Bringing History to Life in Classrooms

How National History Day helps young people learn about our shared history.

By Esha Chhabra

6 mins


While many National History Day® (NHD) projects have been impactful for the students themselves, one project actually helped rewrite history. 

A group of students and their educator at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL, were part of a groundbreaking National History Day project in 2004: they helped solve a long-standing civil rights case that went back to 1964, known as the Burning Mississippi murders. Despite the brutal killing of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, no one had been arrested or convicted. Instead, the case ended in a hung jury in 1966.

So the students decided to revisit it by going through thousands of pages of FBI transcripts and interviewing the families of the three men who were killed. The turning point, however, was when they were able to secure an interview with Edgar Ray Killen, a suspect who had stayed quiet all these years. He gave them a taped interview about the murders, which unlocked new evidence reinforcing what had long been believed -- Killen had helped orchestrate the killings.

This new evidence was turned over to the FBI. In addition, the students reported their findings to the governor of Mississippi and lobbied Congress for the case to be reopened. They also collaborated with Jerry Mitchell, a well-known investigative reporter for the The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi to organize all the recently collected data and present it to the authorities. 

The case indeed was reopened and a year later, in 2005, Edgar Ray Killen was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. “Justice was finally served,” says Cathy Gorn, Executive Director of National History Day.

“Kids are really in tune to what’s going on in the world. They’re very interested in justice and fairness, and we need projects that harness this energy,” says Gorn. NHD, a nearly 50-year-old organization, began with the simple-but-poignant idea of bringing history to life on middle and high school campuses. It’s now an integral part of American education.

In 1974, National History Day was created by Dr. David Van Tassel, a Case Western Reserve University history professor in Ohio. Students were asked to pick a historical topic and do a presentation. They could pick from anything that excited them: a specific historical event, a moment in their community’s past, a voyage down their own family history. The aim was to teach young people history by having them grapple with it, not just read about it in textbooks. Similar to the science fair program that asked students to develop their own experiment, National History Day asked students to deliver a narrative that stemmed from their personal interests.

While over a 100 students participated in the inaugural year, today, over 500,000 students annually take part in NHD. The idea quickly expanded in the 70s and 80s from the Midwest to across the US. The National Endowment for Humanities and the History Channel supported the program, giving it the funding it needed to hold the annual competitions and encourage lively discussion in classrooms. By 2001, over 20,000 teachers were helping their students to participate. 

Now, as the presence of technology has deepened in classrooms, students can make a website or a documentary, as well as the traditional options: a table top exhibit, a paper/essay, or performance. The goal though remains the same: use primary research, get out there and interview folks, and bring an event in history to life with your presentation.

Transforming Lives

All of this has had a profound effect on some students, says Gorn. “We’ve seen young people who didn’t ever think about college, or pursuing a professional career, gain confidence after participating. Ultimately,  we want to help these  students build empathy, recognize the importance of citizenship, be  involved in their communities, vote, and be active citizens. This exercise helps them get on that path.”

For David X, NHD put him on an altogether different track. As a young child, David had been transferred from school to school because one of his principals said he needed to be in a special programs for kids who could not learn in traditional classroom. However, his mom believed otherwise and put him in a different school. While all his classes were remedial, one was not---history. That year, he opted to do a History Day documentary. It fetched him a prize at the local level. That project went on to the finals in the state contest. The following school year, David took two “regular” classes. And unsurprisingly, he participated in NHD again, creating another documentary. This one, made it all the way to the national competition, where he was a finalist.

After those early turbulent years, David gave himself a challenge and enrolled in all honors classes. He went on to graduate with honors in college and then proceeded to get a Master’s Degree with distinction from the London School of Economics. 

“This was from a student who was told he could not learn,” says Gorn. Clearly, that principal was wrong. “NHD helped him learn in a different format, and with each victory, a boost of confidence that was transformative for him as a young person. NHD isn’t just about history projects, it’s all teaching students how to think critically, practice storytelling, and get out in the community and learn from others.”

Rethinking careers

Ruth Álvarez-DeGolia was an eighth grader in Cleveland Heights, Ohio when she first learned about NHD. But it was her sophomore year NHD project that ended up defining her career. Álvarez-DeGolia did a project that focused on democratization in Latin America, specifically El Salvador, which won her the History Channel Award ($5,000 that she split with her project partner) at the national contest. She used that prize money to travel to El Salvador. It would be her first time venturing into Latin America. 

As she got to see a lot of the topics she had researched first-hand, she became more deeply interested in the region. Álvarez-DeGolia then graduated high school and went on to Yale, where she was a driven, tenacious student. But she kept returning to themes in Central America, and like before ventured back there in person. It was on a summer trip to Guatemala where she worked with indigenous communities that she had an “aha” moment. The work she was doing there, she said, made her feel “useful,” something she wasn’t feeling at university. She had helped this organization build a website, write grants, carry out projects over the course of three months. And to go back to Yale to study from books, not people, didn’t seem as alluring. But she reluctantly returned for the fall semester.

Before heading back home, she took handicrafts made by the women she had met. “They would ask me if I could sell their goods to anyone I knew in the States.” So she did. She set up a table at Yale, put their products on display, and sold $5,000 worth of goods the first year. That money went to supporting the education of 26 girls in Guatemala. It was the beginning of Mercado Global, a social enterprise that sells handmade products made by women. 

Thus, instead of pursuing a law degree, Álvarez-DeGolia become an entrepreneur, driven by social change. 20 years later, Mercado Global is still operating, and selling handbags made by women in Guatemala to support girls' education.  

“[NHD] contributed to my academic success at Yale … [and] also provided me with the background I needed to set up a successful non-profit that could help alleviate economic inequality in that region,” she says.

Expanding Their Reach

As National History Day approaches its 50th anniversary the organization is hoping to work with more schools that have limited resources. For teachers and schools who are strained financially, grant funding is imperative for training and to support students as they pursue these projects. 

“To put it simply, we wouldn’t be able to engage these school districts without this support. That’s why we’re keen on doing this pilot to train regional coordinators who can create a ripple effect in the communities, with the hope that we can replicate this model across the country in the future,” says Gorn. “It’s certainly needed. National History Day should be accessible to all.”

Bezos Family Foundation is supporting National History Day in funding that will be used across four different school districts, targeting both urban and rural communities: Marion county, Indianapolis; Jefferson and Mobile counties in Alabama; Swain County, North Carolina; and Western Oklahoma.