Several years ago, when I was teaching a Modern World History lesson about Louis XIV, one of my students realized that she had actually visited his palace as a child. She eagerly shared with her peers her memories of its size and the endless gardens on the property. Up until that point, students sat quietly listening to my presentation and taking notes. Yet, once a fellow classmate made a personal connection, the excitement was so contagious that everyone wanted to learn more about her trip. My student’s realization was every teacher’s dream; she was able to use a personal experience to develop a deeper understanding of the course content. Turning that dream into a reality in the classroom is no easy task, though! Since many of our students will not visit the faraway places that they study in their history classes, we need to find creative approaches to build authentic experiences into the curriculum.
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.
I was most surprised with students’ resourcefulness as they engaged in their work, particularly when it came to interviewing individuals. Overwhelmingly, students realized that the real “experts” were the people who lived through the events they were studying. Students were able to connect a woman who was a teenager in East Berlin in the 1980s, a police officer who worked at Ground Zero after the September 11th attacks, and a survivor of the Stonewall Riots. One student summed up his interview perfectly: “It was a different experience compared to when I read about how citizens felt by reading database articles or websites.…I was able to get a better idea of what she was dealing with and thinking because I was talking to an actual person who lived through it.” I often reserved a few minutes of class time each day for students to share exciting news related to their research. Without a doubt, when students heard success stories like that one, they became more motivated to step outside their own comfort zones and initiate their own interviews.
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.
Joseph Marangell is the social studies coordinator for East Haven Public Schools.