It was the fall of 2000. I had just been hired as the Enrichment Teacher at Mansfield Middle School. I had never heard of “History Day,” as my colleagues called it, but it had a long history at the school. Dan, the person who had brought it to the school and who had managed it for more than a decade made it clear that he wanted to turn it over to me. When one is new at a school, and working in a position that is not mandated by state law, it’s a very good idea to say yes to lots of things, so I said yes.
I have never been a fan of contests. In my experience most of them are little more than variations on “Jeopardy”- kids prepping by studying to answer lots of fact-based questions. Those that go beyond that are frequently much too bound by restrictive rules and “guidelines.” I was less than enthusiastic.
Dan told me a little about NHD and gave me some information from CT History Day to read.
It quickly became obvious that this was not Jeopardy! It was also not overly bound. There was plenty of room for student choice and student creativity.
I was drawn in by the fact that the yearly topic was very open ended, allowing students to choose a project that would be very much interest based, and not necessarily tied in any way to curriculum; a sports minded student or group could do a project related to sports; same with music; same with just about any subject. I was drawn farther in when I read that kids could work alone, or work in groups of up to five people. I was yet farther drawn in when I saw that there were, at that time, nine different ways in which they could present their project, four for groups, five for individuals. And I was completely drawn in when I saw that the focus was on research, which was at the very heart of the project.
It was now clear to me that any student who decided to do a History Day project was committing to a great deal of high-level, research based work. I couldn’t say yes quickly enough!
I told Dan I would be happy to take this on but that I would undoubtedly need to call on him during my first year as there were bound to be lots of things I didn’t have answers to. He made it clear that he was happy to work with me as a partner on this as long as I took on the official role of coordinator and took care of the paperwork, supervised the projects, and did the rest of the day to day things involved in making History Day work. It turned out that whenever I needed him, he was there.
In late November, armed with lots of information that was very new to me, I arranged to meet with grades 6-8, one grade at a time, to introduce History Day to the students and to hopefully recruit some interested kids. I prepared a PowerPoint and made my presentations. Little did I know that the kids were very familiar with this contest, and that there was a lot of interest, and even enthusiastic anticipation within the student body.
When my presentations were finished and I collected the sign up information, I found that we had LOTS of students ready, and more than ready to participate.
I worked with the teachers at the various grade levels and arranged for times during the week when students could be excused from Social Studies class in order to come to the “Interest Center,” (my room) to work on History Day. I also kept my room open during lunch and “X Block,” (It’s complicated. Let’s just say that rather than recess, my school had a 48 minute block at lunch time when students could choose for themselves which room they would go to, to do music, P. E., art, or to work with a particular teacher.) and kept my room open after school on Mondays through Thursdays so that participants could come in to work on their projects.
Kids showed up. Not every student and group completed their History Day project that first year, but there were surprisingly few that dropped out of the contest, even though the school had set up a way for students to do that fairly painlessly.
We continued to work through December, January, February, and into March. I did regular check ins with every group and individual. My school held an unofficial “Local History Day,” when students presented their work to other students, parents, and anyone else interested. This was held about a week or two before District History Day. It went well and it was well attended.
Off we went to District History Day in Willington. We did very well. 19 of our students, most working in groups, finished in the top three, which meant that they would go on to CT History Day in Hartford.
In early May we went to Hartford. Dan told me that with so many students at the state level it was entirely possible that two or three might go on to the National Contest. Several times in the past he had taken a student or two to the University of Maryland for the national event.
CT History Day was a fun day. Our kids presented well, and Dan or I, sometimes both of us, managed to be in the audience for every presentation by our students. That afternoon the winners were announced. Mansfield Middle School managed to place eleven students either first or second, which meant we would need to figure out a way to get those eleven, with chaperones, to the University of Maryland for the national contest. This involved having them stay in college dorms from arrival on Sunday through the contest award presentation on Thursday.
The CT History Day event was held on a Saturday. When we got back to school on Monday morning Dan and I met with our school Principal to give her the great news/bad news. The great news was that so many of our students had done so well. The bad news was that this was going to cost a good deal of money, much of it coming from the school’s budget, and that one teacher or more would need to be away from school for four days in June.
We talked it all through and came up with a plan. One thing that worked in our favor was the fact that I had a bus driver’s license. In the end we decided that I would drive us to the University of Maryland. So bright and early on the Sunday morning in question we loaded 11 students, two moms, and all of our luggage and NHD gear onto the fourteen passenger school bus. I climbed into the driver’s seat, and off we went!
We arrived in Maryland late in the afternoon, registered, found a place to park the bus, and found our dorm. Much to our dismay we were placed in a dorm that was NOT air conditioned! It was a long four days (and nights). Despite that, we had a wonderful time, presenting our projects, visiting some local attractions (we were about 15 minutes from D. C.), hanging out in the dorm and around the campus… The students made lots of new friends from all over the U.S., in and around the Student Union and at the NHD sponsored dance.
On Thursday at the award ceremony, we found that one of our students had won the prize for best project from Connecticut! We had packed the bus before the ceremony so as soon as it ended, we were on our way home. We arrived home in the evening. I’m not sure about the students but I know I did a lot of extra sleeping over the following few days.
I coordinated History Day at Mansfield Middle School from 2000-2010, when I retired from teaching middle school. During those years I went to the Nationals eight times, sent a mom and her son once. Only once did we send no one to the national contest. Since my retirement I have judged at both Regional and State level every year.
There were years when our school had more than 100 students participating in NHD. There were some truly outstanding projects, many very good ones, and some that were less than wonderful. I have no doubts that every student who participated in History Day came away learning so many things- how to do effective high level research, how to plan time through the course of a long project, how to make decisions in a group situation, how to make critical choices regarding what to include, how much to include, and what to leave out, and so very much more.
I absolutely believe that every student becomes a better student through participating in NHD. The way the contest is set up makes that inevitable. Long live National History Day!
Wayne Trembly is a retired teacher and the former Connecticut History Day Coordinator for Mansfield Middle School.