National History Day: 600,000 Kids Bring the Past to Life

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What drew nearly 600,000 students from around the world to prepare exhibits, documentaries, papers, performances, and websites for the annual National History Day competition?

It’s not the monetary awards, though there are some. Instead, it’s the recognition they receive for their work from judges — and peers. That’s what makes a National History Day medal so intrinsically valuable, says National History Day Executive Director Dr. Cathy Gorn.

The finals of the June 2015 competition drew more than 3,000 middle and high school students to present their work at the 41st annual National History Day Contest at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD. All the entries were related to the 2015 theme, “Leadership and Legacy in History,” and the contestants came from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and international schools in Central America, China, Korea, and South Asia.

Dr. Gorn explains what makes so many students passionate about history in this month’s Q&A with Grateful American™ Foundation founder David Bruce Smith, and executive producer Hope Katz Gibbs. Scroll down for more.


Hope Katz Gibbs: Tell us about this interesting organization. When was it founded? What is its mission?

Cathy Gorn: National History Day was founded in 1974 by Dr. David Van Tassel on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. Professor Van Tassel was worried about the decline of the humanities in general, and history in particular, in America’s schools. Van Tassel was particularly distressed by the boring, rote memorization he saw in most history classrooms. He wanted to invigorate the teaching and learning of history. National History Day is the means. The program, for students in grades 6 through 12. teaches students to become historians, which is what makes history come alive. It’s the antithesis of learning history by memorization. They conduct research in archives and libraries; they do oral history interviews. Then they compile their research into a project related to an annual theme. This year it was “Leadership and Legacy in History.” Students enter their projects in the National History Day contest at a local level. Winners move to the state competition, and the top contestants come to the national contest.

David Bruce Smith: Tell us about this year’s competition. Students spend an entire year preparing these projects. Having so many choices must be incredibly difficult.

Cathy Gorn: There’s an energy when these young people come to campus. They’re excited to tell you everything they know about history. They set up their exhibits, around 400 in all, and present performances and documentaries, and discuss their papers and websites. The best of them make it to the final round. The passion students have for their projects is inspiring. We’ve had teachers and parents exclaim that they had never seen their child work so hard on anything before. And of course this makes it incredibly difficult for our judges. With such high-quality work, it is often difficult to decide among entries. Our judges look carefully at each project, the research that went into it, the accompanying process paper, and, in the end, they have to make a decision. The judging is particularly challenging when it comes to the final round where you are seeing the best of the best.

Hope Katz Gibbs: How does the judging actually work, and who are some of the judges who spend days each year working on this project with you?

Cathy Gorn: To serve as a judge for National History Day, we require an individual to have an interest in history and to have worked with history in some capacity, for example, as a teacher, museum curator, archivist, etc. Our judges come from all walks of life — they are lawyers, historians, retirees, professors — basically anyone who has a love of history and learning and who can provide quality feedback to students. Some are historians who got hooked on History Day and take time off from work to judge. Many of our judges have been with us for years. A few began as participants and have continued to come back every year to help assess students’ work.

David Bruce Smith: In fact, numerous awards are granted to students and teachers. What are the award categories?

Cathy Gorn: We actually have five categories: documentary, exhibit, paper, performance, and website. Each of the categories includes group and individual award categories, except that there is no group paper category. Then, there are two divisions, junior (middle school), and senior (high school). That comes out to 18 different categories for potential winners.

Hope Katz Gibbs: I see that the senior documentary winners receive a $5,000 award from HISTORY®. Are there other monetary awards bestowed annually?

Cathy Gorn: Yes, but the amounts are not all that significant. First place is $1,000, second is $500, and third is $250. I really think it’s the pride students have in their projects and the desire to win a medal that inspires them to work on their projects. The students receive the medals, monetary awards, and various other special prizes at the award ceremony, which is held in the basketball arena on the University of Maryland campus — it’s huge.

David Bruce Smith: The “Outstanding Affiliate Entry” award is sponsored by the National Park Service. How did you come to work with them? And what other groups sponsor National History Day?

Cathy Gorn:There are a number of prize sponsors, even beyond the first, second, and third place awards. There are more than two dozen special prizes awarded. Each sponsor has a specific interest in history; for example the Society for American Baseball Research awards a prize to a project related to baseball history. The American Bar Association presents the “Magna Carta Prize.”

Hope Katz Gibbs: You also work closely with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In fact, there’s a Night at the Museum exhibit there during the week-long event.

Cathy Gorn: This is a great event — selected students display their exhibit next to some of the most well-known exhibits in the world. In the evening, all of the participants are invited to the National History Night at Museum. There, curators, historians, and archivists all speak to the students. Students who come back from that event often cite it as one of the highlights of the contest.

David Bruce Smith: What is the theme of National History Day 2016? 

Cathy Gorn: The 2016 theme is “Exploration, Encounter & Exchange in History.” Probably one of the first things that pop into someone’s mind with the exploration theme is Lewis and Clark or Columbus, but we also encourage students to look at the exploration of ideas, the exchange of cultures from explorers, and how those impact the course of history.

For more information, visit nhd.org. And be sure to check out our monthly episodes on GratefulAmericanTV.comHere’s to increasing your History IQ!