with it.”

For the students who created the Lightoller website, this was the first time they had created a website. When asked what advice they would give to other students, the group said,

We would tell them at first it seems like a big project you wouldn’t want to do. It doesn’t appeal to you. But really think hard about someone who left a huge legacy or whatever your topic is. Think about that and all the people you read about. Dig deep into the information and try your best. Try to find the best information, get credible information and do your best.

Another lesson that came across from all the students was to not procrastinate.

Everyone agreed that planning ahead and not waiting until the last minute would result in a much better product than one thrown together at the last minute.

Through my conversations with these young students, I was also reminded of some valuable lessons. Students want to be engaged and challenged. These incredible projects emerged from books they were reading in their classes. The extra push came from asking them to find a subject that interested them and then dig deeper and create something meaningful to them. It does not need to be a competition to allow students this extra creativity. It is an interesting question for those who work regularly with students—how can I ignite their passion and creativity and fuel it into something meaningful?

This is just one example that I came across. I’d like to thank my sister and her students for allowing me the opportunity to visit and to share what they learned with all of you. I hope you found it as interesting as I did.

For breakfast I had key lime whipped yogurt, fresh strawberries, and orange juice.

Author Profile: @taradonahue

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