Over the past four years, I have created, developed, and spread an annual History Day in my school, as part of the National History Day competition. All sophomores and juniors at my school spend five weeks conducting in-depth historical research, which they then present to both our school and general community each February.
My school’s History Day is the accomplishment of which I take the most pride in my teaching career. It is the only event in the year which is attended by the entire school and the only event at my school where parents and community members are invited to view the products of students’ learning. My former principal always told me that History Day was his favorite day of the school year.
Most significantly, it yields the greatest buy-in, interest, and growth in my students of anything I do. Students look forward to having the opportunity to learn about a topic in which they have interest and show off to the community. It has become a rite of passage. Over the past four years, I have had students complete research on a range of topics from the Missouri Compromise to the Spanish Civil War to Septima Clark, often yielding insights and understandings of which I was not even aware. It is the only time in our curriculum where students have the opportunity to complete in-depth, college-level research.
For the students who go on to the city and even state levels of the competition,they have the opportunity to compete with and learn from the best students my city has to offer. It has been a transformative experience for my public school students, nearly all of whom are black or Latino, to see that their work is just as good as the almost entirely white and private school students who enter our city’s competition. And I am very proud that two of the past four years my students have won awards at the city level. But I am even more proud that four of my students have used their History Day papers as the writing samples that helped earn them full-tuition Posse Scholarships to elite private colleges. It meant the world to me, and their future to them, that they all felt that the best piece of writing they did in four years of high school was their work on the History Day project.
The rewards for doing History Day are so great, that I think any teachers who are on the fence should take the plunge and do it this year. When I first heard about the competition, I was in my first year teaching in the Bronx. This was not my first year teaching, but it sure felt like it. All the previous success I had as a student-teacher in Rhode Island and a real teacher in Northern Virginia seemed to have gone out the window. I went to my then principal and asked him if perhaps the following year I could do a school-wide History Day. He told me to make it happen that year. I told him that to do that well I’d have to drop everything I had planned for my course and start immediately. He told me that he thought it was what my classes needed. He was right.
Over the following weeks, my students (and myself) worked harder than they had before. The Saturday before our school fair, nearly half my students came in to work on their projects. The night before, I had to kick a dozen students out of my classroom at 8pm. Over 90% of my students presented successful History Day projects at our first fair. Before that, I never had more than 50% of my students complete a project on time. The momentum from History Day carried through the rest of the year. I’m not sure I did anything different from that point on, but the success students felt from successfully taking on the huge project of History Day fundamentally changed their view of their selves as students and our relationship.