Making and National History Day


by Heather Pang -

In some ways, National History Day (NHD) is rather “old school,” a science fair style research competition for history. I started requiring my students to participate in NHD because I saw the potential for deep research and thought, a good match with our department history “habits of mind” and a great opportunity for students to pick topics that they cared about. I also like that the competition provided an opportunity to create the technology-heavy documentaries and websites which was a good fit with our existing curriculum.  As I have worked with students over the past seven years, I have come to appreciate other aspects of the project, and this year I have been thinking more and more about the connections between values, skills, and processes learned in making and the historical habits of mind and creativity that I have long valued in the process of historical research and in NHD specifically.

NHD is a strictly constrained research project that allows for tremendous student voice and choice. One of the things I love about the project is this combination. There is a thick rule book (link here) and students are expected to follow these rules exactly. Yes, you do have to do an annotated bibliography, and yes, it does matter that your documentary fits in the ten minute limit, your exhibit does not exceed the 40 inches wide requirement, and that your website does not exceed the limit for total media time.  Picky and restraining, right?  Maybe, but these constraints do three things that I love. The first is the creation of a common set of rules for everyone. Students agree that it is fair, everyone has the same world limit, the same time limit, the same space limit, and the same prompt.  The second is that since I did not write the rules, the students and I form a team working to comply with the rules together. I am a helpful coach, not a rules official.  And third, the rules are structured to create space for significant historical research with guidance and structure, but with wide range of choice of subject, resources, and the communication of the results of that research.

Students must make an argument from their research, relating their topic to the theme, and backing up that argument with references to significant primary and secondary sources.

Over the past years I have supported students through the process of picking a topic, doing research, and creating a project, and I am happy to report that 8th graders are more than capable of doing fantastic research, making strong arguments, and expressing their creativity through their projects. I give the students the theme, and then they make choices from there: do I want to work with a team or alone? What type of topic interests me? What format (documentary, website, exhibit, paper, performance) will best show the results of my research? What do I need to learn for this project to work? Who are the experts who will help me with the research or the creation of the project. This year, with the theme “leadership and legacy in history” I had students creating projects on a wide range of topics, including Coco Chanel, D. W. Griffith, Harvey Milk, Rachael Carson, Margaret Sanger, Al Capone, Clara Barton, J.R. Oppenheimer, Jonas Salk, and many more. In previous years, along with traditional topics such at the Boston Tea Party, I have had students work on the invention of skateboarding, the phonograph, and the bicycle.

And the connection to making in the classroom has been more clear every year. The exhibit boards are directly related to the work we have done in our fablab. Students use lights, cutouts, and other augmentations to create more interactive and more interesting displays. I don’t have a great photo, but we had a 9th grader make a laser cut (sliced with 123D Make) Taj Mahal.  The group working on D.W. Griffith cut their marque title letters on the laser cutter, and made a box to hold their iPad behind the board so the movie clip integrated seamlessly into the display.

The other projects were digital, but they still promoted maker type skills. Since the project is of their own design, and the topic is of their choosing, I spending a great deal of time asking “what would you like to find, make, or do” so that your project will work the way you want. One student got help from another expert on her website, to link parts of a photo of Al Capone’s gang to pop up explanations. Another student worked with the drama teacher to find ways to change her delivery to be several different characters in her one-woman Rachael Carson performance. Each student learned what she needed to create her project.

Many of the students chose to compete with their projects, first at the Santa Clara County Competition, and then, if they win there, at the state level. They explain their work to a panel of judges, talk about their research, their process, and what they have learned from their work. They are not, at that point, history students, they are historians. 




Christa Flores's picture

Dear Heather, Thank you for this thoughtful post. I want to learn more about the role of public showcasing of work for students at the highschool level. It seems like a very good fit for maker ed for sure.