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National History Day

By Joyce McPherson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #85, 2008.

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Joyce McPherson

In our home, we try to connect our children to real life by giving them meaningful projects. The National History Day program has been a great way for them to see the purpose in a research project.

In The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis contrasted story-telling to essay-writing and commented that “The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.” National History Day, however, provides our students with an interested audience for their essays and projects. This has motivated them to learn to research and communicate important ideas.

The National History Day has categories for everyone. Our family got involved when one of our daughters developed a passion for history. Further siblings participated because they liked making displays or had a taste for performing. There are papers, exhibits, performances and documentaries, with divisions for both junior and senior high. All categories, except papers, can be either individual or group efforts.

We would like to share with you how to get involved and how you can maximize your National History Day participation.

How Can You Get Involved?

To find the nearest history day fair, visit the National History Day site. Each state has district competitions that feed contestants to the state competition. Some students even have the opportunity to attend the national contest held each June at the University of Maryland. Regardless of how far you go, the value of National History Day can be realized at every level of competition. In fact, our daughter who attended the national contest still considers the local history fair her favorite.

Each year the National History Day is announced at www.nationalhistoryday.org. The themes are usually general, such as “Rights and Responsibilities,” and they lend themselves to a variety of topics. In fact, our local History Day administrator confided that you could research any topic-the challenge would be to correlate it to the theme.

The Secret to History

Primary resources are the secret to unlocking history. Primary resources include eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, legal documents, photographs, and artwork (such as World War I posters.) They are “first-hand accounts,” while secondary resources, such as textbooks, are “second-hand accounts.” For the National History Day project, students are required to sort their resources into two lists: primary and secondary resources. For many students, this simple exercise opens their eyes to the significance of historical documents. They learn the value of ad fontes, the Reformation concept of going “to the fount” or source of information.

Primary resources can be found in libraries, on the Internet, or in your attic. If the topic concerns something that happened in the last sixty years, you may even be able to find someone to interview about their experiences related to the topic. This is a great way for a student to spend time with a grandparent or great-grandparent. For example, my son interviewed his grandfather about the changes in telecommunication that he witnessed during his years working in the field.

Interviews may be verbal or written. One useful technique is to interview by email so that you have the complete interview in written form.


To develop a research project with depth and analysis, students need to carefully choose their topic. They should ask themselves:

  • Can I find a way to relate this topic to the theme?
  • Is this topic so broad that I cannot adequately research it?
  • Is this topic so narrow that I will be unable to find resources for researching it?

Students should read about their topics and make sure that they have ideas for finding primary documents. When they are satisfied with a topic, they should seek a variety of sources, including both secondary and primary documents. The Internet provides a wealth of information. Teach students to record bibliographic information for their resources as they do the research, because it will be difficult to reconstruct this data later. Also, teach them to look for references to primary documents within the secondary documents that they are studying. Often an encyclopedia or textbook will refer to a diary, letter, or document which the student can find for himself.

Analysis and Interpretation

When we first began participating in history fairs, we took a “strict constructionist” view of history. We thought that the simple truth should speak for itself. We soon learned that no matter how many interesting facts are presented, the project is not complete without analysis and interpretation. For example:

  • Why is this topic significant in history?
  • What conclusions could you draw?
  • How does this topic relate to the History Day theme?
  • How was the topic influenced by the events of that time period?

A large part of a student’s score will be based on the quality of analysis and interpretation demonstrated in the project. As the project develops, it is useful to ask these analytical questions again and again.

Following the Rules is Key

The National History Day site outlines the rules for each type of entry. There are size requirements for exhibits and time limitations for presentations. Every project must have an annotated bibliography that uses a consistent format, such as MLA.

Following detailed rules may be a new idea to students, but it will have a great impact not only on their scores, but on the rest of their lives. If they can learn this concept now, they will not need lessons in how to fill out job applications or how to prepare college papers.

The Process Paper

One of the most important qualifications for the History Day project is the process paper. All categories, except the historical paper category, require this short document of no more than 500 words. The process paper explains how the student’s topic relates to the theme and describes how the student conducted research and created the project. It also includes the annotated bibliography. Examples of process papers and bibliographies are available at the National History Day website.

For a paper that stands out above others, remember to start your paper with an interesting “hook” or statement, and don’t forget to include the challenges and solutions that you encountered.

The Interview

At the national level, and for many state and local competitions, an interview accompanies the entry. If this is your first year, you may not know which categories require an interview, so it is best to prepare for this contingency. The work will not be wasted. Have one of the parents pretend to be a judge and ask a variation of these questions:

  • Tell me about your topic.
  • Why do you think it is important?
  • How does it relate to the theme?
  • What was something interesting that you learned?

Time Management

The greatest challenge to participation in the National History Day is time management. Most local fairs are in March and state fairs are in April or May. Though the themes are announced earlier, students are expected to present only work completed during the current school year. Students should begin by late December.

In our homeschool we schedule time into the school day for research and writing. It is a good idea to take the number of weeks that you have, and divide them into 30 percent research, 30 percent project development, 30 percent further research and development (including preparation of the process paper), and 10 percent rehearsing the interview.

Research goes on throughout the project, but if you require students to start creating their entry when they are 30 percent through the contest period, they will realize that there is further research that needs to be done, and they will still have time to do it. This schedule also gives them time to analyze and interpret their data.

Meaningful Projects

For our family, the History Day project has become an integral part of our curriculum. For this reason, it replaces a research paper from their history or English program. In many ways the project brings schoolwork into the realm of real life. They learn how primary resources should be valued and consulted to understand history. They develop communication and writing skills. In addition they have the opportunity to learn more about the experiences of grandparents and family friends, who have taught us that we are much closer to history than we realized.

Who will be the gatekeepers for the next generation of historians? Who will tell the story of history? It is my hope that many from the ranks of homeschoolers will be trained and ready when the time comes.

There are many excellent sources of primary documents online.

Here are a few to get you started:

Joyce McPherson is the creator of the online programs “Homeschool Tools” and “Shakespeare Tools,” as well as the author of a series of biographies for Greenleaf Press. With her husband, Garth, she homeschools their nine children. She can be reached through teachingtools.org or at mcpclan@comcast.net.

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