I have had the pleasure of serving as a judge for various levels of National History Day contests for more than ten years. I enjoy being an audience to the students’ projects after months of their in-depth research, writing and revising, and meticulous selection of evidence and design elements. Not a contest goes by that I don’t learn something new because of a project I evaluated. I want those students to reap the same benefits from their evaluation forms, which is why I’m super excited about the new NHD evaluation forms. The new rubric format provides targeted feedback for each of the criteria in addition to the comments on strengths and areas for improvement.
One of the criteria NHD included this year is STUDENT VOICE. But what exactly is student voice? Watch this video NHD Quick Tip: What is Student Voice? to learn more. The micro-progression within the evaluation form details what the judges will be looking for when evaluating projects.
The notion of student voice will drive students to really tailor their projects to state and prove and argument rather than present a “the History of…” project. We want students to make a fact-based argument and then explain in their own words how the evidence they’ve selected proves this thesis. Too many times students will get stuck in the desire to tell everything they learned about their topic, leaving little room in their project’s time limit or word count to present the historical impact. These projects end up as a biographical presentation, largely or entirely supported with extended quotes from secondary sources, and lacking any analysis or synthesis.
So how do students ensure their projects reflect THEIR voice? The first step is getting to know their topic and asking detailed questions (Who/What/When/Where/Why/How). This initial step will involve reputable secondary sources and some relevant primary sources. This preliminary research may or may not end up in the final project visibly but will certainly shape the overall understanding of the topic. The deeper, targeted research will further their knowledge and understanding of the topic and its place in history. The judges will review the annotated bibliography for itemized descriptions of source usage and synthesis.
The next step is creating a thesis statement that can be argued; it is not a statement of fact. For the judging team, this part is critical. The thesis statement is what the student is defending, and the entire project centers around this statement. To be confident in their argument, students need to have a strong understanding of how each document and quote they select for their project supports their position. Judges want to experience the students’ thoughts and words through careful analysis of their evidence.
Student voice is also evident in the thoughtful selection of supporting materials. One brief, insightful quote can be more powerful than a few repetitive ones. The important thing is how students connect the dots between the pieces of evidence through their analysis and explanation. The rubric uses words such as original, persuasive, and distinct to describe a student’s ideas, analysis, argument, and conclusions.
Judges detect student voice in the explanation of historical impact. Often, students will get caught up in relying solely on quotes from historians as evidence. The students have spent the time researching and analyzing their topic and should be able to articulate the significance of the topic in history. And even more important is that they incorporate their analysis into the project. Many times, over the years, I’ve had students explain the significance or other critical details during the interview. While I was happy to know they had come to these conclusions, the fact that the information was left out of the actual project meant I couldn’t evaluate that information. With this year being entirely virtual and the interviews not taking place, students must be certain that they get it all into their project.
While the concept of student voice in an NHD project is not new, the accountability for presenting it will be encouraging for all participants as they work to develop and hone their critical thinking and writing skills for the future.
For more information about building a better argument, check out the materials on the Teacher Resources page here on the CHD website.
Cyndee McManaman is an educator who taught for several years at Vernon Middle School, where she still coaches NHD students. Cyndee serves as the Mansfield/ Storrs Regional Coordinator and works as part of the State History Day Office.