The answer to that may not be so simple. After working as Instructional Facilitator for grades 4-8 in social studies, I struggled with my teachers to follow the lesson I learned after attending Nationals in 2018 – that a National History Day project is truly just a five paragraph persuasive essay.
While teaching eighth grade social studies last spring, I found the students had a very difficult time grasping the Civil War and staying engaged with the lessons. How could they not be interested? To get them interested, I decided to bring in NHD. However, the students were not as excited about this idea has I had hoped they would be. I took some time to find out how such successful participants that had done NHD for the past three years really dreaded doing it again, and the answer was surprising.
First, the students lacked the knowledge of context and current events. My philosophy is we learn about the past to understand our present to make informed decisions about our future. We started watching CNN Student 10 news at the start of every class to provide them with information about what is going on in the world. We had intelligent debates about what was happening in their own world to hook them into wanting them to learn about the past.
Next, I tackled how to help them develop research skills. I found they did not know how to read non-fiction text in order to analyze it. I taught close reading strategies for main ideas. I taught lessons on citing text. The key was that all these lessons applied to their own topic. They were motivated to learn. Inquiry-based learning is an awesome tool for any teacher.
Once they understood how to read a text to analyze, we tackled notes. While notes may work for some, I learned a valuable lesson: LET THEM READ! No notes. After they completed the chapter or Internet article, have students write what they learned in their own words in at least five sentences and I have students find a quoted to back up what they learned. Finally, they draw conclusions, make connections, and tie back to the essential question in no less than five sentences. We repeated this process for two more sources. After a few sources, I asked them to copy and paste the above steps in order and they realized the structure of the body paragraphs were complete in less than thirty seconds. They were blown away. They were also able to analyze if their arguments were important and distinct and different. Many opted to rewrite at least one of the paragraphs. I then taught how to write a thesis and a conclusion. The miracle was this whole process was less than three weeks! They enjoyed it. They thanked me. It was incredible.
So, my new mission is to make every month for every grade an Inquiry-Based Learning product connected to each teacher’s curriculum. These are at first simply a five-paragraph argument. As we move toward fall, we will introduce the five different ways they can express their argument, teaching image analysis, interviews, etc. For each unit, we are scaffolding. For younger students, the teacher is finding the materials. All teachers agreed to set aside time every day to connect to the present and they saw an immediate change in attitude with their students. Now the students look forward to social studies and they can’t wait for NHD.
Tina Bernard is the Grades 4-8 Social Studies Instructional Facilitator with Nathan Hale-Ray Middle School in East Haddam and works with Connecticut History Day students throughout the school.