When I had the opportunity to teach a high school capstone course that centered around the Connecticut History Day project, I knew that I needed to provide students with opportunities to extend their learning beyond the classroom walls. More specifically, I wanted to motivate students to continue learning about their project topics after the bell rang to end class each day. Rather than hand out a list of research requirements on the first day of class (there is no fun there!), I tried a different approach by creating a set of voluntary “challenge projects” that students could complete throughout the semester. Assignments included tasks such as visiting museums or historical societies, reading outside texts, interviewing individuals, or even developing student-proposed projects. Since these assignments were voluntary, I did not grade them. In fact, if students did not complete them, their averages were not penalized in any way. If students did choose to complete at least two of them (and fulfilled the assignment criteria), they were eligible to receive honors credit for the course. By the end of the semester, over half of the class had turned in at least two projects, and all of students were able to integrate their work into their actual History Day projects. The “laid back” format worked so well that I ended up using it in an elective course that I taught the following semester.
At the beginning of the semester, my class visited Rebecca Taber-Conover at the Old State House to learn more about the History Day project as well as the history of the building itself. While we were there, Rebecca shared examples of projects from past years, many of which included the types of authentic research that I was asking my own students to undertake in their challenge projects. Consequently, students started off the course with some clear models of how their research might “come together” at the end of the course. Furthermore, they were able to see firsthand how much they were able to learn about U.S. history just from an hour-long visit to a historic site. A class-wide “site-based experience” was a great way to kick-off the course and get students excited about beginning their own research.
If you are just starting out doing the History Day project with your classes, I definitely recommend that you build your own form of “challenge projects” into your class. Many topics in history have connections to Connecticut, so your students might be surprised at the resources that are available so close to home. Most importantly, students will realize that history is so much more than a list of names and dates that they read online; it is their interpretation of that information based on who they are, where they live, the people they meet, and stories they uncover.