I served as a judge recently in our school district's junior high National History Day competition, and while the projects we evaluated were all very good, I was most impressed by the work of students who were able to connect their learning to personal experiences. National History Day is a curricular program that involves students in inquiry, critical analysis, interpretation, and creativity - all elements of academic work that are important for student learning. Students operate within a theme to produce dramatic performances, exhibits, multimedia documentaries, websites, and research papers. For as long as I have been serving as a history fair judge, common among the best projects is the presence of personal relevance for students, whether it was through their own experience, that of a friend or family member, or something that had local meaning and, therefore, impacted the community. It was a local focus that helped earn high school student Diego Regalado a trip to the national competition last year, the second Navasota project to make it that far in recent years. Regalado's project focused on 1953 Navasota High School graduate Don "Archie" Barrett, whose work was instrumental in passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 which made sweeping changes to the structure of the United States Military.
This year’s theme is Rights and Responsibilities in History. Students can choose a topic that allows them to explore their own interests, whether it’s science, politics, the arts, education - you name it. Inspiration can come from most any place: local history, books, or perhaps recent headlines, TV shows or even the latest Twitter feed. Students work through an experience that pulls together historical content, their own interests, and creativity in a meaningful and coherent way. They have choice and voice. This increases engagement which increases their learning. The students for whom it was personal found meaning in the work they were doing. They were invested in their projects. They were engaged. How do I know? They told me. They showed me. They were able to articulate and demonstrate what they learned right there on the spot.
There is much to be learned from the National History Day framework when thinking about how to design learning experiences throughout the year that engage students and facilitate deeper content learning. Learning platforms that incorporate inquiry-based, process-focused strategies, like the ones that comprise the NHD framework, have been shown to be effective in building deep content understanding, raising academic achievement, and encouraging student motivation to learn. Not only did Regalado learn a tremendous amount about Mr. Barrett, the United States government, and politics, he developed some life skills through a local, regional, state, and national process that required him to research, create, refine, and communicate a complex topic at a very high level. This year, Regalado shared his experience with other students by serving as a judge in the junior high school fair, helping new historians who are just getting started. Now that's learning, leading, and succeeding.