Sixth-grade scholars journey into history

It isn’t often that I wish I were 12 again. But every winter, when students in my local middle school embark upon their history day projects, I feel the urge to impersonate a sixth grader and delve into a meaty topic, just for the fun of it.

The National History Day competition has grown immensely in the past three decades; more than half a million students throughout the country now participate each year. It’s also become a popular academic challenge for Minnesota students.

When Tim Hoogland began coordinating History Day in Minnesota 23 years ago, about 120 students participated, representing six schools. Last year, Minnesota had 31,000 participants in grades 6 through 12, the highest participation rate in the nation on a per capita basis. Of those, about 1,100 were sixth graders from 25 different schools.

“The thing that stands out in Minnesota is 85 to 90 percent of the students are doing it for credit assignments, not enrichment. It is a core part of the school curriculum,” says Hoogland, the manager of education outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society.

Revolution, reaction, reform

History Day in Minnesota is sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the University of Minnesota’s department of history. A different theme is selected each year by the national organization—the theme for 2012 is Revolution, Reaction, Reform—and students choose their own topics within that theme. They also decide on a presentation method; it could be an exhibit, a performance, an interactive website, a documentary, or a research paper. They can work individually or in groups, and entries are divided into two levels, junior (grades 6 to 8) and senior (grades 9 to 12).

Hoogland says the presentation options reflect how historians work in the real world. Some historians make documentaries (think Ken Burns); while others create websites or design museum exhibits that engage visitors with pictures, objects, and captions.

“The secret of History Day is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a documentary or a performance or exhibit—they all are writing assignments,” he says.

The increased emphasis on reading and math as a result of No Child Left Behind legislation has meant elementary teachers don’t have as much time to devote to subjects like history. Hoogland says assigning history day projects allows teachers to cover state standards while also engaging student interest in social studies. Teachers report that students benefit from improved research and analysis skills, and their students say they use libraries more and gain vocabulary words through their participation.

“In the end, what’s really fun to see is that kids look at textbooks not as a dull destination, but they might see a little thing in a paragraph that becomes a doorway to another learning adventure,” he says.

Surprising discoveries

Because sixth grade social studies standards are tied to Minnesota history, many sixth graders choose Minnesota-related projects for history day. Some have interviewed local people as part of their research. For example, last year, a couple of students interviewed former Vice President Walter Mondale about the Iran hostage crisis. Others have found family connections while researching their topics at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul, like the student studying Prohibition who discovered that her grandmother “did time” for bootlegging.

“We see family stories intersect with the resources we have here, and that’s pretty amazing,” Hoogland says.

Hoogland suggests that parents play a supporting role for children involved in history day. Help students expand their research beyond the internet by taking them to a state university library or large public library. Consider signing them up for workshops or special events related to history day research. But be sure to let the student, and not the parent, become the expert.

Students usually start their projects before the holiday break, and the critical work comes in January and February. In March, students advance from their local school fairs to 12 regional competitions. The 2012 state competition is set for April 29 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and the national competition is in June near Washington, D.C.

Last year, 56 Minnesota students advanced to the national competition. Minnesota students usually do well, but Hoogland says the goal of the state program is not to win medals; it’s to improve student learning about history in measurable ways.

“We try to make sure these events have as many kids come to them as possible because we know these kids do learn from each other. It becomes a very interactive experience for them to not only present their work, but to learn from the work of others,” he says.