History Day began in Cleveland, Ohio in 1974 and has spread to almost every state in the country. Each year it now reaches hundreds of thousands of kids from 6th graders to seniors in high school.
History Day is best described as a “science fair” for history. Students participate as the junior or senior levels as individuals or in groups in one of five categories: exhibits, documentaries, performances, websites or papers (papers are for individuals only). Projects compete at the regional, state and national levels. Some schools hold local competitions before sending students to the regional competition, but they are not required to do so.
Each year National History Day issues a theme for the year’s competition. The 2011 theme is “Debate and Diplomacy in History.” Volunteers across America serve as judges, providing students with detailed feedback for improving their projects. Judges interview the students briefly, review their projects, and fill out an evaluation sheet for each entry. Even students that are not chosen to compete at the next level receive a judging sheet with suggestions for making their projects stronger.
Teachers are the backbone of the program, although students can participate on their own, as long as a teacher “sponsors” the student for their entry paperwork. Project-based learning is an important component of many state education standards. The National History Day program helps students learn in a way that doesn’t “teach for the test.”
Students are eligible for some prestigious prizes at the national level, including scholarships and cash awards. State and regional competitions also often include prizes sponsored by special groups, corporations or organizations.
Christopher Kenney, the Director of Education at the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton, Ohio, has been the Ohio History Day Coordinator for Region 5 since 2002. “There’s a history to everything,” says Kenney, “and the themes are broad enough that students can incorporate their hobbies or interests into a History Day project. While working on their projects, students learn multiple skills, like research and teamwork, that they can use in whatever career path they choose as young adults.”
If you are interested in participating in National History Day as a student, teacher, or judge, contact your state History Day office.
The author has volunteered her time at the regional and state level as a judge in New York and Ohio since 1998.