Editor’s Note: This entry was co-authored by George Rislov and Nora O’Leary-Roseberry.
click image to learn more about National History Day
We were at the Bob Bullock Museum in Austin on May 4, 2012, to judge the Texas History Day contest. This year, over 1,100 students submitted more than 600 entries. Each time we participate in this competition, we become excited and impressed by the many examples of students passionately engaging in the study of history. We want to share some of those experiences with you and develop a rationale for State History Day as a part of a rigorous 21st-century educational experience.
Every year, more than half a million students, encouraged by thousands of teachers across the nation, participate in local, state, and national history contests. The contests, affiliated with National History Day, are highly sophisticated examples of project-based learning (PBL) and exemplify one of the strangest anomalies in education: Students profess to hate studying history, but they love “doing” history.
We will be exploring PBL in an upcoming webinar as it is a hot topic relating to the new Common Core assessments, but wanted to explore the use of National History Day in this blog entry as a “teachable moment” after our recent judging experience. Combined with a strong theoretical model, such as the work of Dr. Joe Renzulli and Dr. Sally Reis, History Day is the complete PBL package.
Consider this: Drs. Reis and Renzulli favor an approach which includes a strengths-based assessment (Renzulli Profiler) to identify a student’s top interests, learning styles, and expression styles. If the assessment is done at the beginning of the school year, the results can guide a yearlong State History Day project. National History Day begins with a broad theme (this year’s was Revolution, Reaction, Reform in History). Within that broad theme, students may select more specific topics that interest them. They can also select a particular medium of expression from contest categories that includes historical papers, original live performances, documentaries, and exhibits. Their preferred learning and expression styles, along with the possibilities inherent in the topic, drive topic and category selection. When selecting the topic, they must then also consider the following questions: 1) What type of historical evidence will likely be available for research in this topic? and 2) What is the most effective way to present this topic? Visual learners might gravitate toward topics that entail research and presentation possibilities, such as video, film, or photographic evidence. Tactile learners may wish to present a topic that involves examination of physical artifacts.
It was truly amazing this year to see the breadth of student interest as the students hone in on topics of study as diverse as Huey Long, Coco Chanel, and Ralph Nader. This annual competition shows students at their most engaged, having authentic learning experiences. One of our consistently favorite components of Texas History Day is the interview the judges have with contestants. We were told in our orientation that it’s the students’ “day to be the expert.” Students come in their best, most professional dress. And when handing their statements of purpose and annotated bibliographies to the judging panel, most student presenters reach out to shake hands with each of the judges as they introduce themselves. Students often seek out and interview experts in the field to support their interpretations or historic studies. One student noted that an electrical engineer he interviewed offered to serve as a mentor and help him pursue a career in engineering. Another group mentioned that just prior to their presentation, they had received Ralph Nader’s phone number, as he had heard of their work and wanted to reach out to them in person!
This type of student work requires the patient coaching of a skilled teacher. It is some of the most rewarding teaching in which one can engage. Most of the teachers we encountered this year at Texas History Day have been at it for some time and make participation the centerpiece of their classrooms. And from what we have witnessed, the teachers show up at the competition just as excited and exhilarated as their students!
Find the results of this year’s Texas History Day competition here. Note the breadth of topics selected.
What are other examples of authentic teaching and learning? Let us hear from you!
George Rislov is senior marketing manager at Compass Learning, and was formerly the chief architect for the social studies department. George taught middle school, high school, community college, and university courses in the Dallas area before he came to Austin to work for the Texas Education Agency, where he served as managing director of the division of curriculum. George has served as president of the Texas Council for the Social Studies, and in 2000 was selected to be one of four Southwest Region trainers for the new AP World History course by the College Board. He has been at Compass Learning since July of 2007. He is owned by two totally spoiled Boston Terriers, Zac and Django.