Around the country, cities and schools are celebrating National History Day. On March 16, 2016, middle school students in Philadelphia gathered at the National Constitution Center to present their various projects to judges in hopes of securing scholarship funds and a place in the Pennsylvania State Contest.
With an alliance of over 40 cultural institutions, NHD Philly sponsors and manages the Philadelphia district program of National History Day. NHD is a year-long activity that is made possible through the fundraising efforts and the services provided by the participating partners, as well as sponsorships by major corporations, including A&E/History, PECO, Wells Fargo, Beneficial Bank and Enterprise Holding, foundations such as the National Archives Foundation and the Hearst Foundations, and civic groups such as the Colonial Dames (NSCDA-PA).
In NHD, students select their own topics based on an annual theme, then research and analyze primary and secondary sources, draw conclusions, write a process paper, and create projects in one of five categories to demonstrate their learning. NHD presentations are split into two divisions–junior and senior division. Philadelphia high school students presented their topics on March 17, 2016.
NHD Philadelphia currently serves over 1,200 students a year. It has reached into 41 Philadelphia schools over its 10 years, among them several schools with an emphasis on STEM. At the competition each March, over 120 volunteers (professional historians, educators, collections curators and librarians, and community leaders) judge student projects and help produce a memorable competition event for all students, whether they advance to the state finals or not. Each student also leaves with increased ability to present and discuss his or her point of view and a memento t-shirt, a token for participation.
The program has also developed a partnership with the Temple University College of Education’s Cultural Fieldwork Initiative in order to train the next generation of educators to bring the NHD model of learning, including enhanced instructional abilities to bring higher thinking and analytical skills, into their classrooms through engagement with and use of museums, archives, libraries, and historic sites.
Participating middle schools and after school programs included American Legion Recreation Center, A.M.Y. at James Martin, C.C.A Baldi Middle School, Independence Charter School, Wissahickon Charter School, Woodrow Wilson Middle School, and two new schools for the 2016 competition, McCall School and St. Peter’s School. There were between 30 and 80 students from each middle school and, over the course of junior and senior day, a total of 600 to 800 students participated overall. A total of $90,000 worth of scholarships are available.
There are five different categories in which the students can present their research: paper, exhibit, performance, documentary, and website. All website and paper projects must be sent to the judges by early February so there is time to judge the writing of the essays and the layout of the webpages. Both exhibit and documentary entries can be individual or group projects. There is a first, second, and third place winner in every category, and the first and second place winners advance to the NHD in PA State Contest on May 10-11, 2016, at Millersville University. Winners at the state contest secure a spot in the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland, College Park on June 12-16, 2016.
The theme this year was “Exploration, Encounter, and Exchange in History.” While the program is important in its celebration of all aspects of history, it also serves to help students become better citizens through active civic engagement. No matter what career path interests them, students participating in NHD Philadelphia benefit by improving their reading, writing, and researching skills.
Sarah Miller and Chloe Haines, who won second place in the Group Exhibit category for their project “Beyond the Sash: Racism within the Suffragette Movement,” knew they wanted to present on an important issue when they began researching in September. “We knew we wanted to research and present on something that united everyone,” Miller said. “We started out with the broader topic of women’s rights then narrowed it down to racism within the Suffragette Movement.”
V. Chapman-Smith, Special Assistant for National Education and Public Program Strategy in the Office of Legislative Archives at Presidential Libraries and Museums, as well as the coordinator of NHD Philly, has been involved with the program since 2004 when she and a group of nine others created it. This year marks the 11th year of competition, the first being in 2005.
“Education matters,” said Chapman-Smith, “and we are trying to teach children real life skills and facts about citizenship. Through this distinguished program, we are giving opportunities to children who are considered impoverished through education and research.” “This is why history and the humanities matter,” continued Chapman-Smith. “Because it provides children with the tools to connect to the world around them.”
The NHD Philly participants live in households where the yearly income averages around $36,000. Once a school has participated in the program, it almost always returns in the following years.
Subjects for this year’s projects at NHD Philadelphia’s Junior Division included immigration, the Salem witch trials, the Underground Railroad, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the history of AIDS, the Atlantic slave trade, the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 in Philadelphia, the development of America’s first zoo (the Philadelphia Zoo), the creation of penicillin, the history of breast cancer, the Chernobyl disaster, racism within the women’s suffrage movement, degenerate art in Nazi Germany, the Great Depression, the history of Kenny Washington (the first black football player), the history of Milton S. Hershey and the Hershey company, how the Captain America comics inspired children to join World War II efforts, and many other fascinating topics.
Beth Twiss Houting, Senior Director of Programs and Services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who has been involved with NHD Philadelphia off and on for the last 10 years, coordinated the documentaries presentations, which took place just across the street at the WHYY building. “The commitment level of the teachers is fantastic and what really drives the success of this program,” she stated.
Marcy Bowry, a literature and social studies teacher at Woodrow Wilson Middle School, brought four groups of students to NHD Philadelphia Junior Division. Every student in her class had to conduct research on a topic of his or her choice as it related to the theme. “I told my classes about National History Day and I made the projects a requirement for a grade,” she said. “I told the students if they were interested in participating, to research their topic further over the summer, and we began work for National History Day as soon as they started school again in September.”
The judges, who ranged from undergraduate students, to long-term professionals in the field of history and retired teachers, were looking for a variety of different skills when judging the projects, among them, an acknowledgement by the students of the context and controversy of their topics as well as use of rich primary sources.
Amanda Schaffer was a judge in 2011 and has worked behind the scenes on the logistics front since. This year she returned to the program as a judge. “I really love the engagement of the students with their primary sources. It’s a great thing to witness,” she said.
An awards ceremony is held after the judging and was hosted this year by Kerry Sautner, the NCC Vice President of Visitor Experience, and John Meko, the Executive Director of the Foundations of the Union League.
A total of 600,000 students across the country participated in NHD this year. The distinguished program is certainly a great accomplishment in bridging the gap between history and the future among the thinkers of our world.
You can find a video of the success of NHD Philly for students and teachers here.
For more information on NHD Philly Junior and Senior Division, click here.