A Guide Through History Day: Supporting Teachers and Students

By Lillian Nunno, MHS Education Intern

This blog post originally appeared in Archives & Public History at UMass.

Every year, grade 8-12 students and teachers across the Commonwealth of Massachusetts participate in the National History Day (NHD) contest. History Day students create projects centered around that year’s theme. These projects can take the form of a paper, an exhibit, a website, a documentary, or a performance. Past competition themes have included “Conflict and Compromise” and “Triumph and Tragedy.” This program allows students to learn about history they are passionate about, and develop strong research, argumentation, and analytical skills. The education department at the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) runs NHD  in Massachusetts; they organize the regional and state competitions and provide resources for students and teachers to help them along in the process.

For my internship project with the MHS Education Department, I created a teacher’s guide for National History Day in Massachusetts teachers. This guide will provide teachers with materials to help guide students from topic selection through competition. Making the guide involved poring over materials developed by other states across the country to find the most useful worksheets and resources. I also looked at how other states structured their materials and what they included. At the same time,  I kept in mind the needs of students and teachers. I wanted to create a guide that wasn’t overwhelming for teachers, but covered each project stage. I tried to prioritize creating a guide that was easy to use because this guide is for teachers who are new to the NHD program.  I also wanted to choose worksheets that are useful to students and not overly long or detailed.

I also developed ideas for original materials for the guide. My research revealed that many states have a resource that highlights local history topics for student projects. So I proposed creating a Massachusetts Topic List of people and events related to the state’s history. This resource will help connect students with research materials and sources from the MHS and other local institutions.   Local topics can be more accessible than national topics, as students can visit historical institutions to do primary source research. While students may not be able to do that this year because of the pandemic, they may still have some digital access to these institutions and collections. In developing this list, I tried to highlight some lesser-known Massachusetts figures and events and those often absent from larger historical narratives.


NHD parade of students
National History Day in Massachusetts students walking in the NHD parade at the national competition

I am also creating a resource for teachers to help students with “difficult history” topics. Students often want to explore complex issues and events to which they have some personal connection. Because of this, students may encounter historical topics that are upsetting and hard to process. So I reviewed materials created by other organizations that focus on helping students understand and process more complicated issues. I also consulted educational materials that focus on social-emotional learning, which are used in classrooms to help students develop self-awareness and emotional maturity. Teachers, who bring experience in these areas, are especially important resources for my work.  NHD allows students to grapple with more difficult moments in history–a strength of the program–but tools to help them understand and confront this history are also needed.

I came to this project with some prior experience as an undergraduate, in one of the nation’s biggest NHD programs. In my two years of mentoring students and interacting with teachers, I observed the needs and challenges that arise, and I became invested in the program as I witnessed students’ work on their projects. This background has helped me in developing materials, and in collaborating with my supervisors. Luckily the need to go remote did not impact the structure of my internship, but it has made contacting teachers more challenging since they are currently dealing with a different teaching experience.  On the other hand, this remote internship has helped me keep in mind the virtual aspects of learning in today’s classrooms as I assemble the guide. Working on this project has deepened my appreciation and admiration for the NHD program.

This internship has helped me understand how historical institutions can help teachers and students in this remote and hybrid learning era when teachers are dealing with more than ever before. Historical institutions can create materials for classrooms that can support teachers by providing resources for in-depth and meaningful history education. They can also help students understand “difficult history” and connect to their communities’ pasts. As someone with an interest in improving history education from outside the K-12 classroom, this experience has shown me a possible path for my future career.

National History Day in Massachusetts students