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Tennessee History Day & the Next Generation of Citizens

When you step into a History Day contest, the nervous excitement is palpable. Middle and high school students bustle around exhibit boards. Others pace the hallway waiting for their turn to screen a documentary or begin their performance. Still others huddle by the door to the room where they will discuss their research paper or website. All know that adults they’ve never met will interview them about their projects, ask how they conducted their research, and want them to explain what they learned in the process. 

Nikki Ward, the Tennessee Historical Society’s Tennessee History Day (THD) State Coordinator, describes the contest as “a year-long history education program for students in grade six through twelve. It’s an opportunity for students to learn history by engaging in hands-on research on a topic we hope that they are interested in.” Dr. Susan O’Donovan, Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis and regional coordinator for the West Tennessee regional contest, has a go-to response when people ask her about the program – “I just tell them that this is the history version of a science fair.

A Half Century of History Day

Like Humanities Tennessee, National History Day (NHD) is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. From the original contest Dr. David Van Tassel hosted at Case Western Reserve University in 1974, NHD has grown to reach over half a million students and tens of thousands of teachers annually. These touch points come from participation in school, regional, state, and national contests, teacher development programs, and curriculum resources. 

Tennessee History Day students at the national contest

The Tennessee Historical Society became the NHD state affiliate in 2008 and estimates that over 7,000 students participate each year. At the state contest, judges select 65 of those participants to represent Tennessee at the national contest held in College Park, Maryland, each June. Humanities Tennessee co-sponsors the state contest and provides an award for the best project about state history.

Tennessee History Day Expansion

The National Endowment for the Humanities recently awarded a grant to THD and Humanities Tennessee to expand the program. THD has an ambitious plan to get the program into more classrooms. “Seven educators have been contracted to create a lesson plan on underrepresented histories…and then the same educators will work to outreach in their regions,” Ward explained. The goal is for these teachers to have one-on-one conversations with educators to explain how this program works for them and their students. 

Ward prioritizes making History Day accessible to all types of learners and has two additional teachers making the pre-existing curriculum easier to use. These enhancements include breaking the process down into distinct steps, changing formatting, restating goals, making visual representations of verbal materials, and providing examples. Ward is also working to diversify the pool of judges across the state “so that the demographics and judging pool looks more like what our state looks like.

THD is also utilizing grant funds to translate sections of the educators’ guide and a guidebook on teaching with primary sources into Spanish and Arabic. According to Ward, these languages represent the languages spoken in Tennessee as well as the demographics of students already participating in the program. The intent is to facilitate students participating in whichever language works best for them. 

History Day Shapes Future Citizens 

This large investment in THD points to the value that educators and students find in the program. An independent study found that NHD students outperformed their non-NHD peers on state standardized tests in multiple subjects, not just social studies. The same study concluded that participating students are better writers who use evidence to support their points of view.

For O’Donovan, History Day “is extraordinarily important, particularly at this moment in American culture and society where we really need to be teaching this next generation of citizens how to think independently.” Benefits exist for their teachers as well. O’Donovan notes that many history teachers do not have degrees in history and so have not had training in historical thinking. The History Day curriculum provides a framework for teaching “how to distinguish between credible and less credible sources…how to build an argument, how to let the sources lead you to a point rather than imposing your points on those sources.”

Students learn to think historically while also building reading, communication, and project management skills as well as the resilience to see a complex project to its conclusion. These are some of the reasons O’Donovan would like to see more public schools involved in the program and a more stable funding pipeline for smaller contests. In her vision for the future, the History Day program has increased visibility with wide recognition of its success as an education model that produces the creative and independent thinkers our society needs. As she concludes, that will mean more students who possess “those critical thinking skills that really are the substructure of a functioning democracy.”