Lately, as most of you know, I’ve been examining the Common Core crosswinds—the obstacles that make it challenging to fully implement the new education standards. But today, I want to focus on some encouraging developments. Last week I observed a regional History Day competition in New Jersey and what I saw was thrilling. And I’m hardly the first person to say that. In Minnesota, nearly 30,000 students in grades 6 through 12 are passionately working on projects to bring to their state’s History Day in early May. The winners will go on to compete in a National History Day (NHD) contest in Washington, DC, June 9–13. While you’re probably aware of this, let me review what National History Day is, and how it relates to the Common Core standards.
In effect NHD has turned history into a science fair. That is, instead of marching through whatever subjects are mandated by the local curriculum and dutifully matched to an approved textbook, students can decide which area of history they’d like to explore. There are some limits: every year NHD selects a theme, so kids who take part in the regional, state, or national competitions are given a general framework, but they still have a lot of latitude. For example, this year’s theme: “turning points in history,” can be examined from a U.S. or global perspective, or in terms of its impact on technology or law, singular events or lengthy campaigns, matters of high morality or pop culture, etc. Whether students choose to work on their own or in groups, they’re required to use both primary and secondary sources and to document their research. They can choose to write a paper, create a display, build a website, or perform on stage.
All of the above may be done well or poorly—so simply having a contest doesn’t, in itself, enhance Common Core thinking. But what I saw shows that there’s a very nice connection between the two. I viewed displays that ranged from civil rights and labor strikes to video games. In every case it was clear that the process of creating the presentation was the reward—students were doing real history, real research. They were investigating, gathering evidence, comparing interpretations, and arriving at conclusions. Every one of them was surprised by how much they learned in the process. Sure, that’s a handy phrase to tell a judge, but the animation with which they presented their projects, and the examples they gave could not be faked. These were young people of every age and background, some immigrants struggling to speak English, some accomplished presenters speaking rehearsed lines, who had discovered what history offers: the pleasures of researching, thinking, learning, and arriving at your own conclusions that you craft for an audience.
Congratulations, NHD! You’re helping the Common Core without ever stepping into a classroom. If any of you readers work in a school that doesn’t compete in NHD, I encourage you to read up on it and to share the information with your students and fellow teachers. You’ll be doing them a big favor.