A Guide to Getting Started with National History Day

Dear Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School Teachers, 

As a teacher at a Gilder Lehrman Affiliate School, you know how important primary sources and historical research are in the learning process. National History Day is a program in which more than 600,000 students around the world in grades 6–12 will engage in meaningful historical research and present their findings to panels of experts at the school, regional, state, and national levels.

In the spring of 2014, the most successful will present their work at the 57 affiliate contests (fifty states; Washington, DC; Guam; American Samoa; Korea; Puerto Rico; China; and South Asia), and the best will compete at the (inter)national contest held at the University of Maryland in June 2014. We know that many of you are NHD teachers, and we hope you will consider participating in the 2014 competition, which centers around the theme of Rights and Responsibilities in History.

As the new Director of Programs for National History Day (and a Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar veteran), my job is to be a resource for teachers and students across the country. Teachers use the program to teach research methodology to students as well as historical content, and there are many ways to incorporate both methodology and content. Please know that there is no “right” or “wrong” topic—these are just some ideas that I dug up using the Gilder Lehrman resources.

Gilder Lehrman’s website provides a wide variety of primary and secondary sources. The Gilder Lehrman Collection itself contains 60,000 historical documents, which can be searched online. In addition, more than 200 documents are included in the History by Era section as Featured Primary Sources with introductions, transcripts, and images. The History by Era section also includes more than 200 essays by eminent historians. The essays are located within the 39 Sub-Eras in the ten Eras.

After exploring these resources, I wanted to share with you some ideas that are a little off the beaten path.

  • The relationship between settlers and natives is a great source of topics for NHD projects. You could start with Bartolomé de Las Casas and explore the interactions between the natives and Spaniards in Latin America. Most people think of African slavery in the Americas, but how about Native American slavery? Check out this secondary sourcedescribing that practice.
  • The American Revolution was an entire war fought over the concepts of rights and responsibilities. You might want to consider the story of an individual soldier or family and their role in the Revolution. What happened when one generation of a family were loyalists and another patriots? In a nation that opposed taxation, what responsibility did the fledgling Continental Congress have to its army? See what George Washington had to say about this (in his own handwriting).
  • The Jacksonian era has always been one of my favorites in history. We all know the story of Jackson’s forcible resettlement of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears, but did everyone agree? What did Davy Crockett say about it in 1834?
  • The Reconstruction era was a time in which the great American experiment was tested. While the nation survived, it was forced to rebuild its definition of what it meant to be an American. Should women have the vote? How should the Southern states be brought back into the fold? What rights should former slaves have? How about former Confederate soldiers and officials? To what extent is the federal government responsible for protecting the freedmen? How should we deal with groups like the Ku Klux Klan that did not agree with many of the policies?
  • If your students are interested in more recent topics, why not consider the debate about whether the US should enter World War I; what were the nation’s responsibilities toward the global community? Theodore Roosevelt certainly had an opinion. The Great Depression brings up dozens of questions about how to balance the rights of people and the responsibilities of the government in a time of economic crisis. How should the government respond to the Dust Bowl–the greatest ecological disaster in US history? What rights did the poor living in a “Hooverville” have?
  • After World War II, the Cold War led to a new set of questions about those with differing political options. Albert Einstein had an interesting perspective on the Cold War. Many young Americans fought in Vietnam while others protested involvement. Where did leaders like Robert Kennedy fall in this debate? What did Ronald Reagan, campaigning for the position of governor of California, have to say about the unrest on college campuses?

I hope that this post has inspired you to consider implementing NHD in your school curriculum and to exploring new angles and resources. These are just a handful of the hundreds of topics that fit the theme. If you are interested in developing an NHD program at your school, please contact me. For more classroom resources, visit our teacher resource page on the National History Day website.

If you attended a 2013 Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar and are ineligible to apply in 2014, consider applying to our Normandy Institute – fifteen student-teacher teams will explore the Normandy Campaign in Washington, DC, and Normandy, France. Details available here.

Best Regards,
Lynne O’Hara
Director of Programs
National History Day

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