By Beth Marsh and Dana Schaffer
Across the country middle school and high school students are learning about the historical process through their participation in National History Day. The theme for their projects this year is “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange in History.” Started in 1974, National History Day is a year-long academic program that introduces students to the study of history by having them conduct original research and create projects that range from papers and exhibits to performances, documentaries, and websites. Students then enter their projects in local and state/affiliate History Day competitions. Top-ranking students from the state/affiliate competitions are then selected to participate in the national contest in College Park, Maryland, each June.
For most, these projects are the students’ first experience researching and creating historical work using both primary and secondary sources. They are introduced to the skills of distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, evaluating sources, and placing those sources in a broader context. As part of this process, many students reach out to people outside their schools who are experts on their chosen topic—often historians such as yourself.
To address some of the questions that students and teachers have about incorporating interviews into their projects, National History Day recently held a Google+ Hangout featuring executive director Cathy Gorn and deputy director Kim Fortney joined by the National World War II Museum’s student programs coordinator Collin Makamson and curator/content specialist Kim Guise. Gorn dispelled the pervasive myth that interviews are required for National History Day projects, reminding participants that interviews might increase the quality of an entry, but only when done well and used effectively. She encouraged teachers to help their students determine whether an interview is needed for the project, and if so, who is appropriate to interview—a historian, or expert on the topic, or someone who was present at the time of the topic. She stressed that historians do not interview other historians and that students should instead consider effective primary source oral histories. Makamson and Guise highlighted the importance of building knowledge of the topic’s context before approaching an interviewee. Fortney offered some helpful tips and resources for students, including an etiquette checklist for requesting and conducting interviews.
Students participating in National History Day may seek you out after they have refined their topic and begun their research, approaching you with specific questions that relate to their research. Others may come to you with very broad questions, in some cases not having done any secondary research before reaching out. While neither the AHA, nor the OAH, nor NHD advocate that you take on these broad questions, we do recommend that you take a few moments and help them instead frame questions they should be asking in their research—guiding them through the historical research process. National History Day is about gaining content knowledge, teaching critical thinking, conducting research, and improving writing skills, but it is also about building the self-esteem and confidence of participants as well as their love of and engagement with history.
If you would like to get more involved with your local National History Day program there are many ways to participate. Affiliates frequently need judges at both the local and state competitions. The time commitment is not great, but the students at these competitions are often very excited that history professionals from their area have come out to hear about and offer feedback on their projects. These interactions, albeit brief, give them a very real sense of validation for what is often their first attempt at “doing history.” You can find your nearest affiliate here.
Beth Marsh is the director of membership and program development at the Organization of American Historians. Dana Schaffer is the associate director at the American Historical Association. Both have volunteered with National History Day for several years and are currently serving on the National History Day Advisory Council.