When you think of History Day, what comes to mind? Intricate exhibits, engaging performances, compelling documentaries… while the products are what we see publicly in History Day, they represent the tip of the proverbial iceberg. These products, to be effective, must be built on a strong backbone of research.
Research has the reputation of being dull and tedious, the less glamorous precursor to project creation. But just as you cannot build a house without a foundation, you cannot create a project without the context, content knowledge, and perspectives that come from research.
So how can teachers make research both engaging and successful for students? Here are a few tips from my own experience:
Scaffold, Scaffold, Scaffold
Especially if you’re working with beginners (my school’s program starts in Grade 6), the practices of note-taking and annotating a bibliography might be entirely new. I create an electronic note guide for all groups to customize, including spaces for source citations, annotations, and paraphrased notes. This takes away the "how" in the research process so students can focus on the "what".
Teach Time Management and Chunking
Our History Day program lasts from late November until the March contests. I create assignments and deadlines every two weeks to help students manage and pace the workload involved in History Day. This also allows me to provide feedback and revision ideas throughout the process.
Bring Research to Life
This could be as simple as a visit to your school or town library to find print sources. I’ve also found tremendous value in visiting a nearby university with students- we conduct research at the archives and in the library. The students always report feeling so grown-up and accomplished after these outing. You’re never far from a college or university in Connecticut, so take advantage of these troves of academia.
Encourage “Round” Research
I find many students have the tendency to learn eight gazillion details about their topics without proper context. The best projects involve what I call “round” research that is far from tunnel-visioned. If you’re researching an author, what similar authors preceded her? How was she similar to or different from other authors of her time? What was the impact of her work? Who praised and criticized her? It’s important for educators to guide students in researching context and multiple perspectives as sometimes students can see learning context as a pesky detour on the road to amassing knowledge on a single topic.
Research can be difficult and frustrating. “It’s like fishing,” sixth-grader Catherine says. Not all sources are useful. Sometimes, like a fisherman, you find a source and come up empty-handed in terms of relevant information. Research takes time and patience, and the reward of the medals and interviews seems far away. The more you can teach students to acknowledge and persevere through the research stages the better they’ll be. I use this as an opportunity to discuss short versus long term rewards, and this distinction and awareness can be applied well beyond History Day.
Thorough research provides the roots to ground a flowering project in rich soil. My final tip is to model enthusiasm and excitement yourself. If you act like an explorer on a hunt, your students will follow suit.
Jenn McMunn is a Connecticut History Day teacher and former coordinator for the Mansfield Regional Contest.