It’s that time of year again—North Country History Day is fast approaching. Over fifty students from seven different schools in five northern New York counties will come to Fort Ticonderoga later this month to compete for the opportunity to represent the North Country at New York State History Day in Cooperstown at the end of April.
For those new to the History Day concept, think “Science Fair,” except with a focus on history. History Day is a year-long national program that teaches students the components of practicing good historical techniques. With an emphasis on primary sources, History Day requires students to research a topic related to an annual theme. Students present their findings in a final project that demonstrates not just good research, but the students’ ability to interpret their findings and draw conclusions—skills essential not just in history, but in life.
This year’s theme is “Turning Points in History: People, Ideas, Events.” I’m sure that for many of you the Battle of Saratoga jumps out as a likely topic that fits in with the theme. Or maybe Gettysburg if the Civil War is more your thing. While there are projects on both Saratoga and Gettysburg at this year’s North Country History Day competition, students have come up with dozens of other topics related to “Turning Points in History”:
• “Valley Forge: From Farms to Arms”
• “History Repeats Itself”
• “Walt Disney”
• “Cold War Comes to the North Country”
• “Ronald Reagan and the Rise of Conservativism in America”
• “On the Road to Freedom”
• “Racial Segregation”
• “Carnegie and Frick”
• “Yes We Can: Women’s Work World War II”
• “The New Deal”
• “Irish Potato Famine”
• “Martin Luther King, Jr.”
• “Nellie Bly: A Madhouse Exposé”
• “The Growth of a Nation on the Back of a Horse”
• “Smallpox: The First Vaccine”
• “D-Day Deception”
• “The Discovery of Penicillin”
• “You Say You Want a Revolution”
• “The Automobile”
• “The Red Cross: Clara Barton”
• “Roe v. Wade: How it Changed America”
• “How Airplanes Changed Warfare”
• “The Fall of the Roman Empire”
• “The Birth of the Electric Age”
Students compete at two levels: Junior Division (grades 6-8) and Senior Division (grades 9-12). They can enter Individuals projects or be part of a Group project. Students can choose to enter a Historical Paper, an Exhibit, a Documentary, a Website, or a Performance. The choice of entries enables a student to match their historical interest with a method of presentation best suited for their skills and abilities.
New York State is divided into fourteen regions stretching from eastern Long Island to western New York and from New York City to the Canadian border. Competitions often begin at the school district level and advance to the regional competitions. The top entries in each category earn the right to advance to the state contest, where winners advance to the national competition, held in College Park, Maryland, each year.
History Day provides students with an opportunity to explore a topic of interest in-depth, learning historical techniques of research and analysis. Each project must have a thesis that is supported by the content of the project. Helping students learn the techniques of a good historian helps make them not just better history students, but better students in general. A 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal by Norm Augustine noted that while Americans continue to believe students are falling behind in math and science, it’s actually history that’s most neglected in our schools today. “Why is history important?” asks the article. Because history is:
Not primarily the memorized facts that have current and former CEOs concerned. It’s the other things that subjects like history impact: critical thinking, research skills, and the ability to communicate clearly and cogently. Such skills are certainly important for those at the top, but in today’s economy they are fundamental to performance at nearly every level. A failing grade in history suggests that students are not only failing to comprehend our nation’s story and that of our world, but also failing to develop skills that are crucial to employment across sectors.
Augustine goes on to praise the National History Day program. “Students who participate in National History Day—actually a year-long program that gets students in grades 6-12 doing historical research—consistently outperform their peers on state standardized tests, not only in social studies but in science and math as well.”
Having just returned from the New York State Council for the Social Studies Conference, held in Westchester County last week, I’m well-aware of the buzz in the social studies community about the adoption of the Common Core. The study of history is an essential part of making today’s students successful tomorrow. Programs like National History Day help students along that path to becoming critical thinkers that our nation needs tomorrow!
Director of Education