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National History Day – Challenging Students, Changing Lives

By Gerald D. Swick
4/1/2014 • HistoryNet

History class … glazed eyes … another class of students memorizing a slew of names, dates, and places only to be forgotten as soon as the exam is over. Not if Cathy Gorn has anything to say about it!

When I first met Cathy I was immediately impressed by her passion and vision to engage young people in meaningful history projects through the National History Day competition. Each year National History Day touches the lives of hundreds of thousands of students who participate in the yearlong competition. Students come away with a deep understanding and appreciation that history is about people—real people they can identify with and learn from—not abstract facts to be memorized. Winston Churchill once advised, “The first duty of a school is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities. We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we do not want a world of engineers.” Cathy Gorn and the National History Day organization are doing invaluable work and I am proud to help support their efforts.—Eric Weider, Publisher, World History Group

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To learn more about the National History Day organization, HistoryNet’s senior editor, Gerald D. Swick, interviewed Dr. Cathy Gorn, executive director of National History Day, Inc. (HD), on March 26, 2014.

HistoryNet: First of all, National History Day is much more than a single day. Would you explain a bit about the program?

Dr. Cathy Gorn
Dr. Cathy Gorn
Dr. Cathy Gorn: National History Day is yearlong program for middle and high school students. They choose a topic based on that year’s theme, and they do extensive research. They go to museums and archives, they conduct interviews. And then they create a project, which can take many forms. It may be writing a research paper, it may be creating a video, it may be creating and giving a live performance—it’s not just reading boring books and memorizing names and dates. The students are actually engaging their subject, becoming involved with the topic. They do extensive research and then apply analysis and critical thinking skills. It takes students four or five months to pull all this together, and then they have to ask the big question: “So what?” What does this mean, why it is important in history, and what effects does it have on current events?

Students enter at the regional level and then go on to state and national judging. National History Day is also international now. It is in U.S. territories, and it is growing quickly in Asia and in Department of Defense schools in Europe (for children of American parents stationed in Europe). In some schools it is so popular that they have to have contests within the school to pick who goes on to regional. At present it involves about 600,000 students and 20,000 teachers annually.

HN: Each year National History Day sponsors the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest. Who was Kenneth E. Behring, and what is the nature of the contest?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: Kenneth E. Behring is a philanthropist in California, a very successful and very enlightened businessman who has spent the last 20 years supporting good works. He is very much interested in young people and in helping them develop into thoughtful citizens, to become potential leaders. He very much appreciates the past and understands the need for students to dig into their past to help them understand today and the future.

HN: The contest features a different theme every year. This year’s is “Rights and Responsibilities in History.” Can you give us some examples of topics students might research related to that theme?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: The themes provide a handle to help students focus on some broad issue from which they chose a specific topic they want to explore. Kids are always drawn to topics of social justice. They’re very interested in righting the wrong—they are going to take charge and fix things. So projects focusing on matters of social justice are always popular with them. War is always a popular topic for projects. We encourage students to look at individuals and come to a better understanding of why they did what they did, why they were willing to make the sacrifices they made.

Every year, though—no matter what the topic—we get entries on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (A fire at a New York City factory in 1911 that killed nearly 150 workers trapped inside—Editor). We’ve seen trends over the years, in which a certain topic suddenly becomes popular for five years or so. Those change over time, but the Shirtwaist Fire is always popular. There’s something about people jumping out of windows that makes for a good performance.

But sometimes students look in their own back yards, which is even better. We always encourage them to look first locally. They may be studying a sit-in, for example; we tell them, “Look to see if something happened in your own community or state.”

HN: You mentioned live performances. How are those handled? Where are they given?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: First, the performance must be original. The student can’t just take a play, even one from a hundred years ago, and perform a scene. Student performances are given on-site at competitions in front of a panel of three judges. With every project, whatever form it takes, the student has to answer questions from judges who will ask questions like, “What was your most important source, and why was it your most important?” There will be questions about the topic, about the process the student used to research it, and why the student chose this particular topic. All contestants must submit an annotated bibliography to show they’ve done the research.

HN: The 2014 national judging will be held June 15–19 at the University of Maryland at College Park. It’s too late for students to enter this year, but what should those who want to participate next year do?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: First, they should ask their teachers if they can take part in National History Day. If their school doesn’t participate, students can take part on their own. They can go to the National History Day website,, for information.

We do training for teachers who want to bring this program to their schools. We hold workshops, show step by step how do you do this history project thing, and we give the guidance needed to help teachers work with the project.

Because each year’s theme is so broad, some teachers use the theme to teach subjects throughout the year. For example, with this year’s theme of Rights and Responsibilities, while teaching a section on the Civil War the teacher might have the class examine the rights and responsibilities related to the events surrounding that war, to get students thinking about the theme and all it entails.

HN: As important as a knowledge of history is, this program is really about more than just history, isn’t it?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: Absolutely. It teaches young people the importance of learning about history, of course, to give them context and help them put current events in perspective. But doing historical research does so much more. It helps develop research skills. It calls for them to apply critical thinking and analysis.

The National History Day events also develop presentation skills that help with self-esteem. Time and again we’ve seen students who are very shy when they start out in the program in sixth grade, and as they participate year after year, they develop so much confidence that by their senior year they are often class president.

HN: So a student can participate in more than one year?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: They start in sixth grade, and they may choose to continue participating through twelfth grade because it’s fun. It takes up a lot of time, but it’s fun. They go to archives, and they get to open that gray box, put on the cotton gloves and hold history in their hands. They get to touch original documents and artifacts. They get to interview interesting people. That’s what gives us the carrot to motivate them to do a really great job—we let them see that learning about history is fun!

One of the great things about the National History Day program is that it lets students meet other kids from all over—some from the other side of their state whom they might never have met otherwise, kids from throughout the nation, and now even international students.

I walk through the display areas each year. There is row after row of dynamic exhibits, and everywhere you see kids talking with other kids. From their animated conversations, you’d think they’re talking about basketball, but they’re not. They’re talking about history and some incredible source they found. I’m confident our next generation will be competent to guide us and become great citizens.

HN: You’ve been with the program almost from the start, coming on board in 1982, and you’ve been executive director since 1995. What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed—and perhaps instituted—in the program over the years?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: When I first joined, we were just a contest—a good contest, but just a contest. We set the theme, handed out rules, and so on. It was a good beginning, but we started to realize teachers are the kind of people who grab onto things they think are good and interesting, and they work those things into their curriculum. So we started developing classroom materials for use with the themes.

We teach workshops. We found that was helpful to growth. Around 1990 we began doing summer teacher institutes. We pick a topic and work with them on how to use that topic. These are intensive programs, and participants receive three credit hours toward their continuing education. The teachers have to read six to nine books by historians, and then look at how they can incorporate the information into their classrooms. We give them primary documents to help them in their teaching and work with them on how to get their kids started on National History Day projects.

We’ve even taken teachers and students to Europe and China. We took teams of students and teachers to Normandy to study the D-Day invasion. The students have to pick a person who participated in the invasion, one who didn’t come home, and research that person. We visit the invasion sites and visit the cemeteries, where the students go from grave to grave and read eulogies they’ve written for their soldier. It is a very powerful and moving experience.

In fact, we’re looking to start a new national program called Silent Heroes, to get whole classes involved in finding fallen heroes from their hometown or state and research them. When those guys went to war they weren’t much older than these students. We remember generals and soldiers who did really great, memorable deeds, but we need to learn about these other soldiers who gave their all. We’ll develop a separate website for the Silent Heroes project. This will not be part of the annual contest.

HN: Many students, and unfortunately many adults, ask, “What’s the point of studying history? Why bother to learn about things that happened centuries ago?” How would you respond to that?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: Well, the standard response is that history will repeat itself if we don’t learn from it, but there is much more to it than that. You need to understand history in order to understand the past and your place in it, how the events of the past affect our lives today. We need to make history come alive so students realize it is an active and engaging process, not something that is over and done with. We have to have historical perspective. You can’t look to the future without understanding what came before and how it had an impact on moving the country, a state, a community forward. Citizens who grasp historical perspective will be better voters. They will understand events in ways that make them think critically. And in studying and analyzing history, they will learn so much about research, analysis, creativity. Our job is not to create future historians; our job is to create thinking individuals.

We knew National History Day has had great impact on young people, but we never had the statistics to prove it, so we hired a research firm to make an independent evaluation about how students who participate in National History Day programs performed in relation to their peers who didn’t participate. I expected the results to be good, but I had no idea how good. The findings were remarkable! National History Day kids outperform in huge ways.

Take, for example, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills that is used in that state to measure individual students’ advancement in learning. Students who had participated in National History Day outscored other students 71 to 19 percent —and not just in history. They outperformed non-participants in math and science as well, because they learned to think. The skills they learned will help them in class, on tests, in college, on their jobs, and in whatever they do in future.

HN: Thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to talk with us. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?

Dr. Cathy Gorn: This is not a program simply for honors kids. Some of them participate, of course, but they’re already motivated. This is a program for kids that are kind of bored with what they find in classrooms and are not necessarily motivated. We’ve heard so many stories of kids who were potential dropouts, who weren’t doing well in their classes. But when they were allowed to choose the topic they wanted to learn about, take ownership of a project built around that topic, and do the work in fun and exciting ways, it has turned them around. It is pretty remarkable.

Students just need to be motivated. We can’t assume they won’t rise above expectations.

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